Giving women (and all birthing people) adequate time to recover from pregnancy and childbirth should be a no-brainer. It’s biologically normal for mothers to have time to bond with and nurture their babies. But the United States is not exactly known for catering to new parents, or even newborns for that matter. When compared with other developed countries, the United States ranks worst for paid maternity leave.
Maternity leave in the United States might be a total joke. But here’s what it is not: a vacation.
Still, according to a new study from Horizon Media, which surveyed 1,371 working moms as part of a campaign called The Mother of All Titles, 40% of moms feel that misconception is still absolutely rampant. While there are tons of other misconceptions surrounding postpartum, the “vacation” label is the one that moms feel most plagued by.
Sadly, calling maternity leave a vacation isn’t accidental. It’s a purposeful way to demean what is commonly a challenging and exhausting, yet deeply important, transition. Postpartum is filled with long nights, early mornings, and, oh yeah, recovery. The vacation label helps ensure that we don’t actually have to go out of our way around the office or change policies in Washington, D.C., to help new moms. If maternity leave is a vacation, that makes it a luxury—not a necessity.
For most working families, taking even six to eight weeks of unpaid leave presents a massive financial hardship, so women are routinely forced to return to work before they are ready. It’s such a common struggle that we almost forget to be frustrated by it. But when looking outside our borders, that frustration comes hurdling back. Other countries largely view postpartum as sacred. It’s not uncommon for mothers to have a year of paid leave in places like Canada, New Zealand, or Finland. To put it in perspective, mothers of Slovak Republic have 164 weeks of paid leave.
Mothers with adequate leave have lower rates of postpartum mood disorders and are able to breastfeed for longer, given that they remain close to their newborns. Likewise, quick returns to work are tough on new moms’ mental health, especially when they go back earlier than two to three months postpartum. Breastfeeding rates also plummet. While about 80% of moms start out breastfeeding, by six months only 56% still are, despite the fact that the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months, then continued breastfeeding alongside solid food for up to two years.
Lack of support upon RTO
It’s tough to feel good about a lack of mandatory leave. But asking new moms to return to work as quickly as they can would be slightly easier to stomach if we supported them once they were back in the office.
But according to the new research, that’s not happening either. While 45% of the working mothers surveyed believed that having access to a lactation room, a lactation consultant, or a postpartum doula through their insurance was extremely important, only 27% said they had access to any of those postpartum services through their employer.
More women are certainly talking about these issues in 2023. And with legislation like the PUMP Act, hopefully more parents will start asking for the benefits they need and deserve. But the vacation label doesn’t make that easy. And, well, that’s kind of the point.