It was my first day of summer break, and I had come down with an awful upper respiratory infection. It was the hubbub of end-of-the-year academic stress, much of the thankless parts of our jobs as teachers. I was also grieving the death of a recently lost beloved colleague that had created the perfect storm of pathogens. I had let my anxiety and depression get the best of me again as it sometimes does, and I was drained physically and emotionally. At least today I had managed to brush my teeth.
In my favorite yellow bathrobe with disheveled hair in a bun and my growing pile of tissues, I sat on the couch in the very spot where I had nursed my two babies so many times before. It took me back to the days of being on maternity leave and the countless hours I’d sit sorely in one place surrounded by coffee, snacks, my Boppy, binge watching Netflix (an exhibition and manifestation of avoidance behavior so I didn’t have to deal with my postpartum anxiety and depression head on). On this day my husband was at work, kids at daycare; so I had a large chunk of time where I only had to worry about myself. A rarity since my first was born.
I decided to finally watch Ali Wong’s second Netflix special which aired Mother’s Day weekend (2018) called Hard Knock Wife. In it there’s a candid part where she says, “This is why we need maternity leave in America…It’s for new moms to hide and heal their demolished-ass bodies!” She goes on to glamorously and flamboyantly describe her escapade with a hippie lactation consultant helping Wong with a clogged duct and the absurdity that ensues. She’s absolutely spot on.
Surprisingly, there’s no federal law in America regarding paid maternity leave, and only four states offer publicly funded paid maternity leave: California, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. Every industrialized country in the world including second and third world countries have paid maternity and paternity leave. According to National Public Radio (NPR) out of 193 countries in the United Nations, only a small handful do not have a national paid parental leave law: New Guinea, Suriname, a few South Pacific island nations and the United States (2016).
This is why women need paid maternity leave in America.
In her raunchy spin on motherhood, Wong shares a story about a visit to her BFF’s, who had just become a new mother. She talks about how her friend had pushed for hours, which resulted in her lady parts being inflated, swollen, and “looking like two dicks” postpartum.
“You see, this is why women need maternity leave! Yeah, you’d better pay our ass[es], too. My friend couldn’t go back to work with her meat curtains dragging on the floor like the train of a sad-ass wedding dress. You can’t litigate like that. Ain’t no Spanx gonna tuck that shit in” (Wong).
Nobody tells you that after you give birth, you have what feels like a massive bowling ball between your thighs, which makes you waddle all bow-legged for weeks; or that both you and your new newborn baby have to wear diapers together. Mother-baby bonding that we already have something in common from the get go. Nobody tells you that after you have a baby, it feels like pissing and shitting razor blades and rocks for a week because your hormones are crazy and sweet beloved baby mangled your lady bits and pink parts like a Freddy Krueger film.
Nobody tells you that your new look is a sudden transformation into a homeless looking haggard with a greasy bun on the top of your head sporting chapped, calloused, red, now-fingertip-like nipples like an emotionally drained mama macaque who permanently has a baby monkey at her tit.
Nobody tells you that you’ll need many weeks to recover from your mangled, stretched out, swollen, leaky, bleeding body that feels foreign to you now. Every possible fathomable fluid known to humans is secreted from every orifice. Nobody tells you that one of the kinds of fluids just might be urine and not the baby’s but our own. Like the time you squatted to transfer the laundry and pissed your very own pants. You don’t even notice until you look down to see a warm pool of it at my own still-swollen feet. Of course you try to blamed the dog! Speaking of, dog breeders recommend 8 weeks of mother-pup bonding time before separation. Is it moral or ethical that many new mothers are forced to return to work full time by six weeks, sometimes sooner? Postpartum healing (especially to look as good as we do) is not magic. It takes months. This is why we need paid maternity leave in America.
