Mothers deserve paid time off

For the past 4.5 months I haven’t had to worry about a paycheck. This is basically a miracle because I’m a brand new mother and have a heap of other things to worry about.

Art by Chelsea Larsson

Through a combination of State Disability Insurance, Paid Family Leave (also state funded in California), and paid leave from my employer Zendesk, I’ve been given months of security to care for my newborn and heal my body. Amazingly, I still have a few weeks to go.

In the United States, a maternity leave of 5.5 months like mine is unheard of. That is a damn shame. Actually, it’s a national embarrassment.

I could throw a million statistics at you about how we are the only industrialized country without government funded maternity leave, and how children benefit from parental leave too. Or how post-partum depression, which can lead to suicide and infanticide, is higher with women who don’t have adequate leave. But, frankly, all of that information has been readily available for years and hasn’t changed the course of new mothers in this country.

So, this is a not-short and not-sweet post to say that mothers need paid time off.

Y tho?

WE NEED TIME TO HEAL

Guess what? Pregnancy and labor take a huge physical toll on a woman’s body and mind. Contrary to what our society wants us to believe, we do not bounce back after after 1–2 weeks. It takes at least 4–8 weeks for the bleeding to stop if you’ve delivered vaginally and 6–8 weeks to heal from a C-section. While trying to cope with their new broken body, mothers are also sleep deprived, hormonally imbalanced, and learning how to keep their infant alive. And yet, they are expected to show up to work a week or two postpartum as if nothing ever happened (or just quit the employment game all together).

Please show me one man who endures the same amount of physical and hormonal change, and then returns to work the next week. Please, I really want to meet him. Wolverine doesn’t count.

I mention men in particular because men are often in control of women’s healthcare in the U.S. This will eventually be remedied as more badass women take positions of power in our government. But for now, men without personal experience are defining our maternal health experience.

If you are tempted to argue about how having the baby was the woman’s choice so she should just deal with her employer’s leave policy because it’s not the government’s issue… just don’t. Every other industrialized country has figured out how to budget for parental support. The great United States of America is the one nation falling behind.

Personally, for the first two months of my leave I was physically impaired. Exhaustion, bleeding, and headaches kept me nearly bedridden. It wasn’t until week nine that I could actually go on walks with my baby, clean my house, and take a shower standing up. Maybe you are thinking, “This lady is a straight-up wimp.” Maybe you’ve never had a bowling ball catapulted through your pelvis.

Wimp or not, the truth is that nine weeks is how long it took me to heal. Each one of us is different, and each one of us deserves a safety net that accounts for those differences. Every day during those hard weeks, I thanked my lucky stars that I had time to focus on getting stronger. Many are not so lucky.

BABIES NEED TIME TO ADJUST TO LIFE ON THE OUTSIDE

Art by Chelsea Larsson

The three months after a baby is born is known colloquially as the fourth trimester. Before I had a baby, I thought this term was some hippy-dippy wiz biz. It’s not. As I’ve already mentioned, it encompasses the length of time needed for mothers to properly heal. And it’s also the amount of time an infant needs to adjust to life outside of their mother’s body. Imagine living in a cozy, dark, water balloon for nine months where your every need is taken care of. Now imagine being expelled from that place into a blindingly loud, garish world where anything can kill you — it takes a bit of getting used to.

Eating, breathing, sleeping, even passing gas are daily challenges in the first three months. Moms help with this transition. Their physical touch alone reduces stress levels in infants.

Passing a newborn off to a third-party caretaker in these first few months is a huge source of stress for both the mother and the baby. In a country so obsessed with being pro-life (not me but many) and leaving no child behind, why do we separate infants from their primary caretaker during this precarious time? Infants are fragile and anything can go awry with their immature nervous systems. SIDS, the mysterious syndrome that causes infant death is most common in the first 2–6 months of life. And it is much higher in infants in daycare.

Not only is three months important for safety but also for the sake of bonding. Babies don’t come out with a manual in their wrinkly little hands. It takes a good long while to learn their personal communication cues. My daughter happens to cough when she’s nervous, and does a little yelp when she wants a nap. This is her language, and it’s one I wouldn’t have been able to learn as quickly without spending 24/7 with her for weeks.

WOMEN CREATED ALL YA’LL

All of us entered planet Earth through the body of a woman. Isn’t it just decent of society to give mothers adequate time to heal?

It is.

IN CONCLUSION

Every time my parent peers hear about the length of my leave their eyes expand 3x and they pass out. When they wake up, it’s usually to declare, “You are so lucky!” That is the honest truth. I am really, really lucky that my employer cares about parental leave and that California believes in the sanctity of mother/child bonding. But paid maternity leave shouldn’t be reserved for women who work for a generous employers or live in a liberal states. It should be the norm for every mother.

I love my job, and I’m excited to return to work. But I needed this time off. The majority of women who need this time off aren’t getting it.

Because of these months of leave I’ve been able to properly heal before returning to work, making me a much stronger employee upon my reentry. I’ve been able to give my new daughter months of undivided attention during the fourth trimester, a time that is key for newborns to develop trust with their environment. I’ve also been able to develop healthy routines around nap times and feeding schedules that work for her, so that I can be more informed about what she needs when she does go to childcare.

I got to build a foundation for the years to come. And that should be the way all moms and babies get to start out — safe, healthy, and whole.

What is there to do? Keep fighting for national paid parental leave. Keep sharing stories. Keep thanking those states and employers who care.

If you are someone working toward paid national parental leave, I’d love to hear from you! Please comment below!

P. S. If you are a new mom who healed quickly and wanted to return to work right away, more power to you! All moms should have the choice to do that or not based on the health of their child and themselves.

P. P. S. If this article made you feel sour and inspired to leave a comment about how you “don’t want to pay” for some woman you don’t know to heal and care for their baby, please don’t. Call it a day because you just don’t get it.

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