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Paid leave is back on the table. Working moms share why it’s so desperately needed

November 3, 2021, 5:16 PM UTC

“I was like a zombie.” That’s Bethany Fauteux, age 38, remembering what it was like to go back to work three weeks after delivering her son via C-section in 2013. “I don’t know how I got through.”

The father of Fauteux’s baby left her right before her son was born. Rent was due, so was an electric bill, and she didn’t have much time to plan or save. So she returned to work earlier than anticipated at a childcare center, for kids two-and-a-half and older, in Massachusetts where she earned minimum wage. Friends and friends of friends pitched in to watch her newborn. “Whoever I could get,” she said. “He had no consistent adult with him.”

Fauteux said she felt ashamed that she couldn’t figure out a better way, blaming herself for not having the resources to look after her son. He deserved better. “This is how he started off life,” said Fauteux, who is now a paid leave activist. “It’s unfair right out of the gate.”

The U.S. might be inching toward a less painful scenario for moms. Paid leave has been on a roller coaster lately. Wednesday morning, House Democrats announced they were adding a proposal for four weeks paid family and medical leave into their reconciliation bill. This was a huge surprise. Just last week the policy was dropped from the Build Back Better proposal, technically due to the objections of Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), a 74-year-old man who never had to figure out how to breastfeed an infant—or keep his C-section scars from opening back up—when returning to work too soon after giving birth.

The leave policy cover not only new parents, but those who need time off for medical reasons or to care for ill loved ones. But for this newsletter today, I’d like to keep the focus on maternity leave specifically, and leave the important paternity leave and adoptive leave talk for another time. 

The U.S. is the only industrialized nation that doesn’t offer paid maternity leave. This is absurd. Here are the other countries that don’t do paid maternity leave, from the New York Times: Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, Papua New Guinea and Tonga. In Europe almost every country gives at least six months, with many offering up to a year.

This puts women in the U.S. in an impossible bind. You physically need to take time off to recover after giving birth. Your infant needs you in a very serious life or death way, too. But most women also need their jobs. Two-thirds of mothers are either the sole or co-breadwinner for their family, according to an analysis from the Center for American Progress. Most families don’t have months of earnings saved up. And even if they do, you’ll still need a job once that money runs out.

This all amounts to a public health crisis that Americans think is normal. One in four women are back to work within four weeks of having a child, according to one analysis from 2015, putting their own health and the health of their infant at risk. In one study from 2000, an extension in paid leave in European countries was associated with 20 percent reduction in infant deaths. Meanwhile, maternal mortality is higher in the U.S. than in many other high-income countries — in part due to the lack of support for new mothers.

Stories poured in on Instagram and Twitter last week, from women sharing how they managed to have children without access to leave. Activists and lawmakers also drew loads of attention to the issue.

“When I took my first assignment at 3 weeks postpartum, milk leaked through my clothes. I was just barely getting the hang of breastfeeding and pumping. I needed more time to learn how to feed and keep a small human alive,” one woman shared on Instagram.

Even women with good paying white collar jobs struggle to figure this out. I asked women to share their stories on Twitter last week. Many said they were “lucky” because they were able to cobble together some vacation pay and sick leave, and take a few weeks off.

“I had to take two weeks vacation and got 6 weeks disability at 60% pay. I took another two weeks unpaid, which I had to negotiate for since I wasn’t protected,” reads one tweet.

“Took 6 weeks leave without pay, logged back on to work while still bleeding and in a c-section binder,” one woman messaged me.

A lot of women just quit their jobs. “We were in serious debt for years,” one woman tweeted.

Some women wrote about using up all their retirement savings to afford time off. This helps explain why there’s a gender gap in retirement savings in the U.S.

Of course, it’s not just women who suffer without paid leave. Fauteux said her son, now eight years old, has a good deal of separation anxiety to this day. “He needs to know where the people he loves are, all the time,” she said. There’s no other major reason he’d be that way, she said. “In my mind it has to be, he was programmed that way from birth because of the situation we were in.”

Paid leave activists were thrilled to get the policy back in the bill, said Vicki Shabo, a senior fellow for paid leave policy at New America. She attributed the last-minute change to the work of lawmakers committed to leave, including Sen. Patty Murray and Rep. Rosa DeLauro.

I texted Dawn Huckelbridge, director of the advocacy group Paid Leave for All on Wednesday morning to ask about the news. Last week she told me, “No one is giving up” on leave. Today she just wrote, “crying.” 

Emily Peck

emily.peck@consultant.fortune.com

Visit Fortune’SmarterWorking Hub. And read more here:

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