Unpaid Maternity Leave Policy Affects the Health of Mothers and Babies

Working mothers face a grave decision upon their delivery date; you may have the good fortune to receive paid maternity leave; however, most mothers must make a drastic decision when paid leave is not offered to them. A twenty-five-year-old single mother named Maria Escalante is preparing to return to work just weeks after the birth of her son. She said, “I might go back in October since I’m running out of money.”

Escalante works in retail, as an assistant manager. Her job is one of the many places in the United States that doesn’t offer paid maternity leave. Her employment grants only three months of unpaid leave. Her employer recommends using paid vacation and sick days. Escalante commented, “I used a week of vacations and 10 sick days. The whole three months I am out of work, I only got paid for three weeks,” and Escalante does not receive any financial help from her son’s father, “My baby’s father is out of the picture,” as she put it. She has Medicaid for herself and her son and receives WIC for her baby’s formula and a handful of groceries, but that is not enough. “Babies are expensive,” she said with a laugh, “not just that, they grow fast so their clothes and diapers don’t last much.”

Maria Escalante is not the only mother making hard decisions. You may already know that mothers are spending less time with their babies during the most crucial months of their lives, returning to work to provide food and clothing, especially single mothers like Maria. She is her son’s only support. She said, “Next month I would not have enough for all my bills so my parents will help me with that.” Mothers, are you aware that by not fully having an established paid maternity leave, it’s very possible that you can cause permanent developmental or health problems for you and your baby?

Europe grants as much as a year of paid maternity leave. There have been studies conducted in Europe to find out if one year of maternity leave actually benefits the health of mother and baby. If developed countries have paid maternity leave, why can’t the US do so as well? But before we can answer this question we must first ask, what is an appropriate amount of leave before mothers can return to work?

A story published on Slate mentions that approximately more than a half million women go back to work in four weeks or less each year. It’s inappropriate for a mother to return to work so soon, especially if the mother has had C-section or the baby was premature. Whatever the conditions, it’s unfair for a mother to be separated from her newborn just weeks after giving birth because it can cause health problems to both mother and baby. Another story on Slate referred to a study that examined the results of the steady climb of paid leave in 16 European countries. Tied with this they charted death rates against those historical changes. The authors of this study were able to attribute a 20 percent drop in infant deaths to a 10-week extension paid leave. The biggest drop was the death of babies between 2 and 12 months. In addition, according to Christopher Ruhm, author of The First European Study, paid leave of 40 weeks save the most lives of the babies.

Are you aware that by being with your baby for a substantial amount of time during their first days, can actually benefit your baby’s health? A Canadian study done by professors, Kevin Milligan and Michael Baker, revealed that women who returned to work sooner breastfed less than those who have a longer leave. Mothers stopped nursing the month they returned to work. The America Academy of Pediatrics recommends for a mother to nurse for about a year.  Nursing can protect the baby from various illnesses such as asthma, leukemia, or cognitive developments. The first six months are essential.

Many of you mothers are unaware of the importance of bonding with your babies in their first months of life. During their first days, newborns become in contact with their surroundings. Many psychologists in the early 20th century believe that showing affection towards children was merely a sentimental gesture without a real purpose. An American psychologist named Harry Harlow demonstrated the powerful effects of love. To prove this, he demonstrated the devastating effects of loss on young rhesus monkeys. His experiments were often cruel and unethical, but he uncovered truths that today influence our understanding of child development.

One of Harlow’s most famous experiments involved a young rhesus monkey who had a choice between two different mothers. One mother was made of soft terrycloth but provided no source of food. The other mother was made out of wire but provided food from an attached baby bottle. Harlow removed rhesus babies from their natural mothers just hours after their birth and be placed them with these surrogate mothers to be “raised” by them. The experiment revealed that the rhesus babies spent more time with their cloth mothers. Harlow explained in 1958, “These data make it obvious that contact comfort is a variable of overwhelming importance in the development of affectional response, whereas lactation is a variable of negligible importance.” In other experiments, Harlow also revealed that rhesus babies would turn to their cloth mother for protection and comfort.

