Our Bodies and Our Babies Call for a Year-Long Maternity Leave
Biological Imperative for Paid Parental Leave
“There is no such thing as a baby; there is a baby and someone.” D. Winnicott
Before I had my baby I assumed I would go back to work. I had always thought of myself as someone who was committed to developing and sustaining a professional life and I didn’t waiver in thinking that even after I got pregnant.
I did leave myself a few clues that maybe this wasn’t going to be the case. Like when I thought about a 12-week maternity leave I’d lament to friends or family how it felt too short to heal, bond with a baby, and transition back into work life. I’d read about European laws that offered paid maternity leave and job protection and wish I lived somewhere else.
I knew I was ‘lucky’ to even have 12 weeks at home with my baby; compared to what most women get 12 weeks is a dream, but even that felt fast, a challenge to any mother. Ultimately, I thought that the financial security of returning to satisfying work would outweigh the feelings of missing my infant. Because that was what I believed - that returning to work would be difficult solely because I would miss my baby. I assumed that if 70% of mothers manage to cope with 12 weeks or less of maternity leave, I could too.
It never crossed my mind to question why 12 weeks was selected as the cut-off for when mothers should return to work. I never wondered whether it was biologically appropriate to ask mothers and infants to fit into the mold defined by maternity leave. I didn’t consider how the need for financial and occupational security and the need for healthy, secure families--two survival instincts--would be pitted against each other when it came time to return to work. Slowly, I began conceptualizing that the difficulty in returning to work wasn’t only about missing my baby, but about asking my daughter’s innate biology to adapt in a way I wasn’t sure was appropriate.
At five weeks postpartum, I began to understand that something more fundamental was going on between my daughter and me. Leaving my daughter for work wasn’t about an early lesson in separation. This 12 week artificially imposed timeline was cutting short the physiological interdependence that began at conception and continues well beyond birth. Maternity leave times in the U.S are even less for many mothers; some women go back to work 10 days after delivering because they have to.
Maternity leave is supposed to be a protection for mothers and children, but infant and parent biology are not the core considerations for the length of time allowed. Although there is mounting evidence that mothers and infants greatly benefit from more time together, our country hasn’t adjusted our stance or leave time since the implementation of FMLA in the 1990’s. As a midwife and lactation consultant, I fully understand the benefits of a longer maternity leave. I’ve read the studies that prove an extended maternity leave results in a longer duration of breastfeeding. I’ve seen that six months of exclusive breastfeeding results in less illness for babies. It makes sense that a decrease in childhood illness results in fewer parental sick days and a reduction in pediatric visits. We have scientific data to support a longer maternity leave, but somehow, even as a midwife and lactation consultant, the message between what is biologically normal and what is culturally expected for infant and maternal adaptation, was blurred.
Our evolutionary design supports close contact with our infants for the first year of life to assure their physical survival and emotional well-being. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends 60 minutes of uninterrupted skin to skin contact for the first 12 weeks of life and beyond to help infants regulate themselves physiologically. A number of studies have found longer maternity leaves fosters the mother-baby attachment, reduces postpartum depression, and provides mental health benefits to women later on in life.
Our evolutionary design tells us infants need more care in the first year of life compared to other mammals. Human infants are the most helpless mammals when born and continue to gestate outside the womb, a term known as exterogestation. Human infants are born with only 25% of their brain volume--a compromise in natural selection to ensure infants survive childbirth due to the narrowing of the female pelvis when humans became bipedal. Due to this accommodation, some scientists believe that the environmental conditions after birth should mimic those within the womb as much as possible until infants begin to crawl, around nine months of age.
James McKenna, an anthropologist at the University of Notre Dame, states: “An astonishing 75% of human brain growth occurs postnatally. As a consequence of its immaturity, the human infant is forced to rely on a significant amount of external regulation and support, especially at the beginning of life. The extent to which, on a minute-by-minute basis, the infant’s most fundamental physiology, such as heart rate, body temperature, breathing, sleep and arousal, are influenced by a caregiver constitutes one of the most important discoveries made during the last twenty years. In our enthusiasm to view the infant as the clearly competent organism it is, we have pushed too far the notion of the infant’s physiological independence from the caregiver, thereby confusing its preparedness to adapt with actual adaptation, taken here to mean the assumption of the infant’s physiological autonomy at much too early an age in development.”
If we know babies continue to gestate outside the womb and rely on their mother to help regulate their bodies, then why are we asking mothers to return to work when their infant is so immature? When I realized an infant’s brain volume doubles in size during the first year of life, it made me pause and reconsider who should be caring for my daughter during a time of such rapid growth. There will be no other time in life where the rate of brain growth occurs this quickly.
If an infant is psychologically and physiologically dependent on the mother to help develop and mature the body systems during the first year of life, shouldn’t we have policies in our country that foster and protect them during such a vulnerable period? Why don’t we have a family leave act that matches our understanding of our biology when we know there are positive implications on attachment, mental and physical health for the mother and the infant when a longer maternity leave is available?
Our lives now are extraordinarily different from our origins in Africa 2-5 million years ago. Although we’ve evolved since that time, maternal and infant biology has not been able to change as quickly. Culture has evolved faster than our biology. The question then becomes what aspects of our biology should we honor to provide optimal care for mothers and infants in a culture that is often discordant from our genetic makeup?Why can't we have at least a year to care for our babies and return to our professional life after our infants adjust to life outside the womb? I think we deserve this option. Our biology is begging us to slow down for a minute, offering itself as a guide in how to transition into parenthood, in how to connect with our kids, yet our political leaders and corporations are saying, “who cares”. Instead of fitting the mold laid out to us by an arbitrary timeline, maybe we jump ship and demand another (paid) option.
“Furious times call for furious dancing”- Toni Morrison
(I recognize that for some parents, a year away from work is unnecessary or even impossible. I don’t intend condemnation for any parents who return to work sooner rather than later. For the sake of clarity, this article will call the primary caregiver the “mother.” However, “mother” here refers to any parent caring for their infant.)