When Netflix recently announced they’re boosting employee benefits by offering a year of unlimited maternity and paternity leave, it made big news. That’s because what they’re doing is progressive, at least in America, and long overdue. The U.S. is one of only four countries in the world with no national policy requiring paid leave for new parents. (The others are Lesotho, Swaziland, and Papua New Guinea.) Netflix’s policy falls in line with what other countries mandate, from Sweden’s 480 days of paid leave per child, to Russia’s 140 days, to Mexico and Indonesia, which both offer about four months of fully paid time off.
Right now, many American parents receive zero days of paid leave, so they resign themselves to the Family Medical Leave Act, which guarantees them their job for 12 weeks. But even this doesn’t cover everyone, due to restrictions. Yet there are plenty of studies that show that paid leave is healthy for moms, dads, and babies, as well as companies.
I wanted to know: What does this look like in real families? So I talked with several moms and dads who didn’t receive paid leave when they gave birth to or adopted their child, to get their perspective. They gave me 8 reasons the U.S. needs to get on board with the rest of the world:
Many pregnant women work right up until they go into labor so that they can have as much time as possible at home with their baby. But how does this impact labor outcomes? One medical professional says she’s observed that moms who work full time right up until labor, especially if they have to drive a lot, work at a desk, or are on their feet for hours seem to have more pain, exhaustion, and fetal malposition.
Without paid leave, many parents report that they decided the length of their leave based purely on the size of their savings account. They pooled accrued vacation and sick time, and tacked on any additional time they felt they could afford. This harms families, as it jeopardizes their financial security and deprives them of the opportunity to take into consideration vastly important things, like the research-based benefits of taking time off to develop an early bond with their child.
Although a lot of things about new parenting feel foreign, it’s nothing like lying in a chaise at a five-star resort or backpacking through Europe. For example, one woman I interviewed had a baby after four years of miscarriages and unexplained fertility, and the emotional impact was significant. Yet she returned to work seven weeks postpartum after a C-section birth so that she wouldn’t lose pay. She slept an average of three hours a night for the first two months after she went back to work, and at the end of her son’s first year, she had unexplained fevers and other vague illnesses for several months. However, she couldn’t take the sick time to figure it out because that was used for maternity leave. Unfortunately, her story is not uncommon.
No matter how a child arrives at their new home, everyone needs a sec to recover, okay? Childbirth presents significant physical, emotional and hormonal changes for mothers; Cesareans are major abdominal surgery; and adoption offers its own unique set of challenges. Add to this breastfeeding or bottle feeding, doctor visits, sleep deprivation, and an entire new vocabulary, and it takes a while to adjust, to say the least.
Many women have nursing difficulties and 12 weeks just isn’t enough time to get it figured out and get into a pumping rhythm if they have to go back to work. In addition, some women experience unexpected postpartum depression or breast infections or other health issues, and sometimes the circumstances of the birth require the family to stay in the hospital longer than expected, perhaps even in the NICU. Welcoming a child into the family is rarely a seamless, predictable experience.
I didn’t talk with one father who’d had more than two weeks off with his baby. Mostly, it was a few days, or a week. One dad used his two weeks of annual vacation for the birth of his daughter, only to spend half of it in the hospital. When he returned to work he was exhausted and heartbroken since he’d hardly had a chance to bond with his newborn, and then he wasn’t able to take a single day off for the rest of the year, because he’d used up all of his vacation. Fathers desire the opportunity to bond with their child—just like moms do.
People consistently reported that they felt resentful when they weren’t offered paid leave, and when they had to stress out about not having enough time to adjust to new parenthood. It’s difficult to perform well at work while sleep deprived, worried about finances, or despairing about dropping a three-week-old off at daycare, and this isn’t effective for parents, babies, or employers. Flexible policies like Netflix’s offer parents as much or as little time off as they need, which is ideal, because some parents are ready to return to work sooner than others.
Because modern parents are faced with such a quandary and want to do the right thing, they find themselves trying to justify their decisions. Especially moms repeat mantras like, Well, even though I’m leaving my newborn, going back to work is ultimately good for my baby, because I’m helping to financially support my family. But this doesn’t resonate deep down. How they really feel can be summed up in the words of one mom. “It seems to be a cultural norm that a mother should outrageously sacrifice her time, body, and sanity in order to act as both mother and professional.”
*All names have been omitted to protect privacy.
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