If three months is a marker of anything, its when biology begins to organize the chaos. You could argue that just as parents have been through the hardest part of dealing with their own baby blues, sleepless nights, fatigue, getting nursing going and [colic], what do we do? Yogman said. We send them back to work. He advises parents to prolong their leave if possible.
When the former Democratic congresswoman gave birth to her son and daughter, in 1966 and 1970, her employer didn’t offer any maternity leave at all. One day she was pregnant and employed, and the next she had a baby but no job. “It was just assumed you were going to quit,” she said. “They kind of counted you out at that point.”
That experience, in part, motivated her to sponsor the FMLA in the House of Representatives. She began with ambitious plans. After consulting T. Berry Brazelton, the pediatrician and child development expert, Schroeder felt six months was optimal for exclusive breastfeeding and parent-child bonding.
The Chamber of Commerce and other business lobbies opposed the legislation, and some politicians claimed it would destroy American companies. By the time the bill passed nine years later — after two vetoes by President George H.W. Bush — the bill applied only to companies with 50 employees or more and Congress had reduced the number to 12 unpaid weeks.
Schroeder viewed the bill’s passage as a first step; she expected it to eventually include longer, paid leave and apply to smaller companies. When Congress invited her to celebrate the bill’s 20th anniversary in 2013, she refused to attend. “What’s to celebrate?” she said. “You haven’t expanded it at all.”
The United States is the only industrialized country without a law guaranteeing paid maternity leave to new mothers. Only 12% of workers have access to paid leave through their employer, and I am one of those fortunate employees. The 12-weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave the U.S. does offer, while better than nothing, only covers 59% of U.S. workers, though nearly half of those eligible don’t take leave for financial reasons, according to the results of a 2012 Department of Labor survey.
Here’s another way to put it: Two in five American women of childbearing age do not qualify for job-protected leave under the FMLA, according to a Center for Economic and Policy Research report. This includes the part-time cashier or fast-food worker who doesn’t log the necessary 1,250 hours in a year to be eligible for FMLA leave. It includes the waitress at a family-owned restaurant that employs fewer than 50 staff. It includes the full-time worker at a big retail chain who hasn’t yet been employed by the company for a year. While you might expect each of these women to receive some kind of maternity leave, they have no legal right to it.
There’s a very good reason for that. In the first three months of life, babies barely emerge from a cocoon-like state. They must eat every two hours if not more. They must be bounced, rocked or nursed to sleep for longer than their nap actually lasts. For parents the sleep deprivation is like a dense fog, enveloping you in a single mental and sensory experience: exhaustion.
Despite the evidence that the length of leave is important for newborn and maternal health, the 12-week timeline remains unimpeachable. The Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act, a bill sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y), would create a federal insurance program partly for parents caring for a new child. It would provide up to 12 weeks of leave. When President Obama recently issued an administrative memorandum requiring that federal workers have the option to use six weeks of paid sick days for compensated parental leave, he cast the move as an attempt to make the federal government a model employer.
American women are meant to be grateful for what we do have—even if it’s a pittance by international standards. Of course, I am grateful, but I also wonder how politics poisoned this country’s leave policy long ago and turned an arbitrary number into a force that rules our lives and families. Read more…