'We Don't Talk About It': With Maternity Leaves Short, Moms Go Back To Work In Pain

by Valerie Williams
Originally Published: 
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Many moms deal with postpartum pain when they return to work too soon after maternity leave.

Whether it’s a c-section or vaginal birth, having a baby will rock you physically. Some women are incredibly fortunate and bounce back very quickly, healing in a flash. Others take a little while longer, with a weeping incision or a third degree vaginal tear taking time to get back to normal. This still doesn’t take into account the mental and emotional toll of having a baby — suffice to say, the standard 6-week (ahem..and unpaid) maternity leave in America is far from enough for any new mom.

When we talk about the struggles of going back to work too soon after giving birth, it’s often a sentimental argument. Or a logistical one. Women miss their new babies. They have a hard time weaving their pumping schedule into their work day. They have to pay for daycare. They have to go back to work while still getting up every hour or two during the night. While those factors are all undeniable pains in the ass, it’s not often we hear about the fact that so many women are still recovering physically from a vaginal birth or c-section at the 6-week mark.

This doesn’t even take into account adoptive parents and the time they should be given to get to know their child. To take time to absorb their new family life. They may not have the physical toll of giving birth, but there’s often travel involved with an adoption and of course, the time needed to adjust. The emotional journey must be exhausting and deserves leave every bit as much as a mom who gives birth.

Jessica Shortall writes for Refinery29 of this issue, and how along with all the other reasons our country needs a better family medical leave policy, a mother’s physical recovery needs to be considered as well. She says, “We don’t talk about postpartum pain — bleeding, stitches, not being able to stand upright, or easily walk around. We don’t talk about the struggles of early breastfeeding: cracked and bleeding nipples, mastitis, and worries about producing enough milk. We are only beginning to talk about postpartum depression and anxiety.”

Can we get an Amen? How many women go back to work still bleeding from their delivery? WebMD says it “should” last between four and six weeks, but it can definitely last longer. As can the horrific cramping from a new mom’s uterus returning to its pre-pregnant size. A c-section incision can be painful to the touch long after the arbitrary 6-week mark and being forced to wear “real” pants at this stage should be a crime. Yet, we do it. Moms go back to work still bleeding, leaking milk and in pain. Both physical, and emotional. And it’s an absolute disgrace.

The U.S. remains the only developed nation in the world that has no mandated paid leave for new mothers. As Shortall notes, most women get no pay at all during their leave and some return to work a mere two weeks postpartum. This is a shameful statistic for the most powerful country in the world. It’s a sad state of affairs when we treat physically and emotionally vulnerable new mothers this way.

Shortall also points out how hard it is to meet the requirements for our country’s current Family Medical Leave Act eligibility. You have to be at your job for at least a year and that disqualifies half of new mothers automatically. And this is for 12 weeks of unpaid leave. This just guarantees you’ll still have a job when you return at however many weeks postpartum. Possibly, still suffering from vaginal bleeding, having trouble walking or sitting up for long periods and leaking breast milk. How lovely.

Do I have a magical solution? Of course not. This is a complex issue with many sides weighing in. All I know is that I stayed at home when my kids were infants and simply can’t imagine the physical and emotional pain of returning to work so soon after giving birth.

It was hard enough being a recently postpartum woman in my house, let alone out in the world, without my infant, because I had to go back to work. No mother should have to sit at her desk with a pad the size of a phone book stuffed in her underwear. Her clothing irritating her fresh c-section scar. Her vagina still aching from a difficult delivery. It’s wrong on every level.

And this year, we can vote for politicians who give a shit. Let’s make this election year one that speaks for us. As Shortall says, this year, both sides of the aisle are talking about family leave in a meaningful way. Finally. It’s time for change. We can do better for our moms, babies and families.

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