Eight weeks ago, I gave birth to my second child. Today, I’m expected to return to my job at a Catholic university. As I write this at eight weeks post-birth, my body is still healing. I can walk a few blocks, but my typical fifteen-minute walk to work is beyond my capabilities. My breast-milk supply is still regulating, and my clothes—which are still maternity clothes—are often drenched in breast milk or sweat from my postpartum hormones. I am acutely aware that I am barely sleeping. Some nights I only wake up once to feed the baby. Other nights, I am awake for hours at a time with an infant who can barely tell the difference between day and night. My constant state of exhaustion makes me worried about my job performance, where decisions often rely on my quick judgement calls.
At eight weeks old, my daughter’s habits and needs are also constantly changing. During the day, I breastfeed her every two to three hours, and she needs to be held constantly. When she turns two months old, I will take her to the pediatrician for her first round of immunizations. But this vital appointment falls outside of the eight weeks of paid family leave my Catholic employer provides, as required by a new city mandate. Decisions surrounding childcare, which are typically marked by concerns about cost and extensive waiting lists, are even more fraught in a pandemic. My spouse and I weigh our concerns about COVID-19 exposure with our exhaustion at working full time and caring for a newborn. My experience underscores what so many new parents know to be true: a lack of paid parental leave impacts all aspects of family life. And when paid leave is provided, it too often falls too short and does not correspond with the healing of a parent or the needs of a child.
My eight weeks of paid leave, while inadequate, exceed the time offered at other workplaces. Catholic institutions in the United States, such as schools, universities, parishes, and diocesan offices, have no standard practice for parental leave, or more broadly, paid family leave. While some Catholic organizations provide paid parental leave, many provide none at all. Often, their policies are determined by their local jurisdiction; before my city mandated eight weeks of paid family leave, my employer offered only short-term disability for the birth parent, and the length of leave was determined by one’s doctor. Despite advocating for pro-family public policies, the U.S. Catholic Church doesn’t require adequate paid family leave for its own institutions, failing to support families in a concrete way as they navigate the birth or adoption of a child, or care for a family member.
The debate over paid family leave is a uniquely American one; the United States is the only industrialized nation that does not offer paid maternity leave. Not only that, out of almost two hundred countries, we are one of the very few to have no national paid parental leave policy whatsoever. New moms in the United States are eligible for twelve weeks of unpaid leave—and only if they meet certain employment criteria (which I did not). According to one study, “close to one in four new mothers who are not eligible for paid leave return to work within ten days of giving birth.” Anyone who has given birth or been around someone in that early postpartum period knows that at ten days, a person is not even physically healed from birth, to say nothing of the mental and emotional impact of caring for a newborn.