When my first child was born, I had no idea how incredibly taxing and difficult postpartum would be. The truth was, I concentrated heavily on having a good birth – with a detailed birth plan and everything – but paid little attention to what would happen once the baby arrived.
Boy, was I in for a surprise. I was exhausted and depleted – and looking back, I think I developed an untreated case of postpartum anxiety. A lot of this had to do with the fact that I was virtually alone. Sure, I had friends and family willing to help, but they were busy most of the times that I might have needed them. And my husband went back to work soon after my baby was born, leaving me alone for entire days.
With my second son, it was the exact reverse. Instead of concentrating on the birth, I put a lot of time and effort into what was going to happen postpartum. The first requirement? I made my husband take two weeks – unpaid – off of work.
Having my husband around was amazing, and 100% worth it. I literally did nothing for two weeks but rest, breastfeed, and recover. After the two weeks were up, I had so much more energy, I bled for less time, and my mental health was strong.
Since then, I have become a huge advocate for paternity leave (and obviously maternity leave, too!). And that’s why I was really stoked to find a recent study that looked at the effects of paternity leave – not just on dads and babies – but on moms themselves. What the researchers learned is totally fascinating, and really important to consider.
The study was conducted in Sweden, which passed a law in 2012 guaranteeing 30 days of paid paternity leave for all dads. These dads can use the days anytime in the first year after their babies are born, and there is flexibility about when the days can be used.
So, for example, let’s say your wife needs to go to an OB appointment, or develops a wicked mastitis infection, or you baby was up all night puking or crying, dads have the discretion to take off whatever days they are needed at home. Genius.
The results of the study, as you might have guessed, were super positive. It wasn’t just a matter of how helpful and nice these flexible paternity leave days were to moms and families. The researchers found that giving dads paternity leave actually had significant effects on moms’ physical and mental health in the postpartum period.
As The New York Times reports, the researchers – Maya Rossin-Slater and Petra Persson, both economists at Stanford – found that requests for postpartum anxiety medicine decreased by 26% after the law was passed. There was also a decrease in hospitalizations and visits to specialist doctors. The need for antibiotic prescriptions dropped 11% as well.
“A lot of focus has been on what we can do in the hospital immediately following childbirth, but less on mothers’ home environment, which is where the vast majority of women spend most of their postpartum time,” Rossin-Slater explained. “What we’re saying is one important component of that home environment is the presence of the father or another adult caretaker.”
One of the key components of all of this is that there was flexibility in when the dads could take paternity leave. The researchers noted that these days were often used on days when moms needed medical attention. This allowed moms to get preventative care (i.e., getting help with a clogged duct early on so it doesn’t turn into a full-fledged breast infection) and allowed them to keep up with their postnatal appointments so that any medical red flags could be addressed right away.
I imagine that it wasn’t just the actual help that made a difference, but knowing there would be help available should it be needed – the idea that your partner would be an equal player when it came to this whole beautiful mess of being a parent. These things make such a difference. A big difference.
“[E]ven a few days of paternity leave can make a large difference for mothers’ postpartum health,” the Times notes. “The typical father in Sweden took only a couple of extra days. It wasn’t the length that seemed to matter most, but his flexibility to take time when the mother needed it.”
Clearly, we have a long way to go in terms of getting something like this on the ground in America. I mean, we only have seven states that require employers to offer paid leave at all. But we also have major shortcomings when it comes to the mental and physical health of new moms. Maternal mortality has doubled in the U.S. over the past 20 years, for example. Seriously, if now isn’t the time to address these issues, when is?
Giving dads a few extra days to be present, to help and support their spouses, doesn’t really seem like too much to ask. And something like this could have a major impact when it comes to the health and well-being of moms – and, by extension, the whole family unit.