It is no secret that the United States is lightyears behind other developed countries when it comes to maternity leave and support for working parents. To put things into perspective, the United States is the only country out of 41 other developed countries in the United Nations to not federally mandate minimums for paid maternity leave. While the US offers 0 weeks paid parental leave, the next UN country above the US is Estonia, which offers 12 weeks paid, and all others offer either the same or better. Also, the United States has one of the highest maternal mortality rates which rise considerably when we start talking about women of color but that is a different article. Many mothers return to work 4 – 6 weeks after having their children because they simply cannot afford not to. While they are out on leave, they are either forced to burn through all their earned vacation days or to take the leave unpaid. Some leave the workforce all together because they simply cannot physically or mentally return.
If we have not even risen to the occasion when it comes to supporting working mothers, is it unthinkable to consider that someday we may have mandatory leave for fathers as well?
Paternity leave is, in my opinion, as crucial to provide as maternity leave is. The reason is because maternity leave is not simply for a mother to bond with their baby, though that is important. It is mostly to physically recover from the act of giving birth. Most women take between 6-12 weeks to physically be able to function at least partially as they did prior to having a baby. During this time, we need help.
When I had my first child in 2018, I had no idea the stress that would come along with my postpartum journey. Hormones caused awful night sweats and crying fits. Breastfeeding every 90 minutes and recovery from labor meant that everything on my body hurt all the time. Simple things like going to bathroom were a real painful to-do with several more steps than usual and the baby would cry the minute you put her down, making it feel like an invisible bomb was ticking from minute one. Showering was impossible and if you got something to eat or drink, it better be possible to eat it with one hand. To make things more complicated, I dealt with post-partum anxiety which was made 100 times worse when I was left alone. Some new mothers deal with postpartum depression but mine manifested as anxiety. My fight or flight response kicked in and all I could think of was what could go wrong. Constant fear of the simplest things like ”what if we run out of diapers?” or ”what if she doesn’t latch and can’t eat?”
You’re in pain, your overwhelmed by everything you’re now having to learn and do, and you’re struggling with postpartum anxiety all while constantly taking care of a small baby who needs you for everything and screams when they don’t get it.
My husband is an amazing father and, as we are both career-oriented working parents, we split the childcare responsibilities equally. Without a formal paternity leave policy, he took 2 weeks of vacation and we decided that he would go back after that to keep some of his vacation days in case the baby got sick when she started at daycare. My maternity leave policy forced me to use all my vacation days so I would not have any coming back to use. So, 2 weeks after the biggest shift in our lives, I was left alone. Hurting physically and mentally. We managed to use some friends and family that could come over a day here or a few hours there to help me which was great, but it wasn’t full-time help. As I look back, it was probably one of the toughest periods in my life.
Our daughter is now 3 years old and we decided to complete the plan we have always had which was to have 2 children. So, I became pregnant with our son. This time around, the policies at his company had changed to offer 6 weeks of paid paternity leave with 2 weeks after part time working from home. The difference between the first and second child has been incredible. With him being home with me, we have become an unstoppable team. During the first weeks after we came home, there was someone there to split these responsibilities 50/50. I could be honest that he needed to take the baby for an hour if I needed to take a nap because he was up 4 times during the night to breastfeed or to change half the diapers. When the baby would not stop screaming because he couldn’t get to sleep, I had someone to hand him to while I walked away for a breath. He helped me keep the baby awake to breastfeed and gave me words of encouragement when the pain started getting too intense. The best part of it all is the support. I feel mentally and physically supported by my partner. I have been able to see him have the time to bond with his son and for us to grow stronger as a family. I have no signs of Postpartum Anxiety or Postpartum Depression and I feel like I have been able to enjoy this leave and focus on healing instead of spending that time being overwhelmed and stressed.
There is no doubt in my mind that his presence made the difference between a maternity leave filled with fear, anxiety, and stress and one filled with moments of feeling overwhelming fortune and gratitude for the family we have created. Paternity leave serves an extremely important purpose for the building of a healthy family and for the mental and physical well-being of women. As a country of working parents, we need to start demanding better.