The Damage Caused by Outdated, Unfair Maternity Leave Policies

(and the benefits of fixing them!)

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Julie and her husband tried for years to start their family. They both hold advanced degrees – her a research scientist with a PhD and him a corporate lawyer – they never dreamed they would have to worry about managing maternity leave once their baby girl arrived. Julie discovered she was pregnant right before Christmas, and their perfect baby arrived with no complications in July. Julie spent three days in the hospital recovering from a c-section, and went back to full-time work after just seven days at home.

Let that sink in.

An educated, professional woman both underwent major surgery and added a baby to her family; then she went back to work ten days later. Her story is, unfortunately, not uncommon. I’ve talked to women all over the country from every level of work, and each story is more unbelievable than the last. 

Jennifer went back to work after only six weeks. Her leave was not paid and she ended up having to borrow money to pay her bills. It put immense strain on her marriage, and she says the stress she felt affected how she bonded with her new baby.

Beth works as a social worker, serving one of our country’s most neglected populations; she was able to take twelve weeks of unpaid leave, but because of the financial strain that placed on her family, she suffered from postpartum depression and anxiety. Her son, now six years old, still struggles with anxiety.

Lauren went back to work after eight weeks. She was lucky to have banked enough vacation days to have four weeks of her leave paid. When she went back to work, she was given a supply closet to pump in. On her first day of work, the maintenance crew dismantled the closet door – actually removed it from the hinges – while she was pumping because they weren’t used to the door being locked.

Lila was able to take four weeks of maternity leave. When she went back to work, she pumped for her baby girl in the handicapped stall of the restroom. Unfortunately, with mom at work, her baby refused every bottle she was offered, went on a hunger strike, and had to be hospitalized. 

I could tell you stories like these for hours. I’m sure many of you have your own that you could share, too. Instead, I want to look at what happens in our bodies and brains when we become mothers, and examine how our country is doing a terrible disservice to both babies and mothers by not providing guaranteed maternal leave.

Motherhood’s Physical Changes

Pregnancy and childbirth cause significant changes in a woman’s body, both visible and invisible. There are the obvious outward physical changes, but inside the body hormone levels are causing major changes in the mother’s behavior and the very structure of her brain. Gray matter becomes more concentrated and the activity increases in the regions of the brain controlling empathy, anxiety and social interaction. All of these changes, caused by surges of oxytocin, help to attract the new mother to her baby. High levels of oxytocin can be found in the amygdala portion of the brain, a small almond-shaped part of the brain that controls emotion regulation and memory. This part of the brain actually grows in the weeks and months following childbirth, making a new mother incredibly sensitive to her baby’s needs and creating a positive feedback loop to encourage mothering behaviors. During the postpartum period, women experience a very strong desire to care for their child. In fact, several studies found that simply staring at a photo of her baby caused a mother’s brain’s reward centers to light up. (What Happens to a Woman’s Brain When She Becomes a Mother)

A 2014 study found that women appear to have brains that are pre-wired for motherhood. They found that a man’s parental brain is supported by a socio-cognitive network that develops once the man has a child, whereas women appear to have a “brain-hormone-behavior constellation” that’s automatically primed for mothering. The study concluded that the blueprint for mothering behavior exists in the brain long before a woman ever has children. Our brains are literally wired for taking care of our children…yet so many of us are rushed back to work by limited leave policies or financial strain.

The United States is years behind in parental leave policies. According to the Human Rights Watch report, paid maternity leave is virtually universal. Of the 190 countries studied, only three countries definitively had no legal guarantee of paid maternity leave – Papua New Guinea, Swaziland, and the United States. There are over 19 million families in the US with mothers as the primary or co-breadwinner. Seventy percent of children in this country live in families where both parents work. In 2008, married women with children under six years old were four times more likely to be part of the workforce than they were in 1950. Yet there is no provision for guaranteed paid maternity leave in this country. 

By leaving parental leave policies up to employers, the US has created a situation where only 11% of workers have access to paid maternity leave. Lower-income and part-time workers have even less access to paid leave. If you’re a lucky new parent, you might be able to use vacation or sick days to have a portion of your leave be paid, but much of our workforce doesn’t even have access to that type of benefit. 

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) does allow workers to take unpaid, job-protected leave, but only about half of our current workforce even qualifies for benefits under this act. There are opportunities for some new mothers to take short-term disability leave for the “disability” of having a child, and I don’t think there’s anything more telling than the fact that our country largely views childbirth and caring for a newborn as a disability. Instead of celebrating alongside new parents and supporting them, we are treating birth as an inconvenience and disadvantage.

The damage that we are causing to mothers, children and families by rushing women back to work too quickly is unnecessary and completely preventable.

The Benefits of Better Parental Leave Policies

We must do better for our families. The United States has remained in the dark for long enough where parental leave is concerned, and it is past time that we demand guaranteed parental leave. The damage that we are causing to mothers, children, and families by rushing women back to work too quickly is unnecessary and completely preventable. The research is undeniable:

  • A 2011 study of 141 countries with paid leave policies found that ten weeks of paid maternity leave led to a 10% lower infant mortality rate.
  • A 2015 study found that paid leave increases the likelihood that children will receive their recommended vaccinations. 
  • A study in Australia found that the health benefits for children whose parent took paid parental leave were healthier for seven years – they were less likely to develop asthma and hearing/vision problems.
  • The rates of postpartum depression are significantly lowered for women who are able to take extended time off from work…and they remain less likely to suffer from depression for decades.

If the benefits to families aren’t enough, companies also benefit from generous leave policies. Women who receive paid leave are 93% more likely to remain in the workforce a year after they give birth. Companies can also attract top talent with paid leave; a Deloitte survey found that 77% of workers said paid family leave was an important factor in choosing an employer. Paid leave also increases employee morale, productivity, and job satisfaction. 

Providing adequate paid parental leave isn’t just a nice-to-have benefit that should be reserved for the elite. It’s time that we start investing in our workforce, and in the children who will become the workforce of the future. The United States constantly strives to be the best, yet we are decades behind other developed countries in this area. Isn’t it time that we demand the best for our families?

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