Maternity Leave: How Much Is Enough?

In a recent article on Slate, Sharon Lerner discusses the variations in length of maternity leave and the ensuing effect on moms and babies. In the United States, the standard time off is as little as four weeks and a maximum of 12 weeks, often unpaid. Most of my working mom friends were back in the office at six weeks. In Europe, the standard paid leave is six months, with many countries granting up to three years off.

For those of you who have experienced life as a new mom, the first couple of months after birth are hectic. I look back on the first few weeks of life with my three children and it's a blur, I'm sure due to the severe sleep deprivation. As Lerner says:

Let's take a moment to think about what's going on just four weeks after birth. Babies haven't even cracked their first real smiles yet. Mothers are still physically recovering from birth, particularly if they've had C-sections. They're both probably getting up several times during the night to nurse. In fact, they've barely begun what's supposed to be half a year of exclusive breast-feeding, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Beyond sleep deprivation, new research suggests that too short of a maternity leave can have detrimental health effects on moms and babies, including "developmental delays, sickness, and even death." However, too long leave (beyond 40 weeks) is linked with "an economic and professional downside for women, and at best a neutral effect on children."

For some, this new piece of evidence will be seen as just another item to tack onto the ever-growing list of "mommy guilt." The reality is, maternity leave usually isn't something that women can change. Financial constraints force women with unpaid leave to go back to work sooner in order to collect a paycheck.

But perhaps, as evidence mounts, we will reach a tipping point that changes maternity leave standards in the United States. Perhaps, employers will begin to see the link between shorter maternity leave and increased absences due to child illnesses:

Checkups can help diagnose and treat illnesses, but they are hard to schedule when you're working. And while exclusive breast-feeding for at least six months has been shown to prevent respiratory infections, bacterial meningitis, and other illnesses, going back to work can make it difficult if not impossible.

What was your maternity leave like? How long did you take off? Was it paid? How did you feel -- physically and emotionally -- upon going back to work? Do you feel like you had enough time off or did you wish for more? What, if anything, would you do differently with your next child?


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