The social media world was in an uproar around Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer’s publicly stated decision to only take a 14 day maternity leave after her upcoming December birth of twins. The biggest backlash seemed to come from outraged people who see her actions as setting a detrimental tone for women in business - and employed females in general - fighting for the right to fair paid maternity leave in the United States.
This situation has brought to light two very interesting and seemingly opposing perspectives that we should all be considering. One: women are consistently under scrutiny both publicly and privately when it comes to decisions about birth, pregnancy and motherhood. Does it help to vilify Mayer for making a decision she feels is best? And two: professional women in powerful positions are scarce, so the few that make it to the top have a significant impact on how other professional women, especially young women, approach a sense of balance between career and motherhood. Should they not be spearheading the movement for change in fair maternity leave?
Amidst all of the excitement, something extremely significant has been overlooked: how does a short maternity leave impact the healthy development of a newborn baby? Long story short – not well and here’s why.
INFANT DEVELOPMENT OUTSIDE OF THE WOMB
It is quite common to believe that gestation for a fetus ends at birth; however, in humans, birth is dictated by the maximum size a fetal head can grow before being too large to pass through the birth canal. Quite beautifully stated, anthropologist Dr. Ashley Montague, who is well known for his pivotal book ‘Touching: The Human Significance of the Skin’, notes that:
“the first year of life requires a great deal of unobtrusive packing for a journey that will continue for the rest of the traveler's life. To perform this packing safely, the infant must possess a brain much larger than 375 to 400 cubic centimeters, but quite clearly he cannot wait until he has grown a brain of 750 cubic centimeters before being born. Hence, he must be born with the maximum-sized brain possible, and do the remainder of his brain growing after birth. Since the human fetus must be born when its brain has reached the limit of size congruent with its admission into and extrusion through the birth canal, such maturation or further development as other mammals complete before birth, the human mammal will have to complete after birth…The biological unity, the symbiotic relationship, maintained by mother and conceptus throughout pregnancy does not cease at birth; indeed, it is naturally designed to become even more intensively functional and mutually involving after birth than during gestation in the uterus.”1
Newborn babies require skin-to-skin connection with their mothers for healthy development. Touch is important and can be administered by anyone, but there is special significance in touch coming from the infant’s biological mother: from the familiar rhythm of a mother’s heartbeat to the mutual health benefits of breastfeeding. The connection between mother and baby extends beyond the womb and “there is need for continuance of close body contact with the mother to satisfy the requirements of the kinesthetic and muscle senses. This requires that the baby be held firmly, nursed at intervals, rocked, stroked, talked to, and reassured”1.
WHAT ABOUT MOM?
When Marissa Mayer stated, “Since my pregnancy has been healthy and uncomplicated and since this is a unique time in Yahoo’s transformation, I plan to approach the pregnancy and delivery as I did with my son three years ago, taking limited time away and working throughout,”2 it made a bold statement about healthy pregnancies and time off: if you have an uncomplicated, healthy pregnancy, you shouldn’t need much of a maternity leave. That is in fact not true.
Studies have shown that there is a direct connection between cases of postpartum depression, increased stress, both personal and family stress, and poor health in women who worked full time with infants as young as 3 months old.3 Maternity leave is more than taking time off work. It is a time for mothers and infants to make important emotional connections and for mothers’ bodies to heal after birth. The National Bureau of Economic Research shared a 2004 study by Pinka Chatterji and Sara Markowitz that explored the possible parallel between mothers who return to work later and better mental and physical health. Here’s what they found: “returning to work later is associated with a reduction in the CES-D scale. This means that mothers who return to work later are reporting fewer symptoms of depression, such as "my sleep was restless" or "I could not get going," or are experiencing such symptoms with less frequency or both.”4
It goes without saying that a healthier, happier mother has a positive impact on her baby’s development. More articles and studies are showing the desperately low amount of maternity leave in the United States compared to virtually every other industrialized country in the world, where “the median amount of fully-paid time off available to a mom for the birth of a child is about five-to-six months…[and] the median amount of protected leave for new mothers among [38 Nations] is about 13 months”5. In the US the amount of protected leave – unpaid – is a mere 12 weeks. The obvious question is…why?
