What Happens When Women Don’t Get Paid Maternity Leave?

Photo by Grace Willis.
The lack of government-sponsored, paid parental leave in the United States is a hot topic right now. Private companies are garnering praise for their expanded policies — some offering mothers and fathers up to a year off to care for a new baby. While these changes are wonderful, there's a huge section of the population who don't even qualify for the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which gives full-time workers in companies with 50 or more employees up to 12 weeks unpaid leave. Why are these policies leaving out those who need protection — and income — the most? Investigative journalist Sharon Lerner's new article "The Real War on Families: Why the U.S. Needs Paid Leave Now" explores what happens when women are forced to return to work after only taking a week or two off to care for their infants. The stories are heartbreaking, and the statistics are staggering. According to Lerner, "no federal agency collects regular statistics on how much post-childbirth time off, paid or unpaid, women are actually taking," which makes it difficult to quantify the need. But looking at a 2012 study from the Department of Health and Human Services on FMLA, of the 91 women who took the leave to care for a new child, one in four returned to work within two weeks.

one in four new mothers returned to work within two weeks.

Ahead, we have an excerpt from Lerner's eye-opening article that details Natasha Long's harrowing account of trying to fit in time to breast-pump during her 12-hour factory shift. We've detailed the difficulties of breast-pumping at work before, but this takes things to a whole new level: Long was forced to pump while sitting in her truck. To read Lerner's full article, click here. If you want more information on how to get involved with the push for state and national paid family-leave policies, visit Family Values @ Work, a network of state and local coalitions working to promote family-friendly workplaces.

Pumping in the parking lot What’s it like to be back on the job in the first weeks after having a baby? For Natasha Long, who was back three weeks after her third child, Jayden, was born in 2012, the worst part was missing out on bonding time with her son. Long, who was 29 at the time, was determined to make sure Jayden got breast milk. But the factory where she worked, ACCO Office Supplies in Booneville, Mississippi, didn’t have a lactation room. So when she was on breaks, she had to run out to her truck. She sat in the cab, worried that someone might see her, and pumped, while tears rolled down her face and over the plastic suction cups attached to her breasts. Long cried because she wanted to be holding her baby rather than sitting in the parking lot of a factory in her old Yukon Denali. But exhaustion clearly also played a role in her emotional state. Her job was simple — to place stickers with the company logo on the bottom right-hand corner of plastic binders and then box up the binders. But the shifts were long — from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. — and she put in four or five a week. Because the factory was an hour’s drive from her home in Okalona, Mississippi, Long had only 10 hours left in the day to do everything else, including tend to her three children, spend time with Jayden’s father, and sleep. By the time she got back in the evening, her children, who were being looked after by her father during the day, were on their way to bed. To pump breast milk before leaving for work, she had to get up at 4 a.m.

To pump breast milk before leaving for work, she had to get up at 4 a.m.

After just a few days of this crazed schedule, Long began to develop strange symptoms, including a headache that never seemed to go away and a choking sensation that left her feeling breathless. She started biting her fingernails to the quick — something she’d never done before — and crying a lot. “I felt like I was alone,” says Long. “I wanted to fall off the face of the earth.” Long had never been depressed. But when she went to the doctor, he surmised that her physical symptoms were rooted in her mental state, which was itself rooted in her schedule. When her doctor said he thought she was depressed, Long worried that if child welfare authorities found out, they might take her children away. She had seen other people’s children put in foster care. But when her doctor prescribed her antidepressants, she took them. Long is not the only one to suffer emotionally from a quick return to work. Research has shown that longer maternity leaves, whether paid or unpaid, are associated with a decline in depressive symptoms, a reduction in the likelihood of severe depression, and an improvement in overall maternal health, according to a working paper issued by the National Bureau of Economic Research. One national study of 1,762 mothers found that a one-week increase in maternity leave was associated with a 5 to 6% reduction in depressive symptoms from six to 24 months after birth. Another found that women who took less than eight weeks of paid leave experienced more depression than those who had longer leaves and were in worse health overall. Mothers who work more than 40 hours a week, as Long was, were more likely to be depressed than those who worked 40 hours or less, according to a study by Child Trends, a research center. Women who go back sooner also tend to breastfeed less, which cuts into the benefits breast milk confers, including better immunity and lower rates of childhood obesity, allergies, and sudden infant death syndrome. It was only through heroic efforts that Long was able to breastfeed Jayden until he was 1. Shorter maternity leaves may also have a negative effect on the development of early motor and social skills and even, later, on vocabulary, according to several studies. So far, Jayden, 3, hasn’t shown signs of missing any developmental milestones. What nags at Long is the thought that her absence in those first few months might have affected their relationship. He refuses to call her “mama,” and although there’s no research to indicate this would be a result of failed early bonding, she still fears that’s the reason.

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