We’re Facing a Maternity Leave Crisis

The United States is facing an epidemic with devastating consequences for mothers and infants. According to a new report, nearly one in four mothers, most of them low-wage, may be returning to work within two weeks of giving birth. Many others who take more time to heal and bond with their babies are facing financial hardship as a result.

This report signals a national emergency, one that demands immediate attention.

“The Real War on Families: Why the U.S. Needs Paid Family Leave Now” was written by journalist Sharon Lerner and released last week by In These Times magazine. It reveals the staggering physical and emotional costs of returning to work within weeks or days of childbirth.

Lerner’s report profiles mothers around the country who returned to work soon after childbirth, and describes in heartbreaking detail the mental and physical toll of juggling a job and a newborn.

One of those mothers, Natasha Long, explained how she returned to her factory job just three weeks after giving birth. Because her employer had no lactation room, Long had to pump breast milk in her truck during her lunch break. Long was eventually diagnosed with depression—a condition whose likelihood is reduced by maternity leave.

“I felt like I was alone,” Long said. “I wanted to fall off the face of the earth.”

Back in the 1950s, our country faced a polio epidemic. My brother was one of those hit. I remember him being whisked away in the middle of the night; my twin sister and I were stuck in the house for a week under quarantine. As the Centers for Disease Control points out, “The nation came together like never before in an effort to create a vaccine to protect children from polio.” All sectors worked together to raise funds for research. Within a few years there was a vaccine, and then a second one a couple years later.

For the most part, polio ceased to be an issue for American kids.

The good news on family leave is that we already know the solution: a family and medical leave insurance fund. Everyone puts in small premiums to create a pool from which workers can draw a significant portion of income while they’re out on leave to care for a new child or a serious personal or family illness. A version of this program exists in three states, and a growing body of evidence shows the benefits to families and to the economy.

But access to affordable leave shouldn’t depend on which state you reside in, or which employer you work for.

The U.S. is currently the only major country in the world where mothers aren’t guaranteed paid leave after childbirth—forcing many to return to work before they are ready. Only 13 percent of U.S. workers have access to paid family leave through their employers, and those who do are much more likely to be in high-income jobs.

Paid family leave has many proven benefits: higher employment rates for women, lower poverty rates among mothers and children and higher survival rates for newborns. A University of Virginia study found that a 50-week extension in paid leave was associated with a 20 percent drop in infant deaths. Such a program also helps small businesses compete with the largest companies by boosting retention and productivity.

After decades of advocacy, it appears the tide is turning: Momentum is building behind paid family leave legislation. Member coalitions, such as Family Values @ Work, are building support for proposals across the country. And the issue is gaining steam in the build-up to the 2016 elections. A proposal in Congress, the FAMILY Act, is picking up sponsors.

We need to recognize this as a moment similar to the polio crisis. It’s time for all sectors of our society to pull together to stop the war on working families and join the rest of the world in providing paid family leave.

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Photo via Shutterstock


Ellen Bravo is strategic consultant to Family Values @ Work, a network of 27 state coalitions working for paid sick and safe days, family and medical leave insurance and other policies that value families at work.