Editor's note: There is so much at stake in tomorrow's presidential election, but one of the biggest differences between the candidates lies in their approach to important women's issues. Here's where Donald Trump stands on family leave, and here's what Hillary Clinton has to say. Be sure to make your vote count. Varina Winder is a senior policy advisor in the secretary’s office of Global Women’s Issues at the U.S. Department of State. The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of the U.S. government. This story was originally published on Medium.
Four months ago, I became a mom. Everyone — my own parents, cab drivers, and older women behind me in the grocery line — has told me how lucky I am to have this time with my new baby. I agree. Some other lucky things that have happened to me: I received prenatal care throughout my pregnancy. I gave birth in a hospital where I felt empowered to ask about the sudden pain coursing through my heart during labor. I had health insurance to cover (most of) the costs of the blood transfusions and IV drips and anti-seizure medications that saved my life. In America, the rate of maternal mortality has more than doubled since 1990, and women without health insurance are three to four times more likely to die from complications related to childbirth. A week after delivering my son, I had a team of nurses to empty the buckets collecting urine at the foot of my bed, my husband to hold my hand and comb my hair, and my entire family to welcome my son to the world. At the end of the week, when I was finally discharged from the hospital, 1 in 10 new American mothers had already gone back to work. Two weeks out, I was able to walk from my bedroom to the bathroom and sometimes pick up my son without physically leaning on my husband. My mom did everything else: She grocery shopped and cooked and cleaned and laundered the five shirts I sweated through nightly. The first time I left my apartment, 10 days post-birth, 1 in 4 American mothers had already gone back to work. “The first two months are just survival mode,” I was repeatedly told. "Get through each hour, each day, and each night. Feed your baby; feed yourself. Put your baby to bed; put yourself to bed. Change the baby’s diaper; forget about everything else. Repeat every three hours." I had never felt such indescribable exhaustion; for five weeks, my body bled through clothes and pads and sheets. I couldn’t imagine doing anything but meet my son’s immediate, biological needs and get myself to the doctor. And yet, 80% of women who take at least six weeks of leave have a college degree, but fewer than 1 in 3 American women have one.
In 2016, in the world’s only superpower, to have to rely on luck and privilege for the time my son and I both needed for our health is incomprehensible.
At 12 weeks postpartum, I landed in the hospital again with a sprained ankle that occurred when I stopped paying attention to my body’s new limits. My mom returned, as my husband was back at work, and I couldn’t care for my baby on crutches. My bosses — all women — were sympathetic, kind, and unbelievably supportive. As a federal employee, I’m also part of the 60% of the American workforce with access to the 12 weeks of unpaid leave afforded by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). So yes, I’m lucky. Here are just some of the ways my lucky streak will be conferred on my son: Because I was home with him, I noticed early there was something wrong with his eye. I was able to bring him to a doctor in time to save him from blindness and surgery. Children are much more likely to receive well-baby visits and vaccinations when their mothers have paid leave. When my son refused for weeks to breast-feed, I had the resources to see a lactation consultant and the time to try and try and try again. Seven weeks in, I finally stopped emitting blood instead of breast milk, and he finally understood what to do. The WHO and the American Academy of Pediatrics both recommend exclusive breastfeeding until the baby is 6 months old, citing breast milk’s protective effects against a wide variety of diseases, allergies, and infections. Women with paid leave breast-feed their babies twice as long as women not able to take paid leave. Because my husband had six weeks of paid leave, he took me to the endless doctors’ appointments, changed our baby’s first diapers, and was home to see our son’s first smile. Fathers who take paternity leave are more involved with their children and with child care months later. Because I’ve been home to hold my son and rock him and place him against my skin, my baby has cried less and slept more, making me a less anxious, better rested mom. It also meant I was more likely to return to the workforce, benefiting not only my own family, but also the American economy. And when I did return to the office, my son was strong enough to hold up his own head, unlike the babies of other mothers forced to return before they were ready — with fatal, tragic consequences. Paid parental leave can reduce infant mortality by up to 10%. My little family is certainly lucky. Although I’m not one of the 13% of American workers with paid family leave, I stockpiled and saved enough sick days and vacation time over the past five years so I could recuperate from a serious illness and care for my son in his first weeks of life without having to choose between diapers or rent, job or no job. I am filled with deep, overwhelming gratitude each morning I wake up feeling a bit stronger, every time I can pick up my son to soothe his crying, every time he successfully nurses, and every time he tracks me across a room using both of his eyes. And yet, in 2016, in the world’s only superpower, to have to rely on luck and privilege for the time my son and I both needed for our health is incomprehensible. The United States is the only developed country that does not have some form of paid family leave — in fact, we are one of just three countries in the entire world without it, joining Papua New Guinea and Suriname. For every new American mom and dad, for every single baby born or adopted in this country, this is not just unlucky. It’s indefensible, and it has to change.