Three Weeks: Is Maternity Leave Too Short?

Is maternity leave too short in the United States? Unfortunately, for many mothers, the answer is yes. What can we do to improve working motherhood for all?

The other day I was checking out of a grocery store when the cashier started chatting me up about O. He was hanging out in his bucket in the shopping cart being quite the charmer, as usual. She asked me how old he was, and I told her. She seemed a little surprised, and I said “Yeah, he’s a big ‘un.” She then revealed that she had a son just one month younger.

“Yeah, my son is big too,” she offered. “He weighed around 17 lbs at our last checkup, but I think he’s over 20 lbs now. ”

“Really?” was the stunning comment I was able to offer. (Have I ever mentioned I’m not great at small talk?)

“Yeah, I started feeding him solids at almost three months, and the pediatrician yelled at me,” she continued.

“Oh,” I said, a little surprised. I thought back to all the baby books and magazine articles that say not to start solids until at least four months. The look on my face must’ve changed into one of shock or disapproval, because the cashier quickly continued.

“Well, formula wasn’t satisfying him, and I had to do something,” she offered, as sort of an excuse.

Feeling bad that she felt she had to offer up an excuse for doing what she did with her child, I said, “All babies are different, you did what you had to do.”

“Yeah!” she exclaimed, emphatically. Seemingly glad she found someone who agreed with her way of thinking, she continued. “I started putting cereal in his bottle at three weeks. He slept through the night as soon as I did it. My doctor yelled at me for that, too.”

Again, I was a little shocked/surprised. Now, I have heard of plenty of women who do the whole cereal in a bottle thing. Most of our parents did it, and my own mother told me to do it with O, when he woke all hours of the night looking for a boob. But as much as I wanted some sleep at night, I had read enough to conclude that cereal in a bottle wouldn’t be anything I’d be doing.

“Oh,” I said again giving those small talk skills a real workout. Again, I think she sensed (or saw) my surprise.

“Yeah,” the cashier said. “I had to go back to work at three weeks, it worked for me.”

I immediately felt bad. Here I was judging this woman for the choices she made–and she really didn’t even have a choice. This women had to return to work a mere THREE weeks after birth. I couldn’t believe it. There’s no way I could’ve returned to work in three weeks. I don’t think I was even completely recovered from the postpartum hormonal surge.

How does this happen in America? If anyone wonders, is maternity leave too short in this country? The answer is sadly yes for many mothers. It’s cases like these where I get so upset that America doesn’t have a national maternity leave program. America treats motherhood and pregnancy more as inconvenience to the employer than the miracle it is.

I guess I just want to say to all those moms that did things that weren’t exactly “by the book”–let go of your guilt! You did what you had to do. Unfortunately, the “hurry up and get back to work” culture of our country forced your hand in the matter. I urge you to check out MomsRising. Maybe if we all band together we can make a change for the better.

7 thoughts on “Three Weeks: Is Maternity Leave Too Short?

  1. I think 3 weeks is a long time for a cashier. With more people living paycheck-to-paycheck (and the rise in health care costs), most people just can’t afford the time off. When my first son was born almost four years ago, I only took 5 weeks off because I had used up all of my leave for an illness mid-pregnancy that had me on bedrest for several weeks and my firm’s “maternity leave” was short-term disability at 60% of my salary with a 14-day unpaid elimination period. We just could not afford more time off. I agree — MomsRising is really making great progress on behalf of working moms everywhere. Check it out!

  2. “America treats motherhood and pregnancy more as inconvenience to the employer than the miracle it is.”

    And yet so many in America claim to be in favor of “family values.” The Family Values loudmouths also tend, in my experience, to be anti-choice (I’m sorry, sometimes I just can’t resist bringing this topic into the mix). Supposedly we value motherhood so very much that every woman is supposed to become a mother if she gets pregnant. And then we allow employers to deny women the resources they need to be the best mothers they can be. I just don’t get the disconnect. It’s like Bizarroland or something.

  3. That does seem harsh, but I work for a major PR firm, and we only technically get 2 weeks paid. Then I had to sign up for short term disability, use all my sick days and vacation time to stretch it to 12 weeks. I mean, seriously! But, we do what we have to do.

  4. I can’t even imagine going back after just three weeks. I had to return after just six-weeks and it was hard enough. I guess we all do what we have to do. I work for a very small company that did not have a policy in place when I found out I was pregnant. I was the first persona t my office to ever be pregnant. Luckily my company and I worked it out and I was able to enjoy my time off without worrying but I feel for those who do live paycheck to paycheck and have to deal with that sort of anxiety.

  5. I truly feel for that woman. I took 10 weeks…which was vacation, sick time, and 3 weeks unpaid. I felt lucky to get to use built-up sick time, which shows how little we are trained to expect. From you story though, I also couldn’t help but cringe at the habits this woman had. I know we don’t all have all the resources and education to know you shouldn’t be giving cereal to a baby at three weeks, but it is still a shame to hear about it. Yet I hated people who criticized me for waiting all the way till 6 months to start solids, so I guess we should all just keep our mouths shut!

  6. The working poor are really under-represented in terms of getting their voices heard on a lot of issues. I can only imagine how hard it must have been emotionally and physically to return to work after 3 weeks.

    Again, it reminds me how lucky I am to have choices.

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