Paid Parental Leave Could Have Transformed My Postpartum Experience

When I look back at my last six years, I can’t help but pinpoint very specific events that defined my experience as a mother. Many of these memories are positive: the very first time my newborn fell asleep in my arms. The first time my one-year-old offered me a kiss. The first time my chatty toddler leaned into me and said, “wuv you.”

Then, there are the moments that were less pleasant. The days that were exceptionally hard that I won’t forget because they seemed to change everything.

Like the day when my daughter was just over a month old. I was sitting in bed at 10 PM, trying to get her to nurse, and I was sobbing.

That was the very first day I’d spent more than an hour or two away from my first child.

The previous week, I’d quit the full-time job that I’d expected to return to after my maternity leave. I made the decision after learning they weren’t going to be as flexible as they had promised. Plus, my unpaid maternity leave had already set us so far behind financially that there was no way we could swing the cost of daycare.

But instead of waiting until eight weeks postpartum to return to full-time work, I took the first opportunities I found: a part-time job cleaning, and a weekend gig helping an artist setup and teardown at festivals– both of which required me to start right away. That night I’m recalling, at four weeks postpartum, I’d spent eight hours away from my newborn. As a contract worker, I had no breastfeeding rights, and limited access to my breast pump. By the end of the day, I was engorged and exhausted. Unfortunately, this set the whole tone for the rest of my postpartum season.

I can’t help but wonder how different things would have been if I had not been so pressured to return to work. If I’d been able to take my time recovering.

When I returned to work, things got really difficult. I was in love with being a mom, but I was also exhausted. I’d barely had time to recover from birth and my difficult pregnancy. I was struggling to breastfeed, and it wasn’t long before I found myself dealing with depression. With my schedule, I couldn’t catch up on sleep, and I couldn’t find the time to take care of myself as I adjusted to my life as a mom.

When I read Anne-Marie Slaughter’s piece about how the lack of paid parental leave in the States hurts middle class families, I identified. I know my postpartum story isn’t unique, because plenty of women in my life could tell the same story. They didn’t have access to paid leave, so they returned to work at four, five, or six weeks postpartum. Then, their milk supply suffered and they found themselves in a fog of sleep-deprivation and depression.

Like mine, their entire early motherhood experience was defined by leaving their baby to return to work before they were ready.

Some moms never return to work, which is great for some, but detrimental to others. For me, it took years before I felt like myself again, when I was able to find work that used my talents instead of part-time jobs that allowed me to work when my husband was home. I wondered if this was really what it was like to be a mom — exhausted at home with my babe, and foggy and unfulfilled at work.  

I realize my story could have been much worse. I know there are mothers who work and still can’t make ends meet. I know that we were fortunate to have some help, in the form of grandparents, who pitched in when we needed childcare. Of course, just because things could have been worse, that doesn’t mean that things shouldn’t have been different. To know that my entire postpartum experience, and the experience of countless new mothers, was defined by a lack of support, is downright depressing.

Until our country really values mothers and children as much as they say they do, not just in words but also in policy changes, mine is a story that will continue. Young mothers like me will return to work, exhausted and depressed, long before they’re ready. We can do better.