When my sister was wheeled back from recovery after her C-section, about 40 family members descended on the baby’s incubator in the hallway, while her gurney continued into her hospital suite without fanfare.
This woman, having just been cut open, was overwhelmingly ignored for the “real” star of the day — my brand new nephew. He was miraculous, of course, but when I slipped into her room to check on her, I couldn’t help but marvel at how quickly she’d become secondary to the entire process.
While I don’t doubt that everyone loves her and cares about her well-being, in that moment the clamoring welcoming committee in the hallway revealed it was far too easy to set an exhausted mother aside for the new baby.
Now a mother myself five times over, I can sort of understand.
Babies are, after all, beautiful, brand new — angelic, even. But bringing them into this world is hard work, sometimes requiring major surgery, and mothers need just as much attention after the birthing process.
“By 9 weeks, I was only receiving 40 percent of my salary, and adding in 401K deductions and health insurance, I was only getting 25 percent of my typical pay. I didn’t have a choice but to go back to work.” — Jordan, 25
The average physical recovery time from a vaginal delivery is six to eight weeks, during which time your uterus contracts and goes back to its original size, releasing discharge as it does so.
If you have a C-section delivery, your incision may also take about six weeks to heal. This is just one aspect of physical recovery though. To fully bounce back, full-body healing could take anywhere from six months to a year.
I spoke to seven women who experienced what our country considers sufficient recovery time after birth, which can vary widely among workplaces.
While many are eligible for the 12 weeks of unpaid leave guaranteed by the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), affording unpaid leave is often impossible. And according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 13 percent of private industry workers had access to paid family leave in 2016.
These women’s stories illustrate the shortcomings of a culture where our stories often stop when the baby’s begins.
Going back to work before they’re physically and mentally ready
Katrina didn’t plan on a C-section for her second birth, but she ended up needing an emergency procedure due to birth complications. She used a combination of sick leave and unpaid leave from FMLA to cover her time away from work, but she had to go back when her baby was just 5 weeks old.
Katrina was not ready to leave her baby, nor was her body healed from surgery.
At present, the United States has the worst record on paid maternity leave among developed nations.
Jordan is a first-time mother. At 25 years old, she had an uncomplicated vaginal delivery, although she did experience third-degree tearing. By combining FMLA and sick leave, Jordan was able to stay at home with her baby for nine weeks.
She returned to work because she felt she had no other choice, but admits that while her body may have technically recovered, mentally she was not prepared. Jordan experienced postpartum depression and anxiety.
“By nine weeks, I was only receiving 40 percent of my salary, and adding in 401K deductions and health insurance, I was only getting 25 percent of my typical pay. I didn’t have a choice but to go back to work,” she says.
When Joanna’s first baby was born, she had no options for leave, and so she was only able to stay home for six weeks of unpaid time.
She returned to work without being completely physically healed from the birth. “It was brutal,” she says. “I was constantly exhausted. I’m sure my work suffered because of the ever-present fatigue.”
A 2012 study conducted by the Journal of Mental Health Policy and Economics found that while other industrial countries offer up to a year of paid family leave, in the United States, almost one-third of working mothers return to their jobs within three months of giving birth.
FMLA is unpaid, but even then, only 46 percent of workers are entitled to its benefits. The study also concluded that longer maternity leave positively impacted maternal health.
“I couldn’t afford to stay at home.” — Laticia
Because Rebecca, an adjunct college professor, was technically a part-time employee and therefore not eligible for any form of maternity leave, she returned to the classroom one week after giving birth to her third child.
She says, “I was experiencing debilitating postpartum depression. I dragged myself back into the classroom, where I would regularly experience my husband calling me to say the baby wouldn’t stop crying.”
Sometimes, she would be forced to leave work early, but says that her family couldn’t afford for her to take off a semester, and she also worried that doing so would cost her the position entirely.
Financial pressure to go back to work is also a factor
While Solange felt that 10 weeks was sufficient time for her body to recover from childbirth, she wasn’t otherwise ready to leave her baby and return to work.
She was 40 years old when her first was born, and she had waited a long time to fulfill her dream of becoming a mother. But was only able to use FMLA to stay home for those 10 weeks, and she needed to go back to being paid.
After an emergency C-section, Laticia was only able to stay home for eight weeks. She cobbled together some sick leave and FMLA, but ultimately couldn’t recover for longer. “I couldn’t afford to stay at home,” she says. So just two months after undergoing major surgery, Laticia went back to work.
Those ineligible for any sort of family leave have it harder (nearly 10 percent of the workforce is self-employed). Self-employed mothers are encouraged to “pre-pay” their leave, but if you’re not able to do so, there aren’t many options.
Purchasing short-term disability insurance might be worth exploring, or checking with your employer to see if they offer short-term disability. But for self-employed persons, taking more than the bare minimum of time off to recover from childbirth could result in a loss of business.
Lea, a self-employed woman, only took four weeks off after the birth of her first child, which was not sufficient for her physical healing. “I have no options for family leave,” she says, “and I couldn’t lose my contract.”
Healthy healing is critical for mother and child
While some women may technically be physically healed from birth more quickly than others, returning to work too soon can take an emotional and mental toll on working mothers.
Women are waiting longer to have children for a wide variety of reasons, but based on the experiences of working women, the ability to afford the time off may be a significant factor.
At present, the United States has the worst record on paid maternity leave among developed nations. In Bulgaria, for example, mothers receive almost 59 weeks of paid leave on average.
Babies are miraculous and beautiful, and celebrating their arrival can be exciting for friends and family — but we must also support their primary caregivers through sufficient healing time. When leave is not an option, because a mother-to-be fears losing their position or simply cannot afford to do so, both mothers and children will suffer.
We must do better in this country for both parents and children.
Jenn Morson is a freelance writer living and working outside of Washington, D.C. Her words have been featured in The Washington Post, USA Today, Cosmopolitan, Reader’s Digest, and many other publications.