This morning, as I was quietly sipping my morning coffee and catching up on the local news before I started on my tasks for the day an article in the Lowell Sun caught my eye. The title was “Jeanne D’Arc Allows Parents to Return to Work With Infants.” Say what?? This is really interesting!
In case you aren’t aware, according to Forbes, the United States is dead last among developed nations for paid maternity leave. With the implementation of the 1993 Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) certain employees are given 12 weeks of UNPAID maternity leave, but there are certain stipulations in place. For example, the FMLA is not an option to those people who have been with a company for less than a year or whose company has fewer than 50 employees. Roughly 40% of Americans fall into this category. That’s a HUGE number. I was one of those employees who didn’t qualify for the FMLA back in 2011 when I was pregnant with my first. Working for a small, family-owned business I had to save up enough money to cover my bills while I was out on maternity leave and even then it was EXTREMELY tight. I worked my butt off picking up extra hours right up to the 40-week mark and I returned to work just shy of 7 weeks postpartum. Imagine the person who lives on a single income, or check-to-check, and isn’t able to save up enough money to cover their expenses while they are out on leave. Where does that leave them? As a doula, I see this struggle over and over again when I meet with families for our prenatal visits. The partner doesn’t get paid leave at all. The mom only gets some paid leave and then it’s back to work. Then, they need to find a daycare that isn’t going to cost them their entire weekly paychecks (good luck with finding that here in the good ol’ Boston area!)
Enter the Infants at Work program. The self-described goals of this program are to get employees back to work sooner and help “increase employee retention” among others. Companies who are implementing these programs are encouraging employees to bring their infants to work for up to 6 months of age or when they start crawling, whichever comes first. Companies such as Jeanne D’Arc Credit Union, a Lowell-based credit union with branches spread throughout the Merrimack Valley, are providing these infants with bassinets to sleep in while their parent works, as well as a quiet room where they can take their babies if they are being fussy. Sounds pretty amazing right? And it is. This is an amazing opportunity for those people who need to return to work sooner, for one reason or another; providing the employer can make it work in a sensible way. However, while the program itself is great the concept has some pros and cons.
On the plus side, we know that attachment between caregivers and infants is hugely important for a baby’s emotional, physical & psychological development. Babies are hardwired to be in close proximity to their caregiver. According to Attachment Parenting International, the need to be near a consistent, loving caregiver, ideally a parent, is intense and innate. Studies have shown that routine separation (more than 20 hours per week) from this caregiver can have negative effects on a baby’s emotional and physical development. Now, hold your horses. Don’t get upset by that sentence. For those of you who have used daycare with an older child or plan to do so with a new baby, I KNOW that sounds crappy to hear. Let’s be real, these days it’s commonplace for both parents to work outside of the home. It’s necessary even. Whether you need to leave your baby to go back to work due to finances or the simple fact that you love to work, please don’t feel guilty, mama. I get it, I really do. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to have a family and a career. There are ways to foster a deep and meaningful relationship with your little one while still going to work every day so no worries. After all, that’s what this article is actually about isn’t it? The Parenting in the Workplace Institute is driving these initiatives to set parents up for success in both parenting AND career. With these programs in place, you can have your cake and eat it too. Go to work. Bring your baby for the first 6 months. Develop the strong parent-child relationship you need and want. Feed the baby on demand and not by a schedule. It’s certainly a step up from what most parents in America have to do.
My main concern here is the psychological impact returning to work too soon can have on a new parent. It seems as though the whole concept is based on the idea of getting moms back to work sooner postpartum. Statistically speaking, roughly 15% of new mothers suffer from postpartum depression but realistically that number is much, much higher. That number only reflects reported cases of PPD (there are MANY cases that are not reported) and does not include other forms of postpartum mood disorders such as anxiety and OCD. How will a return to the daily stressors and demands of work affect these new mothers? Not only that but physiologically women need time to heal their bodies after the physical stress of birthing a baby, especially if a cesarean birth took place. Ideally, you should be resting, eating nourishing food, being well-cared for, and settling into the role of new motherhood. When a woman’s body is allowed to heal fully after birth it decreases her chances of having prolonged postpartum bleeding, anemia and postpartum mood disorders due to hormonal disruptions. What women really need is time. Time with their babies. Time with their partners. Time to themselves.
The Infants at Work program is a Band-Aid slapped on a bigger problem. Yes, it allows parents to remain with their babies for longer. Yes, it allows them to still focus on their careers while nurturing a healthy parent-child relationship. Yes, these are all incredibly important things. But the fact of the matter is, the maternity leave system is broken in this country. Hell, the whole maternity care system is broken but that’s a post for a different day. As I stated previously, the U.S. is woefully behind. Countries such as Sweden, which have a gold-standard maternity leave system, allow up to 480 days of PAID maternity leave, which can be split between both parents. How amazing would it be to have the time to really settle into what it means to be a parent? To allow your body to heal? To get to know this new little person day in and day out? To feel secure knowing that you can take this extended time while your hard-earned career remains stable and ready for your return? To FEEL FINANCIALLY SOUND? To spend time with your partner as you settle into this new life? How amazing would that be? Because let’s face it, having a baby sends shockwaves through your life. It shakes up everything you ever thought you knew. As a parent, you deserve to have plenty of time to get used to your new normal without the added stress of having to get a baby off to daycare every day. So while I applaud these companies for their efforts to set parents up for success among the pieces of a broken system, I’d like to see the whole country do better. Really. Sweden-style.