Nobody tells you that after your first born you might burst out crying for seemingly no reason because the first three weeks after giving birth feels like one giant long, endless day. Everything blends together and your life becomes a merry-go-round of abiding diapers, breastfeeding, and carrying until your arms are numb. It’s that sleep deprivation that pushes you over the edge– like Chinese water torture or some sick government experiment. How long can you survive without (REM) sleep until hallucinations? You can literally feel parts of your brain dying with aging face and burning eyes. It’s like a perpetual feeling of being hungover.
The sense of tiredness that resulted from all nighters and binge rager weekends during your college years don’t have shit on the kind of chronic sleep deprivation that is now parenting. This is why we need paid maternity leave in America.
Nobody tells you that you will need ample time to recover from chronic sleep deprivation and debilitating bouts of postpartum anxiety (PPA) and postpartum depression (PPD) without the social shame and judgment attached–The dangerously dark thoughts you don’t dare share with others because they’ll think you’re severely mentally ill, like joking about throwing your baby in the dumpster when she won’t stop screaming and you haven’t slept in 3 days; the never-ending to do list of pressures that unceasingly ruminate and swirl in your mind; the uncontrollably bawling fits on the bathroom floor alone (or in the shower, not because of the good acoustics but because it’s the only place in the whole house that you can be left alone momentarily) can be all-consuming. On the rare occasion when you’re on the toilet with the door shut, even the cat and dogs try to push their way in. Whether they are furry little paws or tiny hands grasping underneath the door and calling for you, it’s like a scene from a black humor, post-apocalyptic zombie movie like Zombieland.
Nobody tells you that the first week of returning back to work, you might well up with tears in front of your professional colleagues when they ask how your new beautiful baby is because you have awful separation anxiety. Nobody tells you that you just might become engorged if you can’t pump every 4 hours and start leaking milk during the work day (because your schedule’s so tight you don’t even have a chance to pee until noon). You can’t assertively command a classroom of high school students and facilitate team meetings of other professional educators with perfectly round, dark wet spots on your shirt where your nipples should be! Who’s going to take you seriously?
And nobody tells you that might have a serious case of carpal tunnel and wrestle a wrist brace while you’re squirting liquid gold out of 5 holes per nip of course, while your pumping and someone calls your classroom and hears the unmistakable sound of an electric pump that all mothers know and hear in their nightmares; you forget that your classroom phone is set on speaker, and the person who rings calls out, “Hello? Hello? Is that a dog panting in your classroom? Lan, what’s that sound?” as you scramble to turn off the pump, dumping some precious milk in the process, which are absorbed by your students’ vocab quizzes faster than a Shamwow towel. You say aloud that you’ll call them back momentarily while trying to hold tears back. Whoever said “don’t cry over spilled milk” definitely was not a new mom. This is why we need paid maternity leave in America.
Luckily, I have had the privilege of being able to take off a few months time (half unpaid) because I have a career which offers benefits. Most new parents aren’t so fortunate. But as implied in the namesake itself, maternity leave should not be a “benefit.” So many American mothers are just one health issue, one lob loss away from grave circumstances.
And what about dads or partners? They need time off too — not to bond with the baby. Screw that. Moms need help! When mama isn’t happy, nobody’s happy. Ok. Bonding with baby is imperative; obvi, that’s a given. But honestly, it should be seen as equally essential for mom’s physical and mental health and healing to have support during the postpartum period, so we can be functional people again.
For the birth of each of my babies, my husband got one 8 hour day paid. One day! How insulting. Spouses need time; families need time. Together. This country touts family values but our policies are not reflective of such, and it’s shameful.
It is evident that Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) laws were dictated by men because if women were in charge, we would have joined the rest of the industrialized world and have guaranteed leave by now. Paid leave should be a right for the betterment of the new mother, baby, family unit, society, and the economy at large. Until then, women will continue returning back to work ill-prepared, vulnerable, and enervated instead of feeling ready and willing to fearlessly take on life’s challenges (with pump in hand). This is why we need paid maternity leave in America.