THE ECONOMIC VALUE OF PAID LEAVE
One of the main reasons most companies in the US haven’t tripped over themselves to offer new mothers – or fathers – a paid maternity/paternity leave comparable to other industrialized countries, is the misconception that it will cost too much. According to a recent article in The New York Times, The Economic Benefits of Paid Parental Leave, the three states that actually offer paid parental leave saw no negative results. In fact “89 percent to 99 percent of employers say it has had no effect or a positive one on productivity, profitability, turnover and morale.”6 These results came from a report7 by economists Eileen Appelbaum and Ruth Milkman at the Center for Economic and Policy Research who looked at the benefits of paid leave in California, and also concluded that “Eighty-seven percent [of businesses] say [paid family leave] has not increased costs. Nine percent say they saved money, because of decreased turnover or benefit payments.”6
Paid maternity leave also addresses a larger social and racial issue: in a country where unpaid maternity leave is the only option, it is an option only available to a specific demographic that can afford it. Mothers from lower-income families may have the opportunity to take unpaid maternity leave, but they don’t have the option to take it when it means they are unable to provide vital financial support for their family. Currently in the US, “a record 40 percent of all households with children under the age of 18 include mothers who are either the sole or primary source of income for the family.”8 The result is a disparity between the notion of equal rights and the reality of those rights, for all new mothers in the United States.
In his State of the Union Address, President Obama addressed the need for paid maternity leave in the US: “It’s time we stop treating child care as a side issue or a women’s issue, and treat it like the national economic priority that it is.”6 He went on to explain that paid leave could help increase the amount of women in the work force, which would inevitably help middle-class families earn stable incomes.6
Additionally, women who have a paid maternity leave are more likely to be valuable assets to the economy when returning to work later – from working more hours to earning higher wages. Economists have noted that “with paid leave, more people take time off, particularly low-income parents who may have taken no leave or dropped out of the work force after the birth. Paid leave raises the probability that mothers return to employment later, and then work more hours and earn higher wages. Paid leave does not necessarily help businesses — but it does not seem to hurt them, either.”6
Perhaps the more productive outcome of working mothers who took a paid maternity leave is a result of them having a chance to connect with their babies and to acclimatize to the many changes that accompany the arrival of a new baby. Or it might just be that after going through a birth, their bodies were afforded the time to heal without a looming sense of guilt or financial burden. As Maureen Shaw puts it in her recent article, The painful, hidden hell that awaits mothers who return to work two weeks after giving birth: “For a nation that prides itself on so-called family values, the US has a long way to go in terms of actually supporting its all American families. Guaranteeing paid leave is certainly a step in the right direction. You shouldn’t have to have experienced the physical scars of childbirth to understand why mothers need time to heal.”9 We couldn't agree more.
If you enjoyed this post, the topics covered in the following blog posts may also be of interest to you: 'Entering the New Age of Midwifery', 'Why Water Birth?', and 'Why Do We Use Plastic Cord Clamps?'. Click the post title to view the full article, or scroll through our complete archive of posts by clicking here.
Written By: Samantha Darling for Cascade HealthCare Products
1Dr. Ashley Montagu, Touching: The Human Significance of the Skin, 1978
2Caroline Fairchild, LinkedIn New Economy Editor: How Marissa Mayer's Maternity Decision Affects Young Women -- Whether She Likes It Or Not
3Meredith Melnick, TIME.com: Study: Why Maternity Leave is Important
4The National Bureau of Economic Health: Do Longer Maternity Leaves Affect Maternal Health?
5Gretchen Livingston, Pew Research Center: Among 38 nations, U.S. is the outlier when it comes to paid parental leave
6Claire Cain Miller, The New York Times: The Economic Benefits of Paid Parental Leave
7Eileen Appelbaum and Ruth Milkman, Center for Economic and Policy Research: Leaves That Pay: Employer and Worker Experiences With Paid Family Leave in California
8Mark Memmott, NPR: Moms Are Now Primary Breadwinners In 40 Percent Of Homes
9Maureen Shaw, Quartz: The painful, hidden hell that awaits mothers who return to work two weeks after giving birth