moms and babies

1 in 4 mothers in the US return to work within two weeks of childbirth

By now, you’re probably all well-versed in the US’s abysmal maternity leave policies. We know that this country is one of the only in the world without guaranteed paid parental leave, and that consequently only 13 percent of US workers have access to any paid family leave.

So what, exactly, do American mothers do after they give birth? In a new investigation published in In These Times magazine, Sharon Lerner analyzes some recent data that shows just how quickly many of us are forced to return to work after pushing a small human out of our bodies.

Census data on employment patterns among first-time mothers show that between 2005 and 2007, more than half who worked during their pregnancy were back on the job within three months of giving birth. A 2008 study by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Maternal and Child Health Bureau, meanwhile, found that the average length of maternity leave, when taken, was 10 weeks. But more recent data is scarce, even though the recession left many women living on razorthin margins, ratcheting up the pressure to rush back to work after giving birth.

How are new mothers faring in today’s age of austerity? Data analyzed for In These Times by Abt Associates, a research and evaluation company, provides a window into these experiences. Abt went back to a 2012 survey it conducted for the Department of Labor of 2,852 employees who had taken family or medical leave in the last year, looking specifically at the 93 women who took time off work to care for a new baby.

Nearly 12 percent of those women took off only a week or less. Another 11 percent took between one and two weeks off. That means that about 23 percent—nearly 1 in 4—of the women interviewed were back at work within two weeks of having a child.

The educational divide between those who took shorter and relatively longer leaves is striking: 80 percent of college graduates took at least six weeks off to care for a new baby, but only 54 percent of women without college degrees did so.

As Lerner points out, those on the lower end of the economic spectrum are less likely to have access to paid leave — only 1 in 20 workers in the bottom quartile have it, compared to more than 1 in 5 of the top 10 percent of earners. And the poor usually have fewer other options to fall back on — fewer sick days and vacation days they can cobble together; less ability to just accept unpaid leave. “Without adequate options or support, low-income workers, who are more likely to live paycheck to paycheck and less likely to have access to any type of leave, often have little choice but to power through. Often, that means not just going back to work early, but going back to work very long work hours, very early.”

The consequences of this include higher rates of mental and physical health problems for both mothers and babies — from depression to infant mortality. How ’bout them family values?

Header image credit: Kate Milford/In These Times

St. Paul, MN

Maya Dusenbery is executive director in charge of editorial at Feministing. She is the author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick (HarperOne, March 2018). She has been a fellow at Mother Jones magazine and a columnist at Pacific Standard magazine. Her work has appeared in publications like,, Bitch Magazine, as well as the anthology The Feminist Utopia Project. Before become a full-time journalist, she worked at the National Institute for Reproductive Health. A Minnesota native, she received her B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. After living in Brooklyn, Oakland, and Atlanta, she is currently based in the Twin Cities.

Maya Dusenbery is an executive director of Feministing and author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm on sexism in medicine.

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