I’ll never forget the time I was talking with a girl from Germany when I was 6 months pregnant. I was explaining to her that I had recently graduated from nursing school and my plan was to take 6 to 8 weeks off after giving birth. I also told her that I had recently had a job interview for a night shift position at a hospital that was about an hour away from my home and I was really hoping to get the job.
She was appalled by everything that was coming out of my mouth. “You’re going to drive an hour to and from work and work over night? With a newborn baby at home? Only 6 weeks off?”
Her genuine concern and my nonchalance about something so justifiably alarming is the perfect representation of how the United States — despite being one of the leading countries in the world — is so painfully behind when it comes to maternity leave support and postpartum resources for mothers (and fathers).
“How long do women take off after having a baby in Germany?” I had asked her.
The answer to this is that in Germany, all working women are entitled to a minimum of 14 weeks paid leave if they become pregnant. There is also the option for the mother or father to take an extended parental leave of up to 24 months, during which they are entitled to 14 months of an allowance (paid by the government) and their employer cannot terminate them during this time.
A 2019 study from UNICEF, “Are the world’s richest countries family friendly?” compares the maternity leave policies of some of the richest countries in the world. Included is a table with country names going down one row and rows with the following headings: “paid leave available to mothers”; “pain leave reserved for fathers”. I scrolled allll the way down to the bottom to find the United States, the only country on the list with zeros across the board.
That’s right, the United States does not offer any form of paid leave for new mothers and fathers and women only get 6 weeks of guaranteed unpaid leave from a job before they are at risk of termination.
Some jobs offer their own private benefits for mothers that may be better and some states have issued state mandated maternity leave policies, but if you’re not one of the women who has a job with good benefits or lives in a state with better policies? You’re simply out of luck.
My experience with postpartum recovery
Before my child left the womb I was talking about getting back to work. Mainly because I was in between jobs and getting ready to start my career. I waited tables up until my due date, gave birth a week later, and started my first nursing job exactly 8 weeks after my daughter was born. I was lucky enough to go into my “maternity leave” with some money in savings and a paid off credit card, but I still didn’t have much wiggle room financially so I was really ready to get back to work and start making money again.
No one warned me about the complete culture shock that I would feel when I transitioned from being a full time student to being a full time nurse; and now there was a baby thrown in the mix. I went from pregnant waitress, to registered nurse with a kid in just over 2 months. It was a huge identity shift to just cram into such a short time period. I rushed right through a huge transition in my life as if none of it mattered. So it’s no surprise that I dealt with crippling anxiety shortly into this transition that inevitably led to me quitting my job entirely.
This is such typical U.S. culture (in my opinion). We literally work our lives away and can even become completely oblivious to what we’re sacrificing in the process because we’re so fixated on working, making money, and chasing a dream. We fool ourselves into believing that our jobs can fill some type of void.
Many women don’t even take the 8 weeks that I took off, many only take 6. My partner was offered no paternity leave benefits from his job so he used some of his PTO to take one week off.
I was also in a hurry to get back into running. I had set a goal to run a marathon 4 months after giving birth. I started running a lot in the evenings and even went for a 9 mile run at about 2 months postpartum. In hindsight, I was being reckless and trying to prove something to myself and those around me. I can do it all. I don’t need to rest. I was gravely mistaken.
Trying to run a marathon so soon after giving birth was unrealistic and I eventually gave up on that goal. Returning to work so soon definitely wasn’t wise either but I didn’t really have much of a choice in that regard. I was quickly running out of money and feared becoming a “rusty new grad” and losing my skills before I even got a chance to use them. I felt like I had to get into my career in order to compete with my former classmates who were already way ahead of me.
I was more worried about competing in my career than easing into becoming a mom and that’s our culture in the U.S.
Eventually, my lack of rest caught up with me. I was working full time in a fast-paced environment, barely eating, completely devoted to taking care of my newborn baby at any free moment I had, and just telling myself that I was handling it okay when I definitely wasn’t. I was losing weight like crazy, not sleeping well, and the most anxious I’ve ever been in my life. My body was just so depleted and off balance.
The short moments that I would have throughout the day at work were almost entirely devoted to pumping so that I could maintain my goal of breastfeeding for at least a year. I had to go way out of my way to keep this goal alive. I often had to ask for support from coworkers so I could drop what I was doing and pump. Luckily, I had that support, so it was possible. But I had to ask for it or it just wouldn’t have been possible, and that was uncomfortable. I know that I made other people uncomfortable by openly talking about pumping and breastfeeding and I definitely felt judged at times.
At first, I was reluctant to be so open about breastfeeding/pumping at work but I let go of this care quickly. We’re talking about feeding a baby here. Giving an innocent newborn child a healthy start to their life. I can see why some women feel uncomfortable and how this probably leads many working moms to stop breastfeeding sooner than they would like to.
This CDC study found that only 58% of surveyed mothers breastfed past 6 months and that number drops down to 35% when talking about 12 month old babies. Many women stop way before 6 months or don’t try at all.
The thing is, women shouldn’t have to start the discussion about breastfeeding in the workplace. We shouldn’t have to be the ones advocating for ourselves. We shouldn’t have to befriend other breastfeeding moms at work to learn where the secret unused locker rooms are that can be used for pumping when the single pumping room for the entire hospital is occupied. As if it’s a “hush hush” topic.
Yes, a hospital, a place filled with healthcare workers who are well aware of the importance of breastfeeding, is also a place with a single room designated to pumping. Luckily, there are extra rooms that you can find and use, but again, you have to figure these things out on your own by seeking out other breastfeeding moms and talking to them. It’s pretty wild when you think about it. And it makes sense why so many women don’t go out of their way to advocate for themselves.
The importance of recovering after having a baby
If you know my story, then you know that I struggle with anxiety. The anxiety I dealt with postpartum was a whole new beast, and I know that rushing back into work too soon was a huge factor that led me to such a low place. It lead me to walk away from one of the best jobs I could have gotten, from a career that I worked so hard to create for myself, because I was struggling so badly from anxiety and I just felt like I had no other choice.
Postpartum recovery is so incredibly vital. If you don’t fully recover, it will catch up with you, whether it be one year later or 10 years later. For me, it took about one year after giving birth for me to completely break down. I can’t help but wonder how my life would be different, had I taken more time off to recover after giving birth.
The depletion that comes with insufficient postpartum recovery inherently effects your ability to care for your child. By raising our children with love and support, we are effecting future generations who will have an impact on this world. So all in all, our recovery as moms has an impact on the future of our entire society.
UNICEF said it best, “There is no time more critical to children’s brain development – and therefore their futures – than the earliest years of life. Parents hold the biggest stake in creating the nurturing environment their children need, and governments should give them the resources to do so.”
So, what’s the answer?
I feel like in the U.S. the mindset of rushing back into work after having a baby is normalized and it should be the opposite. We need to normalize taking as much time off as you need, whether that’s 12 weeks or 12 months. We need to give women the ability to do this. We need to advocate for breastfeeding in the workplace. We need to start the discussion.
PL + US is an organization that is working to make a change in our country, you can join them and donate to help make a difference.
What’s your country’s maternity leave policy? How much time did you take off after giving birth? Share thoughts and postpartum recovery stories in the comments!