As Mother’s Day approaches, many of us shop for a thoughtful gift to show the mothers in our lives a special token of appreciation. Perhaps flowers, chocolate truffles, or a blooming plant for her garden.
But most mothers would sacrifice a new charm bracelet for laws that support their ability to better balance work and family. Mothers dream of things like affordable and available child care, equal distribution of caregiving responsibilities, jobs that pay a livable wage so they afford groceries and rent, and workplaces that support their dual roles as breadwinners and caregivers.
One policy with a chance of success in Connecticut that would be a true gift to mothers is paid family and medical leave.
Paid maternity leave, one facet of this larger policy, is not just a liberal European trend. The United States should be ashamed that is the only advanced country that does not provide some form of paid maternity leave for new mothers. Most African countries’ policies average between 12-14 weeks of leave at 100 percent of wages and Puerto Rico’s policy has been in place since 1942.
For parents, the first 12 weeks of a baby’s life are the most demanding. Never mind that women are still recovering from birth, often surgery, with health issues of their own. In the following weeks, parents are still figuring out the needs of this tiny new person in their home, struggling with feedings every couple of hours and disrupted sleep patterns.
Earlier returns to work create tremendous stress for parents, but most have no choice. How long can you afford to go without a paycheck? The financial pressures to return to work before a mother is physically or emotionally ready are unavoidable in this country, and place even more stress and anxiety on new parents.
After all, without enough income to pay for a family’s basic needs, parents struggle with affording critical items like diapers. Even though diapers are a necessity for every infant, they are not allowable expenses under state or federal assistance programs. With an adequate supply costing $18 per week, families who can’t afford this expense are more likely to have babies experience negative health consequences like dermatitis and urinary tract infections. It’s also linked to parenting stress and depressive symptoms.
The “baby-blues” condition can be more frequent and serious than it sounds, sometimes resulting in actual depression. According to the Journal of Health Politics, Policy, and Law, there is a direct relationship between the length of maternity leave and the risk of postpartum depression. At six weeks, 12 weeks, and six months, women who were still on maternity leave had lower incidence of postpartum depression than their peers who returned to work.
Shorter maternity leaves also present a major obstacle to breastfeeding. In a survey of new mothers, about half said their employment had an impact on their baby-feeding decisions, according to the Center for Law and Social Policy. Mothers who return to work before six weeks are more than three times likely to stop breastfeeding than those who return later. Meanwhile, the health benefits of nursing are widely known: breastmilk has antibodies that help the baby fight viruses and infection, babies have fewer ear infections, respiratory illnesses, trips to the doctor, and hospitalizations, and mothers may recover more quickly and easily from birth.
In California, where paid family and medical leave was created more than 10 years ago, the median duration of breastfeeding doubled among new mothers who took paid family leave. With positive impacts as clear as these, the question is: why wouldn’t Connecticut follow suit?
Paid family and medical leave has positive impacts for the economy, too. It lowers the unemployment rate, decreases dependence on public assistance, prevents the risk of foreclosure, and lowers turnover costs for employers.
In a country that widely espouses the sanctity of “family values,” why have we failed to recognize our moral obligation to support brand new human beings entering this world, and the women who birth them?
Let’s save the tulips and jewelry for another day. On Mother’s Day, let’s show mothers our true appreciation by creating a society that genuinely supports the needs of new mothers and babies.
Catherine Bailey is the chairwoman of the Campaign for Paid Family Leave.
Others who have signed onto this editorial include: the Connecticut Campaign for Paid Family Leave, Connecticut Parent Power, Connecticut Women’s Education and Legal Fund, The Diaper Bank, MotherWoman, National Organization for Women Connecticut Chapter, Permanent Commission on the Status of Women, and Planned Parenthood of Southern New England.
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