Dear Mr Obama,
I am a woman journalist from India but I would prefer to introduce myself as a working mother of a six-month-old baby girl.
A major development last week brought immense joy and relief to the working women in my country. In an iconic move, India passed the Maternity Benefits Amendment Bill which aims at improving overall health of mothers and babies, and boost the participation of women in the country’s workforce. The major highlight of the bill is that new mothers will now be entitled to 26 weeks of paid leave instead of the existing 12 weeks.
While I am extremely proud a developing country like India has taken this progressive step, I am equally baffled by the situation in the United States—one of the most advanced economies of the world. Bearing a child in the US comes at a heavy cost for most women. With no provision for paid maternity leave, the US is woefully behind the rest of the world in supporting new mothers. Your country sits in stark contrast to countries such as Cuba that offer expectant mothers one year or more of paid leave.
I was entitled to 12 weeks of paid maternity leave and my employer was gracious enough to grant me an extension of two months. Any woman who has given birth knows that it takes time to recover, let alone getting to know your baby. Things are worse if you have had a C-section. Your wounds are just healing and even a walk to the loo hurts, let alone using it. Getting back to work in 12 weeks is not an easy deal for a mother. In the age of nuclear families, most mothers are forced to leave their little ones, who have just begun to crack a smile, at the mercy of nannies. A mother's milk supply, too, takes time to establish itself. Even after five months, I would end up leaving my heart and part of my sanity at home. As I sit at my desk, I wonder if my little one has had her tummy full, whether her diapers have been changed on time, whether she has been rocked to sleep—all these haunt me. What has probably haunted me the most is the nagging thought that my daughter may not like me or not recognise me as her mother.
How many mothers would be able to hang on with an unpaid leave, or do you expect the women in your country to give up on their dream careers once they decide to take that lovely step towards motherhood? You are not only messing up with financial security of families, but also ailing the next generation of the United States.
Research has linked paid maternity leave to better health for mothers and babies. That means lower rates of postpartum depression and infant mortality, and higher rates of breastfeeding and childhood immunisations. “Although physiological considerations indicate that a woman can return to a normal work schedule 4-6 weeks after delivery, attention also should be given to maternal-infant bonding,” concludes Guidelines for Perinatal Care, developed by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
I agree that you have a policy in place, but how family friendly is it? The 1993 Family Medical Leave Act provides 12 weeks of unpaid leave, but one has to work for a company with at least 50 employees or a public agency or public or private elementary or secondary school to qualify. To top it, one has to have worked at least a year for the employer for a minimum of 1,250 hours. More than 40 per cent of US workers don’t meet all of FMLA’s requirements, and even if they do, many can’t afford to take unpaid leave. The situation is so miserable that many families have even turned to crowdfunding websites to raise money for maternity leave.
You are a self-proclaimed feminist. It is commendable that you have identified the struggle of mothers and proposed six weeks paid parental leave for federal employees. Identifying the need, some states like California, New York, New Jersey and Rhode Island have also begun to provide paid leave. The whole country, however, needs a uniform policy.
There is never a perfect time to have kids, Mr President. You can either wait and start your career later in life. Or you can pursue a career, take time off to have kids, and then return to a working world that has raced past you. Or you end up being pressurised to put your six-week old in a day-care.
America is failing its children, and the future lies with them. The choice is yours.