An Open Letter to Ivanka Trump
Why Six Weeks of Maternity Leave is Not Enough
Thank you for all of your efforts at creating a maternity leave policy in the United States. However, six weeks of maternity leave is simply not enough time. As a psychoanalyst and parent guidance expert, and based on both a significant body of scientific evidence, as well as what I see in my own practice, I believe that a mother’s physical and emotional presence in the first three years of a child’s life is critical for the mental and emotional health of our children.
There is a mental health crisis among children and adolescents in America. The statistics on the increase of emotional, social, and behavioral difficulties are frightening. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 11 percent of children between the ages of four and seventeen years in the United States have been diagnosed with ADHD. Two-thirds of those children were treated with stimulant medications, like Ritalin and Adderall, which have significant side effects. In a 2011 data brief describing key findings from the 2005–2008 National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys, the CDC reported there has been a 400 percent increase of prescriptions for antidepressant medications to children over the age of twelve years since 1988. From 2011 to 2012 the number of teenagers prescribed generic drugs for psychiatric disorders jumped to 19.4 percent. In younger children, the number diagnosed with psychiatric disorders rose to a staggering 19 percent.
Dr. Thomas McInerny, past president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, says “Frequent positive interaction between a mother and her baby in the first three years of life is critically important for the child’s social and cognitive development.” A mother also provides her child with emotional security, laying down the foundation for resilience — the ability to adapt to adversity in a healthy manner — throughout life.
We like to think that our children are born resilient, and that they’ll be fine when mothers have to rush back to work (whether they want to or not). But resilience is learned, not innate. In an article published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, James F. Leckman and J.S. March said: “…there is now compelling evidence that adverse developmental and biological disruptions occurring in the early years of life are rapidly increasing, as is their consequences in the declining mental health of our children.” We have to consider that the rise in the diagnoses of conditions on the autism spectrum, ADHD and other social and emotional disorders may be related to mothers who are not present in their young children’s lives in a meaningful way. If that is the case, then why aren’t we making it easier for mothers to spend that essential period of time with their children?
From an attachment perspective a mother’s emotional and physical presence is critical. According to John Bowlby, the father of attachment theory, in the first three years “a child builds his secure sense of self on how confident he feels that his attachment figures are readily available or whether he is more or less afraid that they will not be available — occasionally, frequently or most of the time.” Autism and ADHD are physical diseases, but the rise in diagnoses may be the result of ADHD and autistic like symptoms, which are also symptoms of an attachment disorder.
A 2014 International Labor Organization report pointed out that the United States is one of only three countries, along with Papua New Guinea and Lesotho that does not guarantee some kind of paid leave for new parents. Much of Europe puts us to shame. Sweden gives mothers 18 weeks of leave at full pay, and 480 days of leave at 80% of pay. Norway offers 35 weeks at full pay or 45 weeks at 80%. Serbia offers 20 weeks at full pay and up to a year at reduced pay. Lithuania gives 18 weeks at full and up to 156 weeks at reduced pay.
Some would argue that in an ideal world, companies would offer a year of paid maternity leave, with a second year of part-time or flexible hours. I would like to see the United States institute a policy of six months leave at full pay, six months leave at partial pay, and the ability to have a flexible work schedule for the next two years. The same leave should be extended to fathers, or the primary caregiver in a family. So far, the onus for paid leave has fallen on individual companies. Some are rising to the occasion; many are not.
The other component of a workplace that addresses the needs of mothers and children is flexibility. Children need their mothers when they need them, and the only way to have real quality time is to be present for a quantity of time. Mothers need to be able to have more control over their schedules, and managers need to recognize the difference between an efficient use of their time in the office and face time. There are companies who operate with a completely dispersed work force, with no reduction in productivity. If a woman can get the work done, it shouldn’t matter where she works from, as long as she’s available for phone calls and meetings. It shouldn’t matter whether the report is sent or the blog posted at 9:15AM or 9:15PM as long as it’s done on time.
There are some legislators who are advocating for mothers and families, like Congresswoman Nita Lowey. She has proposed the Social security Caregiver Credit Act, which would provide Social Security credits for women who take time off to raise young children (or care for an elderly or sick parent). Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro introduced the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act in 2013, which would create a national insurance program funded equally by employer and employee contributions. It would provide workers who are insured for disability insurance benefits under the Social Security Act twelve weeks or sixty workdays of paid leave to care for a newborn or an ill family member. It’s not enough, but it’s a start.
Our reluctance to guarantee paid maternity leave reflects our society’s ambivalence over whether nurturing is valuable work, and is an asset to society at large. This is not just about today’s workforce, but tomorrow’s. Societal and business support for this kind of legislation requires that we recognize that the costs — in terms of money, human capital, and the future health of our children — outweigh the economic benefits of women working when their children are very young.
I hope that you, as the daughter of our president and as a dedicated and empathic mother, that you will give this your most careful consideration.
Yours in parenthood,
Erica Komisar, LCSW is a psychoanalyst, parent guidance expert and author of Being There: Why Prioritizing Your Children in the First Years Matters.