Expanding Paid Family Leave Shouldn’t Just Be About Childcare

By Sabrina Joy Stevens

flickr/Kat Grigg

My “maternity leave” — which I often hesitate to label as much, given my status in professional limbo at the time — was simultaneously a great experience and fraught with stomach-churning anxiety. Thanks to my and my husband’s well-timed professional misfortunes, I was able to spend the first three months of my son’s life on earth resting and adjusting with full-time support.

Mothers are considered fortunate if they alone have six to eight weeks to recover from giving birth, and to simultaneously care for a new baby around the clock. I had this, as well as additional support: My husband was able to stay home and be involved as well, allowing me to give my body the time and space it needed to heal and adjust to life with a new person, in a new role. That support meant I was actually able to follow my midwives’ postpartum instructions, instead of putting untenable strain on my still-healing pelvic floor and my organs.

Instead of rushing around to work and then pulling a “second shift” at home like most American women, I spent most of my days resting and nursing my son. I avoided going up and down the stairs more than once a day for the first couple of weeks. I avoided most housework or any rigorous physical exertion for the first month. Once I learned to trust that my baby would keep breathing after falling asleep, I even “slept while the baby slept,” the seemingly impossible recommendation people so frequently share with frazzled new moms.

Of course, there was a cost to protecting my son’s “fourth trimester” — everything I held in savings and checking and most of my retirement accounts. I know both of us are healthier for sacrificing this to support one another in the early stages of our baby’s life, but the fact is, I’ll now pretty much have to work until I die (pending major changes in our society’s social safety net or my personal economic outlook).

When I reflect upon how much simpler this whole experience could have been, it’s hard not to feel completely enraged. No one should have to choose between keeping a roof over their family’s head or retiring in old age, or any of the other ridiculous sacrifices Americans make when we start, expand, or simply care for our families.

I know that relative to other Americans of my generation, I’m privileged to even have had retirement savings to sacrifice to hold my family over until my husband found a well-paying job. Most millennials don’t. I’m also privileged to have a husband who was willing and able to bring me food and to keep our household running while I was lying in with our baby. I have been stunned by the number of mothers in my support groups who tell me their male partners — even men who don’t consistently do paid work outside the home — have to be pushed to do even the most minimal things with or for their children, let alone around the house.

My own experience compared to theirs has completely changed my thinking about how we as a society approach the question of paid family leave. As we discuss, rightfully and crucially, expanding society’s notion of family to include straight and LGBT couples, adoptive and foster families, single parents, poly families, and more, we must also determine a better family leave model of care.

When advocates talk about getting paid leave for all workers, we tend to focus on enlisting fathers in the work of caring for new children. That is undoubtedly, and unfortunately, still necessary — while contemporary American men do more hands-on parenting and household work than their fathers and grandfathers, they still do disproportionately less than women. But when it comes to families headed by straight, cisgender couples, we also need to focus on the importance of male partners caring for the female partners who’ve just given birth.

The postpartum period is brutal for women in our society. This is because nuclear families are not only more isolating than closely-knit extended family networks, but because men within our families aren’t consistently enlisted in the support work that would make life easier on women. Society both underestimates men’s capacity to care and ignores mothers’ need for it. We’re assumed to be the ones who should be taking care of everyone else, so our need to be cared for ourselves gets ignored. But by focusing only on cis men’s need (and right) to be involved in raising children, we’re not making a big enough leap to expand the image of what it means to be a cisgender man and be part of a family.

This isn’t just a conservative failure of imagination, either. As paid family leave becomes a big issue in this election cycle, we see both clear differences in how the Right and the Left conceive of this issue, and disappointing similarities when it comes to our perceptions of family roles.

Progressives were quick to criticize Donald Trump for leaving men (and everyone but married women who give birth to a child, by most accounts) out of his family leave plan. That’s a thoroughly unsurprising omission for Trump. We know from multiple interviews and profiles of him that the idea of fathers actively caring for children is anathema to him. Indeed, he brags about being largely uninvolved with raising his own children, and about the fact that his latest wife Melania never demanded much of him when she had their son, Barron.

It logically follows that the idea of fathers caring for postpartum mothers — women who are often establishing breastfeeding, which he openly disparages as “disgusting” — would repulse him, if he even considered them at all. But while many progressives would probably disagree with that, you couldn’t tell it from the way we have categorically dismissed this issue.

In many of the widely-circulated responses to the inadequacies of Trump’s maternity leave plan, there are repeated mentions of the need to account for different kinds of families — those headed exclusively by two men, those headed by single women, and so forth. There are also appeals to the idea of all kinds of fathers of new children getting time to care for and bond with those children. This is all undoubtedly very important.

But in the rhetoric I’ve seen from progressives, none discuss the idea that straight men need time off because they should also be expected to help their partners recover from pregnancy and childbirth.

Simply put: The grueling mental, physical, and emotional reality of the postpartum period is not given the attention or care it deserves, and too many women are suffering lifelong repercussions as a result. From everything to preventable or fixable pelvic floor disorders and other injuries that adversely affect women’s dignity, comfort, physical and sexual health for years to come, to postpartum depression, anxiety, and psychosis, there is so much at risk during this time.

In addition to getting worse health care for more money compared to women in other parts of the Western world, most American mothers are being forced to work too soon and too hard immediately after giving birth.

When it comes to winning paid family leave for all workers, it’s not enough for us to focus on the need to care for a new baby after birth. We need to wholly reimagine how we approach the postpartum period so that mothers get the care we need and deserve too. Today, we wholly lack models for what it actually looks like for men to be full partners at home. As a result, most women bear a disproportionate responsibility for the burden of making a home and family run — at a huge cost to their professional, physical, and mental wellbeing.

Without prioritizing the role of men in taking care of newborns and mothers, the paid family leave discussion remains glaringly incomplete.

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