The Connection Between Maternity Leave and Mental Health

A mother's well-being is key to ensuring healthy outcomes, and quality maternity leave is a fundamental piece of women's mental health.
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Pregnant Japanese businesswoman using computer
Pregnant Japanese businesswoman using computer

Maternity leave policies tell an intimate story about how societies prioritize families. And right now in the United States, our meager policy tells a bleak tale: Starting a family is not valuable because it is interruptive and expensive. We face an impossible juggling act -- we know the incredible effort needed to excel at work, and we also know children and families thrive when a mother is supported.

But for now, families shoulder the burden of navigating work and home. After decades of progress for women in the workplace, it's time to break through this next ceiling and build a better framework for ourselves, our children, and ultimately, our country.

As working mothers, there's always been an unspoken sense that we need to "buckle down" and prove that having a child will not affect our productivity at work. In a sense, we have had to ignore the fact that we are women and either sacrifice our childbearing years or accept that they are going to be very hard.

Today we have some protections, but they're largely inadequate. The passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act in 1993 secured 12 weeks of unpaid leave to new parents who work for companies that employ at least 50 people.

Trouble is, 40 percent of the workforce is employed by companies too small to be required to meet the mandate. And for many mothers in the remaining 60 percent, 12 weeks of unpaid leave is financially difficult, if not impossible. Even for those who are eligible for leave under the FMLA and can afford to take it, that doesn't eliminate the concern that doing so will negatively impact future career prospects, wages, and the ability to advance.

Putting all those caveats aside, 12 weeks is a drop in the bucket. British research has shown that it takes women a full year to recover psychologically from the upheaval of bringing a child into the world. Fortunately for British women, they are offered up to 39 paid weeks off to adjust to this tremendous life transition.

In the United States, without such accommodation, more than 43 percent of women leave the workforce for some period of time -- in part because it is too difficult to stay.

Our female forerunners bore the brunt, and our abundant opportunities are the proof -- we have them because these women proved that women's contributions to the workplace were just as valuable as men's. But this came with sacrifices. These women had to consider both the bigger picture and the generations of women yet to come. The conversation could not turn to maternity leave, let alone paid maternity leave, until women were treated equally and the foundations for a better future had been laid. Unfortunately, at some point the conversation stalled, but it is now our privilege to take up the mantle.

And our timing is critical. We now know that women who return to work prior to six months after giving birth are at greater risk for postpartum depression. In contrast, longer maternity leave leads to better mental health for mothers and prolonged breastfeeding for children (closer to the one year recommendation of the American Academy of Pediatrics).

Research also demonstrates that the quality of the relationship between mother and child predicts long-term outcomes from physical and mental health to the development of learning disabilities, impulsivity, and productivity later in life.

A mother's well-being is key to ensuring healthy outcomes, and quality maternity leave is a fundamental piece of women's mental health. We have already seen birth outcomes improve after the implementation of the FMLA. And research now shows that as the length of leave increases, infant mortality rates decline: With 10 weeks of maternity leave, infant mortality rates drop between 1 and 2 percent, and 30 weeks of leave produces a dramatic 7 to 9 percent reduction in infant mortality. So why would we not try to prevent poor outcomes?

We have a great deal to do, starting with supporting the Obama Administration's proposal for paid parental leave as a model for caring for mothers and families. By advancing up to six weeks paid leave to federal employees with a new child, and by urging Congress to pass legislation providing parents an additional six weeks of paid administrative leave, the United States can again be the model our forerunners dreamed it could be.

The psychological and economic benefits to mothers and ultimately families are indisputable for ourselves, our children and our country. We are good mothers. We are good workers. And we, and our families, deserve good support.

This article originally ran on the Seleni Institute website and is reprinted here with permission. Seleni is a nonprofit organization providing clinical care, research funding, and information to transform mental health care and wellness for women.

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