I went back to work five weeks after my first child was born. This was out of necessity: I was freelance, and if I didn’t work, I didn’t get paid. I was worried that the contracts I had secured for myself before my daughter arrived would disappear if I didn’t get back to the grind quickly. There’s a pervasive feeling that you’re only as good as your last byline when you’re trying to make a living as a writer, and I was understandably afraid — based on research — that the longer I went without my name in print, the longer it would take me to get work again.
With my second child, I was in a much different place. I was the editor-in-chief at a startup, and I got a few months of paid maternity leave. The emotional tenor of that recent postpartum period was so much more relaxed and joyful than with my first baby. I wasn’t stressed about going back to work or whether my family would be able to cover child care. I was able to think clearly about the book I was about to publish. I was able to physically recover more quickly because I could afford to pay for care when I needed to rest. And I was able to be mentally present with my children without being anxious, and I will be forever grateful for that.
I recognize how insanely privileged I am to receive paid maternity leave in the United States. Only 12 percent of privately employed American workers get paid family leave. Citizens of only a handful of states have access to paid leave. Nearly a quarter of working moms have to go back to work within TWO WEEKS of giving birth, which is inhumane. This isn’t just bad for women, who may be recovering from major abdominal surgery (aka a c-section) and may be more prone to postpartum depression when they don’t get adequate leave. It’s bad for babies. Paid leave reduces infant mortality, and babies whose parents have paid leave are more likely to get regular checkups.
But even though I am privileged compared to other American parents, American parents are the paupers of the world. We are the only developed nation that does not provide paid parental leave to its citizens. It’s an embarrassment. And even though Ivanka Trump has been touting her father’s vague plan to provide six weeks of paid leave to mothers, it would still be meager compared to the benefits that mothers and fathers get in Canada, Sweden, France, Turkey, Mexico, Cyprus… I could sit here and list countries all day. What’s more, if the Affordable Care Act is repealed, which is currently in the works, pregnant women and expectant parents could be denied health insurance on the individual market.
I have been writing about issues relating to parental leave for about five years now, and it’s depressing how little has changed, despite the fact that the vast majority of Americans are in favor of paid leave. Unlike almost every other issue these days, paid leave has bipartisan support. (I haven’t even mentioned all the people who are caring for elderly or otherwise infirm family members — those people don’t get paid leave either. And many workers don’t get paid sick leave for themselves, which is a national health crisis). You can make a difference by contacting your representatives and telling them you want paid leave and you want it now, or by supporting legal organizations like A Better Balance that fight the good fight to get paid leave laws passed.
I will never get a do-over of those first days with my older daughter. I don’t spend a lot of time dwelling on how much more idyllic they could have been. But by the time my kids are ready to have their own kids, I want things to be different. And I want to be able to tell them I did everything in my power to fight for the structural support they deserve.
Original photography by Belle Savransky for Well Rounded.