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1 in 4 American moms return to work within 2 weeks of giving birth — here’s what it's like

Pretty much all countries require companies to offer paid maternity leave to new mothers — all countries except, of course, for the United States.

No paid leave in the USA


Credit: UCLA World Policy Analysis Centre

So new moms in the United States don't take off much time at all: About a quarter return to work within two weeks of giving birth, a new analysis of data by Abt Associates shows.

Abt Associates worked with In These Times to look at a Department of Labor survey of when new moms return to work. Here's what they found:

Abt went back to a 2012 survey it conducted for the Department of Labor of 2,852 employees who had taken family or medical leave in the last year, looking specifically at the 93 women who took time off work to care for a new baby.

Nearly 12 percent of those women took off only a week or less. Another 11 percent took between one and two weeks off. That means that about 23 percent—nearly 1 in 4—of the women interviewed were back at work within two weeks of having a child.

Access to longer leave time appears to be a luxury good. As Sharon Lerner writes"80 percent of college graduates took at least six weeks off to care for a new baby, but only 54 percent of women without college degrees did so."

This is how maternity leave works in a country that has no guarantee of time off: It goes to the women who have higher-income jobs with better benefit packages, or those who can afford to forgo income for a number of weeks or months. Low-income women have little option but to return to work quickly, an option that every other country in the world deems unacceptable.

What it's like to go back to work days after giving birth

Lerner's piece is worth reading in full, and you can do so here. This particular anecdote jumped out at me in underscoring what it's like for the quarter of women who return to work quickly. Lerner writes about Natasha Long, who went back to her factory job shortly after her son Jayden's birth. She would get up at 4 am to pump breast milk before work — and sneak out to pump again on breaks, in her car in the parking lot.

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.

It's not just moms who suffer. Kids suffer, too.

Economists have looked at the relationship between maternity leave policies and children's well-being — and they find, perhaps somewhat unsurprisingly, that kids raised in countries that guarantee more time off have better health outcomes.

One 1995 study found that every extra week in guaranteed maternity leave correlated with a 2 to 3 percent decline in infant deaths. Separate research elsewhere found similar results.

And this makes pretty intuitive sense: Mothers with paid leave have more time to care for their children, giving additional time to invest in a newborn's well-being.

The divide between rich moms and poor moms — those who do get maternity leave and those who don't — is an example of a situation in which economic inequality leads to unequal opportunities for the next generation. Kids born to moms without paid maternity leave are getting a worse shot at life, simply because of a benefit that their parent's employer declines to offer.