I moved to the US from Canada 5 years ago, long before I considered becoming a mother. I relocated to complete a Fellowship in Adolescent Medicine. Since that time, I married and am now expecting my first child. On the eve of my daughter’s birth, I am reflecting on the experience of prenatal care in this country. After educating myself on the current leave laws, I am left comparing what happens in Canada to what happens in the US. The differences have far-reaching and potentially lifelong impacts on mothers, and their children. I am concerned on a personal level about how these differences will affect me following the birth of my child and the impact they may have on my daughter.
The US government offers abysmal leave benefits to new working mothers compared to Canada, which needs to change.
One entity distributes parental leave benefits to families in Canada through the federal government. These benefits are divided into maternity benefits and parental benefits that can be combined and used for both parents. The maximum amount of time that each pregnancy is allotted is 76 weeks of leave (17 months) where these benefits will pay up to $595 per week for the duration of this time. The federal government requires employers to reinstate employees to their previous roles at the same rate of pay upon their return.
By contrast, the US has no uniform entity for the application of leave benefits, nor is there a federal mandate requiring paid parental leave. The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) requires up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for certain medical conditions, including a baby’s birth. This means some mothers in this country will need to return to work before they want to due to financial reasons. Additionally, many mothers in this country do not have income or job protection following the birth of a baby.
Recently, state troopers in Boston have sued their employers for violations of the FMLA rules. Despite this law, troopers who have taken time off for the birth of a child have faced career repercussions. Troopers report they have lost their seniority, which impacts shift picks, work locations, vacations, and retirement. This further demonstrates how new parents are not being given the time they are entitled to adapt to their newborn babies.
Navigating my leave, I have to file paperwork through 4 organizations, to receive part of my monthly salary. This has left me feeling confused and unsure if I have done things correctly, and if I will get paid. I also have to predict when I may return to work, a question that has been asked of me at every level of this process. Having never given birth before I find this question disarming; I worry about being back at work before my body is fully healed. I am so conflicted as I want to take the time required to recover, and bond with my baby before returning to the workforce. Stories like those of the state troopers make me very apprehensive about returning to my job, and concerned about the repercussions of being on leave.
I am navigating the challenges of pregnancy – the physical discomfort, and the anxiety about childbirth in addition to the uncertainty of job security and if I will be ready to return to work when I am required to do so. This additional stress feels unhealthy to me, as I should be focusing my energy on preparing to meet my daughter.
Better outcomes for both mother and child would be achieved with maternity leave that provides babies the opportunity to bond with their mothers, and mothers the opportunity to heal. The benefits of maternal-child bonding in the first 6 months of life have unrefuted benefits for both baby and mother. These include a lower risk of diabetes, asthma, obesity, certain cancers, and high blood pressure.
The CDC reports that a weakened heart muscle (cardiomyopathy) is the leading cause of death in women one month to one year following the birth of a child. Ensuring mothers have ample time to recover from childbirth and be appropriately monitored could decrease this risk.
Parental attachment is the relationship between parent and child, which allows the child to feel safe, protected, and secure. Poor parental attachment can lead to behavioral problems, like ADHD or conduct disorder later in life. Children who do not have a secure attachment early in life can also have difficulty forming healthy relationships as they grow up.
Mothers need to be provided adequate time to adapt to motherhood. This will have far-reaching and positive lifelong impacts on mothers and their children. As my daughter grows up, I hope to see a shift in maternal benefits that reflect the importance of proper maternal child care.
Leah Wilson, MS, practices primary care medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. She is a Public Voices Fellow with the OpEd Project.