Strategy consultant and author, Jessica Shortall presents The American Case for Paid Maternity Leave at TEDxSMU event.
Same as the TED Talk titled “How America fails new parents and their babies” by Jessica Shortall
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: The American Case for Paid Maternity Leave by Jessica Shortall at TEDxSMU
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.”
Of course, this isn’t just a scenario with economic and physical implications. Childbirth is, and always will be, an enormous psychological event. A teacher told me, “I returned to work eight weeks after my son was born. I already suffer from anxiety, but the panic attacks I had prior to returning to work were unbearable.” Statistically speaking, the shorter a woman’s leave after having a baby, the more likely she will be to suffer from postpartum mood disorders like depression and anxiety, and among many potential consequences of those disorders, suicide is the second most common cause of death in a woman’s first year postpartum.
Heads up that this next story — I’ve never met this woman, but I find it hard to get through. “I feel tremendous grief and rage that I lost an essential, irreplaceable and formative time with my son. Labor and delivery left me feeling absolutely broken. For months, all I remember is the screaming: colic, they said. On the inside, I was drowning. Every morning, I asked myself how much longer I could do it. I was allowed to bring my baby to work. I closed my office door while I rocked and shushed and begged him to stop screaming so I wouldn’t get in trouble. I hid behind that office door every damn day and cried while he screamed. I cried in the bathroom while I washed out the pump equipment. Every day, I cried all the way to work and all the way home again. I promised my boss that the work I didn’t get done during the day, I’d make up at night from home. I thought, there’s just something wrong with me that I can’t swing this.”
So those are the mothers.
What of the babies? As a country, do we care about the millions of babies born every year to working mothers? I say we don’t, not until they’re of working and tax-paying and military-serving age. We tell them we’ll see them in 18 years, and getting there is kind of on them.
One of the reasons I know this is that babies whose mothers have 12 or more weeks at home with them are more likely to get their vaccinations and their well checks in their first year, so those babies are more protected from deadly and disabling diseases. But those things are hidden behind images like this.
America has a message for new mothers who work and for their babies. Whatever time you get together, you should be grateful for it, and you’re an inconvenience to the economy and to your employers. That narrative of gratitude runs through a lot of the stories I hear. A woman told me, “I went back at eight weeks after my C-section because my husband was out of work. Without me, my daughter had failure to thrive. She wouldn’t take a bottle. She started losing weight. Thankfully, my manager was very understanding. He let my mom bring my baby, who was on oxygen and a monitor, four times a shift so I could nurse her.”
There’s a little club of countries in the world that offer no national paid leave to new mothers. Care to guess who they are? The first eight make up 8 million in total population. They are Papua New Guinea, Suriname and the tiny island nations of Micronesia, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Niue, Palau and Tonga.
Number nine is the United States of America, with 320 million people. Oh, that’s it. That’s the end of the list. Every other economy on the planet has found a way to make some level of national paid leave work for the people doing the work of the future of those countries, but we say, “We couldn’t possibly do that.” We say that the market will solve this problem, and then we cheer when corporations offer even more paid leave to the women who are already the highest-educated and highest-paid among us.
Remember that 88%? Those middle- and low-income women are not going to participate in that. We know that there are staggering economic, financial, physical and emotional costs to this approach. We have decided — decided, not an accident, to pass these costs directly on to working mothers and their babies. We know the price tag is higher for low-income women, therefore disproportionately for women of color. We pass them on anyway. All of this is to America’s shame.
But it’s also to America’s risk. Because what would happen if all of these individual so-called choices to have babies started to turn into individual choices not to have babies. One woman told me, “New motherhood is hard. It shouldn’t be traumatic. When we talk about expanding our family now, we focus on how much time I would have to care for myself and a new baby. If we were to have to do it again the same way as with our first, we might stick with one kid.”
The birthrate needed in America to keep the population stable is 2.1 live births per woman. In America today, we are at 1.86. We need women to have babies, and we are actively disincentivizing working women from doing that.
What would happen to work force, to innovation, to GDP, if one by one, the working mothers of this country were to decide that they can’t bear to do this thing more than once? I’m here today with only one idea worth spreading, and you’ve guessed what it is. It is long since time for the most powerful country on Earth to offer national paid leave to the people doing the work of the future of this country and to the babies who represent that future.
Childbirth is a public good. This leave should be state-subsidized. It should have no exceptions for small businesses, length of employment or entrepreneurs. It should be able to be shared between partners. I’ve talked today a lot about mothers, but co-parents matter on so many levels. Not one more woman should have to go back to work while she is hobbling and bleeding. Not one more family should have to drain their savings account to buy a few days of rest and recovery and bonding.
Not one more fragile infant should have to go directly from the incubator to day care because his parents have used up all of their meager time sitting in the NICU. Not one more working family should be told that the collision of their work, their needed work and their needed parenthood, is their problem alone.
The catch is that when this is happening to a new family, it is consuming, and a family with a new baby is more financially vulnerable than they’ve ever been before, so that new mother cannot afford to speak up on her own behalf. But all of us have voices. I am done, done having babies, and you might be pre-baby, you might be post-baby, you might be no baby. It should not matter. We have to stop framing this as a mother’s issue, or even a women’s issue. This is an American issue.
We need to stop buying the lie that these images tell us. We need to stop being comforted by them. We need to question why we’re told that this can’t work when we see it work everywhere all over the world. We need to recognize that this American reality is to our dishonor and to our peril. Because this is not, this is not, and this is not what a working mother looks like.