Full Transcript: Jessica Shortall on The American Case for Paid Maternity Leave

July 8, 2016 5:37 am | By More

Strategy consultant and author, Jessica Shortall presents The American Case for Paid Maternity Leave at TEDxSMU event (Transcript).

Same as the TED Talk titled “How America fails new parents and their babies” by Jessica Shortall (Transcript)


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Book(s) by the speaker: Jessica Shortall

Work. Pump. Repeat.: The New Mom’s Survival Guide to Breastfeeding and Going Back to Work


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Jessica Shortall – Strategy consultant and author

What does a working mother look like? If you ask the Internet, this is what you will be told. Never mind that this is what you’ll actually produce if you attempt to work at a computer with a baby on your lap.

But no, this isn’t a working mother. You’ll notice a theme in these photos. We’ll look at a lot of them. That theme is amazing natural lighting, which, as we all know, is the hallmark of every American workplace. There are thousands of images like these. Just put the term “working mother” into any Google image search engine, stock photo site. They’re all over the Internet, they’re topping blog posts and news pieces, and I’ve become kind of obsessed with them and the lie that they tell us and the comfort that they give us, that when it comes to new working motherhood in America, everything’s fine. But it’s not fine.

As a country, we are sending millions of women back to work every year, incredibly and kind of horrifically soon after they give birth. That’s a moral problem but today I’m also going to tell you why it’s an economic problem.

I got so annoyed and obsessed with the unreality of these images, which look nothing like my life, that I recently decided to shoot and star in a parody series of stock photos that I hoped the world would start to use just showing the really awkward reality of going back to work when your baby’s food source is attached to your body.

I’m just going to show you two of them. Nothing says “Give that girl a promotion” like leaking breast milk through your dress during a presentation. You’ll notice that there’s no baby in this photo, because that’s not how this works, not for most working mothers.

Did you know, and this will ruin your day, that every time a toilet is flushed, its contents are aerosolized and they’ll stay airborne for hours? And yet, for many new working mothers, this is the only place during the day that they can find to make food for their newborn babies. I put these things, a whole dozen of them, into the world. I wanted to make a point. I didn’t know what I was also doing was opening a door, because now, total strangers from all walks of life write to me all the time just to tell me what it’s like for them to go back to work within days or weeks of having a baby.

I’m going to share 10 of their stories with you today. They are totally real, some of them are very raw, and not one of them looks anything like this.

Here’s the first. “I was an active duty service member at a federal prison. I returned to work after the maximum allowed eight weeks for my C-section. A male coworker was annoyed that I had been out on ‘vacation,’ so he intentionally opened the door on me while I was pumping breast milk and stood in the doorway with inmates in the hallway.”

Most of the stories that these women, total strangers, send to me now, are not actually even about breastfeeding. A woman wrote to me to say, “I gave birth to twins and went back to work after seven unpaid weeks. Emotionally, I was a wreck. Physically, I had a severe hemorrhage during labor, and major tearing, so I could barely get up, sit or walk. My employer told me I wasn’t allowed to use my available vacation days because it was budget season.”

I’ve come to believe that we can’t look situations like these in the eye because then we’d be horrified, and if we get horrified then we have to do something about it. So we choose to look at, and believe, this image. I don’t really know what’s going on in this picture, because I find it weird and slightly creepy. What is she doing? But I know what it tells us. It tells us that everything’s fine.

This working mother, all working mothers and all of their babies, are fine. There’s nothing to see here. And anyway, women have made a choice, so none of it’s even our problem.

I want to break this choice thing down into two parts. The first choice says that women have chosen to work. So, that’s not true. Today in America, women make up 47% of the workforce, and in 40% of American households a woman is the sole or primary breadwinner. Our paid work is a part, a huge part, of the engine of this economy, and it is essential for the engines of our families. On a national level, our paid work is not optional.

Choice number two says that women are choosing to have babies, so women alone should bear the consequences of those choices. You know, that’s one of those things that when you hear it in passing, can sound correct. I didn’t make you have a baby. I certainly wasn’t there when that happened. But that stance ignores a fundamental truth, which is that our procreation on a national scale is not optional. The babies that women, many of them working women, are having today, will one day fill our workforce, protect our shores, make up our tax base.

Our procreation on a national scale is not optional. These aren’t choices. We need women to work. We need working women to have babies. So we should make doing those things at the same time at least palatable, right?

OK, this is pop quiz time: What percentage of working women in America do you think have no access to paid maternity leave? 88%. 88% of working mothers will not get one minute of paid leave after they have a baby. So now you’re thinking about unpaid leave. It exists in America. It’s called FMLA. It does not work. Because of the way it’s structured, all kinds of exceptions, half of new mothers are ineligible for it.

Here’s what that looks like. “We adopted our son. When I got the call, the day he was born, I had to take off work. I had not been there long enough to qualify for FMLA, so I wasn’t eligible for unpaid leave. When I took time off to meet my newborn son, I lost my job.” These corporate stock photos hide another reality, another layer. Of those who do have access to just that unpaid leave, most women can’t afford to take much of it at all.

A nurse told me, “I didn’t qualify for short-term disability because my pregnancy was considered a preexisting condition. We used up all of our tax returns and half of our savings during my six unpaid weeks. We just couldn’t manage any longer. Physically it was hard, but emotionally it was worse. I struggled for months being away from my son.” So this decision to go back to work so early, it’s a rational economic decision driven by family finances, but it’s often physically horrific because putting a human into the world is messy.

A waitress told me, “With my first baby, I was back at work five weeks postpartum. With my second, I had to have major surgery after giving birth, so I waited until six weeks to go back. I had third degree tears.”

23% of new working mothers in America will be back on the job within two weeks of giving birth. “I worked as a bartender and cook, average of 75 hours a week while pregnant. I had to return to work before my baby was a month old, working 60 hours a week. One of my coworkers was only able to afford 10 days off with her baby.”

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