Some experts denied the importance of mothers bonding with their babies, Harlow’s experiments proved that love is vital for normal childhood development. Other experiments by Harlow also reveal that long-term devastation caused by loss can lead to emotional distress and even death. With this in mind, it’s discouraging that mothers don’t have paid maternity leave and leave their babies so soon. Even the 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave is not enough for proper bonding time between mother and child. Some of you mothers may have witnessed this in several American families, where mothers who go back to work sooner and work endless hours eventually become detach from their babies.

In spite of this, mothers are taking fewer weeks for maternity leave. Vice president Rosemary Haefner of CareerBuilder whose website conducts surveys, released a poll in 2012 revealing that 800 working parents “one in 10 women” took less than two weeks of maternity leave. In 2013, it placed “one in eight” women and the numbers are still going up. Nowadays, more women are earning college education bringing more women into the workforce. It is accustomed now that a married couple both bring income to their household. Their salaries together are sometimes just enough to cover their financial necessities. This is notably hard on single mothers who only have one income to survive. Despite the health issues that unpaid maternity leave has, it is becoming a trend for mothers to return to work much sooner because of the economic burdens. But this can come at a cost.

An analysis done by professors Pinka Chatterji and Sara Markowitz, determine that policies that grant longer paid maternity leave reduced depressive symptoms among working mothers. It is understandable for a mother to have a higher chance of depression after returning to work too soon. Parents are leaving their babies in day cares. Many of you mothers know how hard it is to leave your child in the hands of a stranger. But on the other hand you must provide money to give them what they need financially, so you must return to work. Even if a mother decided to take the unpaid maternity leave, if would be impossible for them to not feel the stress from thinking that their savings or paid vacation days will run out. At this point, we can say that the economy has a great say on how long mothers decided to stay home and care for their newborn baby.

Mothers work much harder to support a family, taking care of their career and their children. “I didn’t work during my whole pregnancy or six months after I gave birth,” said Blanca Mendoza another young single mother. “I chose to go to school. Whatever the case I think there needs to be paid maternity leave nobody knows what is going on in each people lives or what are their needs or problems,” she said. Each situation for a mother is different, at least we can give them the opportunity for paid maternity leave.

Luckily for some mothers, companies are taking matters into their own hands. Adobe, a software company, have expanded their maternity leave to their employees. New mothers now have up to a year of paid maternity leave. Donna Morris, Adobe’s senior vice president, argues in her blog post that companies must learn to navigate and be supportive to their employees who are experiencing major changes in their lives and keeping up with their career. Netflix and Microsoft have also announced similar changes to their company’s policy. As professor Maya Rossin declares in her study, “If policymakers are concerned with decreasing disparities in child health and well-being between children of different backgrounds, they need to consider the fact that an unpaid maternity leave policy may actually increase disparities because it only benefits those mothers who can afford to take it.”

Many mothers would like to have the flexibility of having a family as well as a successful career and the luxury to be free of stress from financial issues during and after their pregnancy. However, establishing a paid maternity leave policy will only fix part of the problem. Women face discrimination leading to their maternity leave as well as when they return. There is more to this issue than just establishing a fair policy for mothers. In a published HuffingtonPost story, women confided they were afraid of discrimination from their coworkers as well as bosses when they returned to their job for taking the maximum leave that was offered to them. Many employees hate the idea of accommodating and changing their work habits for someone who is on maternity leave. Because of the hostility, new mothers face upon returning to work, many questioned whether to shorten their leave and return much earlier than expected. Women are in fact frightened that the person that is occupying their job temporarily may perform better or their employer may take a preference to the new employee taking their place.

In Britain where companies are required to grant mothers up to a year of paid maternity leave, this discrimination is evident. Over 40 percent of employers are deciding not to employ women in the ages of 20 to 30 and much rather employ men around the same age just to avoid maternity leave. A survey done by a law firm, Slater & Gordon, concluded that companies will sometimes be wary in hiring a woman who has a child, with 44 percent claiming that the cost of maternity leave to their companies is significant.  Many employers justified this result by saying that women who return to their job do not perform their work as well as before. Mothers, it is right to hire women based on her age and gender, taking away valuable opportunities? General Secretary of TUC, Frances O’Grady disagrees with this rising discrimination, saying that it is illegal to not grant women a job position just because they might want to have children in the near future. I am sure all future mothers agree with her statement, deciding to have or not to have children does not define where we go in our career.

