As with most posts concerning reproductive justice issues, I tried to balance gender inclusive language with recognition of misogyny as the driving force behind these problems effecting all birth givers.
The United States is one of the only nations in the world to not provide maternity leave to new mothers (or other birth givers). The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 allows for up to twelve weeks of unpaid leave for workers of companies with more than 50 employees, but doesn’t apply to women working for smaller companies, or working for individuals (such as housekeepers), and it doesn’t ensure paid leave.
American mothers on average return to work sooner and in poorer health than our counterparts with ample maternity leave, or else drop out of the traditional paid workforce. When thinking about maternity leave, it’s important to consider just how much impact pregnancy, labor, and delivery can have on the body, and how long it can take to recover. Pediatricians and obstetricians recommend spacing pregnancies two to three years apart for optimal child health, since it can take the maternal body about that long to restore nutrient levels. No country in the world provides leave this long.
One year after pregnancy, maternal energy levels are beginning to rise and there’s a good chance the baby is sleeping several hours at a stretch. Menstruation has probably resumed and a breastfeeding routine may be established. C-section scars will hurt less and most vaginas will have healed, except in cases of birth injury like obstetric fistula. A handful of European nations including the United Kingdom and Sweden guarantee paid maternity leave for a year or more.
Half a year after major abdominal surgery or pushing a human through a cervix, most mothers are still exhausted. Beyond the responsibilities of caring for a newborn, their bodies are still trying to find a new homeostasis. Hormone fluctuations, irregular periods, and torn muscles all wreak havoc. The South American countries of Chile and Venezuela provide half a year of maternity leave.
Three months after pregnancy and delivery, the body has not recovered. Abdominal muscles may still be loose or weak, and urinary incontinence is a likely side effect. Breastmilk supply may stabilize, and painful breast engorgement may begin to cease. Or not. Serious perineum tears may begin healing by this point. Canada, Haiti, and Mexico in North America provide their birthing citizens with 12 to 15 weeks of paid leave.
Six weeks after a vaginal delivery, the cervix has usually closed. Mild perineum tears have started to heal, and stitches can begin to come out. Baths are finally an option without risking serious infection, at last. This is the very earliest vaginal intercourse can be safely resumed after birth, in ideal conditions. Breastfeeding may be going well or still in need of intervention, but involuntary milk letdown is likely. Six weeks after a c-section, you can maybe hold your baby without assistance. Virtually all countries provide this minimum, although the United Arab Emirates offers only 45 days.
And of course in many ways, the body never fully recovers. There is no returning to a pre-pregnancy body after pregnancy, even if pre-pregnancy weight is achieved. Pregnancy changes everything, from the width of your feet to the shape of your eyeballs and no amount of inspirational diet and exercise memes will unring that bell. Pregnancy and labor complications, ranging from pregnancy caused heart disease and diabetes to severe tears the entire length of the perineum may never fully heal.
But we aren’t granted 45 days, nor six weeks, nor six months, nor a year. We aren’t granted a single day away from the drudgery of capitalist labor, and many poorer Americans work right up until they start labor, and go back mere hours or days after it has ended. This isn’t ideal for mothers/birthing parents or for babies, and the United States has infant and maternal mortality rates that reflect this.
Our collective contempt for women and children, our national disdain for social welfare, is killing women (disproportionately black women) and babies (disproportionately poor). Our refusal to recognize the labor in labor is cruel and violent. Our lack of maternity leave is an embarrassment that cries out to be corrected.