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How soon is too soon to return to work after giving birth?

Expecting women to return to work within two weeks postpartum is cruel and unusual

September 3, 2015 2:00AM ET

According to a recent report published in In These Times, one in four U.S mothers return to work within two weeks of giving birth. This isn’t just emotionally devastating to new mothers and perilous for their children; for many women, it’s also a form of physical torture.

In a country where high-profile women such as Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer are upheld as heroes for returning to work within weeks of giving birth — and, in Mayer’s case, working remotely from the hospital throughout her first labor and vowing to power through her just-announced pregnancy (twins!) and return to the office posthaste — it’s all too easy to imagine childbirth in the United States today as a simple, routine procedure, not unlike an appendectomy. Yes, it’s uncomfortable, and there are occasional complications, but if you obey your doctor’s orders (and can afford a housekeeper) it can be done smoothly and with a minimum of fuss.

But the reality is that even under the best of circumstances — in a clean, safe environment, with ready access to high-quality emergency medical care — childbirth takes an enormous physical toll. And even for those who have the easiest of births, dealing with the emotional demands of new parenthood can be just as taxing.

Never having given birth myself, I asked a diverse group of women in a variety of professions who have given birth in the last several years to describe how they felt two weeks postpartum. Most of these women were able to take significant time off after having their babies, many received at least partial pay during that time and several have yet to return to full-time work. In other words, by American standards, they are extremely fortunate.

But even women with educational, financial and familial resources find pregnancy and childbirth intensely difficult at best and debilitating at worst. “Two weeks after I gave birth I still looked six months pregnant and felt like my vagina was inside out,” was how one new mom I spoke with described it.

Even so-called “easy” births frequently exact serious physical trauma: “My first baby came out pretty fast but tore me badly, including my perineum, anus and sphincter muscles,” a 34-year-old mother of two told me. “It took me 10 days before I could even walk. I could stand up but I couldn’t lift my legs or twist from side to side. My legs and feet were so swollen I thought my skin was going to split open. ... I also developed mastitis in my left breast, which is incredibly painful. ... You’re told to ‘nurse through the pain,’ but it felt like the jaws of life ripping my chest apart.”

Another new mom I spoke with said that although she could walk again six weeks after giving birth, “sitting, standing and using the bathroom were extremely uncomfortable.” She remembers thinking, “How is it possible that women go back to work this early?” She “could not imagine having to deal with my stitches, bleeding, engorged breasts and lack of sleep while having to constantly engage with coworkers and use a public restroom.”

The woman who suffered from mastitis is equally horrified by the prospect of returning to work so soon. “The idea of going back to work after two weeks is nuts,” she said. “My second child was the easiest labor in the world, and for the first two weeks after I gave birth I still felt like I had been in a bad car accident.”

It is barbaric to expect any woman to return to work within weeks of birthing a child, and women who lack the money to refuse are far more often coerced into doing just that.

Only one woman I talked to said she would have been physically capable of returning to work two weeks after giving birth, mainly because her job “isn’t physically taxing.” But she added that even though she felt she could have, she wouldn’t have wanted to return to work that quickly: “Emotionally, of course, I was a wreck.”

Every woman I spoke with mentioned having at least one friend who was under serious financial pressure to return to work before she was ready to do so.

The United States is the only industrialized nation without some form of paid maternity leave. Compelling women, especially and primarily those who lack the resources to resist, to return to paid labor within weeks of the most profound physical experience of their lives is an appalling measure of our contempt for women in general and for poor women in particular. It is barbaric to expect any woman to return to work within weeks of birthing a child, and women who lack the money to refuse are far more often coerced into doing just that.

“When I read that one in four women return to work within two weeks of giving birth, I felt sick,” Leah, the mother of a two-year-old boy, told me. “I would never have been able to do that. ...Walking was still difficult, I was bleeding a lot most evenings and I was very tired. But more than that, my emotional state would never have let me … I suffered from postpartum anxiety and spent the first two months after my son’s birth in a constant state of worry and panic.”

Many new mothers in the U.S. of course want and intend to return to full-time paid work, mainly because their families rely on their income. Some want to go back because they enjoy their work and find it rewarding. Leah, the mother of the 2-year-old, is a senior associate at a large law firm. In order to take the four months she needed to recover after giving birth, she cobbled together disability leave, paid maternity leave, and two weeks of vacation. She could have taken up to six months off if she could have afforded unpaid leave, but her family, like most US families, needed her income. She appreciates the fact that her employer “literally never bothered [her] once for the whole four months,” and allowed her to work a reduced schedule for the first year of her baby’s life.

In the United States, such policies sound unusually generous and humane. But women and their families need this to be standard practice. As Leah explained, returning to work on a part-time basis four months after giving birth “was a huge step in my postpartum mental health issues lifting … re-engaging in my job pulled me to a much better place mentally.”

Pregnancy and childbirth are a normal if physically demanding part of most women’s lives. Having a baby is not the same as having a disability or a disease, and childbirth and the recovery period it requires should be treated as a life stage, not a professional obstacle.

One year after returning part-time, Leah resumed full-time work. “I love being a working mom and I am happy in my career and in my motherhood,” she said. “That was only possible because I was able to come back when I was ready, not when I was forced to.”

Raina Lipsitz writes about feminism, politics and pop culture. Her work has appeared in TheAtlantic.com, Kirkus Reviews, McSweeney’s, Nerve.com, Ploughshares, Salon.com and xoJane, among others. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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