As we go deeper into the issue of maternity leave, we discovered that it is not just to establish a fair law to allow mothers to bond with their babies. The goal is to establish a paid maternity leave policy to help mothers have a peaceful time to bond with their newborns, yet it seems this is just the tip of the iceberg. We need to put a stop to discrimination against mothers in the workforce as well.

Women shared their personal experiences on discrimination in The Guardian article. Jessica was in the process of her maternity leave. During the process, her employer tried to cut her hours and if she didn’t comply with the new hours she could be forced to take her maternity leave much earlier than expected at only 28 weeks pregnant. As you know, a huge amount of stress can complicate the health of the mother and child. Unfortunately, for Jessica, thinking that she wouldn’t have money to support her child left her stressed and worried. Jessica went into premature labor after her employer informed her that they had lost the Mat B1 form.

The United States’ inalienable right consists of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness but how can we fulfill this when mothers do not have a required paid maternity leave that prevents them to happily bond with their newborns. Families go through many changes after the baby is born, there are many sleepless nights and time needed to get used to the idea of being parents. How can mothers enjoy the happiness that brings a child to their life while worrying about the financial aspects to support their baby? Mothers can’t pursuit happiness when they don’t have the liberty to bond with their babies peacefully and are force to returned to their job so soon because they think they could potentially lose it.

Asking for a paid maternity leave can bring changes to our society and economy. However, women are willing to put up with big changes if the goal is to help women bond with their babies without financial burden. Many people believe that paid maternity leave will be costly to employer and employees, but that is not the case. It’s actually minimal. California and New Jersey have paid maternity leave programs that cover birth, adoption, foster placement or leave to care for a sick family member. California parents can take up to six weeks off at 55 percent off their salary with a maximum weekly payout of $987. In New Jersey, parents also can take six weeks off at a maximum of $559 a week. In both cases, companies do not pay for these programs.

Working Mother Media launched a four-year campaign whose goal was to ensured paid parental leave to all U.S workers by 2015.  Their aimed was to allow women the flexibility to design a leave plan that will work for the best of them and their employer. After polling colleges in a firm women’s network asking about what length of maternity leave had work best for them.  Susan Charnaux-Grillet, a Washington, DC based associate principal, took off six months, an exactly right amount of time for Grillet to get used to being a mother. She combined the firm’s 14 weeks paid vacation and unpaid maternity leave time. As oppose to what some employers believing that women do not perform their job well when they return; Grillet was promoted after her return from her six-month maternity leave. Research has shown that a decent leave of at least six months increases productivity and staying abroad on their job.

The Department of Labor recently awarded $500,000 worth of grants to Massachusetts, Montana, Rhode Island, and the District of Colombia to explore and introduce a statewide paid maternity program.  The goal of Working Women campaign was a good start to establish a national paid maternity leave policy where mothers are given the opportunity set out a leave plan with their employer. We have to keep in mind, that mothers encounter different situations in different workplaces. Some are lucky to be offered paid maternity leave others are not as lucky and are force to spend just a few months of unpaid leave with their babies under stress and worry. Mothers should have a choice in how much time they want to take off from work to be with their newborns. Employer and employees should mutually agree on a plan that will benefit both. The bottom line is that we must work for an established paid maternity leave law.

But for now, it seems like Maria Escalante has no choice but to leave her son in the care of other people. Missing his first smiles as she returns to work to provide him with everything he needs, “If the three months offer at my job of maternity leave were paid, of course I would take them. A year would be great but I can’t. I would love to spend more time with my son to see him grow but I have to pay the bills. I don’t want to depend on my parents for help. I am used to making my money,” Escalante said. It’s evident that momentum is building for a paid maternity leave policy that will allow mothers to bond with their children and improve their lives from the start. At least this could be a small condolence for Maria Escalante but for now, she must make a sacrifice for her son.


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