Friday, April 17, 2009

pregnancy should be easy

A long time ago (I meant to write about this months ago!), I was talking with Alice of ScienceWomen and she told me how her university recently started a new parental leave policy for graduate students--6 weeks for birth mothers and 3 for fathers or adoptive mothers. I think I said "That's too much difference!" That was a bit negative--probably I should have said: "That's wonderful that they're working on these issues! That is certainly better than my university, but I hope they can give fathers 6 weeks soon." It's easy (especially for me) to focus on what is wrong with a plan or policy, but I don't know what constraints they were under in making the policy or the other options they had. Anyway, it is really frustrating to me that fathers can't take off the same amount of time as birth mothers.

When we had LP, I took off much more time than TE. I think the main reason was that there was a very short leave period outlined in our graduate handbook. It would have been ridiculous for us each to only take 2 weeks off unless we had no other options. You can't place a baby in daycare in this state until 6 weeks of age, so we would have needed a lot of extra help to go to work full time during regular hours by then. However, TE felt more awkward than me taking "extra" time off, mainly due to the cultural perception that the mother is taking care of the baby. Of course, that meant I took more time off and more care of the baby for a few weeks. It's a stupid cycle that would also be perpetuated by differential leave for fathers and mothers.

Another thing differential leave perpetuates is the perception that pregnancy and childbirth are debilitating for weeks. Women's bodies are designed to carry a baby to term, deliver it, and feed it. Pregnancy is a normal stage of life for the majority of women. Although myself and most of the women I know are quite priveleged, most women worldwide cannot stop what they were doing and treat themselves like a glass vase for 9 months. Nor do they typically need to, in the sense that pregnancy is not a disease and leaves a person capable of the vast majority of typical functions.

I realize that for much of our history, childbirth was a major cause of death for women, and it continues to be today in many countries. Moreover, there are many serious complications to pregnancy which can be debilitating for weeks or months. There are less serious complications that make it difficult to work for many people. However, I feel it's incorrect to portray pregnancy as inherently difficult. I think there is a classification problem in the way the media/popular culture often talks about pregnancy and childbirth, in the sense that they imply that certain medical issues are a direct result of being pregnant. They seem to be confused about how rare certain complications of pregnancy are or imply that typical pregnant people can't do most daily activities and are on the verge of major heath problems at any moment.

I don't have specific data, but based on my knowledge and experience, the following are likely to occur during pregnancy: some heartburn, minor changes in sleep schedules, slight reduction in physical abilities, and stretch marks. I don't know if it occurs in more than half of pregnancies, but minor morning sickness is common. Though I might think of these things as complications to pregnancy, I understand they could also be construed as inherent in pregnancy itself. But none of these things prevent a person from working or going about typical activites, and I find it quite condescending to women to suggest otherwise.

I see pregnancy as a condition which increases your risk (or creates a risk where there was none before) for many issues including certain types of food poisoning, severe morning sickness, preeclampsia, and others which which could prevent full time work or require extended periods of bed rest (which is not always the same thing for a theorist like me). I become annoyed when people imply that these problems are due to pregnancy itself, instead of complications. High cholesterol increases one's risk for heart disease, and diabetes increases the risk of many medical problems, but I don't hear people saying "well, he is taking the week off for high cholesterol" when someone is taking time off to recover from a heart attack.

I do feel that childbirth is a medical issue best dealt with in a hospital. But it only takes a day or two to birth a child, and in the absence of complications, after a few days a person would generally be physically able to return to a desk job. (The real problem is that now she has an infant.) And if a mother weren't physically able to return to a desk job after 3 weeks, then you'd better not send the father back then either, because someone will have to take care of the baby, which is extremely more demanding than pushing papers! If the policy for extra birth mother leave were aimed at only people with very physically demanding jobs, I would feel much better about it.

Back to the point, I know that pregnancy increases the risk of a person needing time off, and even after an uncomplicated childbirth a person needs to take some time off of work, depending on the level of physical activity required. But fathers (or a support person of some sort) should be taking at least those first few days off as well to help take care of the baby and the mother. If additional medical issues leave a mother unable to return to work, and the maternity leave policy is the only thing to save her, then the real problem would lie with the sick and disability leave programs (or lack thereof). That is what is needed when a medical problem prevents a return to work. If extra maternity leave is being used as a stopgap because medical leave is lacking, I suppose that's better than doing nothing, but it's not the way it should be.

Another issue here is breastfeeding. Breastfeeding a newborn is a full time job in the sense that it's likely to (at least at first) take up 8 hours a day, and some people need more than a few weeks to get settled into it. I needed a few months (not that taking more time off work would have helped). So I can understand a desire to help women establish breastfeeding by giving them more time off than men. However, the father could step up to the plate and take over additional baby duties during the day so a breastfeeding mother having trouble would have support and extra time to take naps when she's been up all night--but this isn't as viable an option when he doesn't have adequate leave. So the problems of breastfeeding and more than half of the childcare once the father's leave runs out both fall back on the mother. Furthermore, while it's apparently exceedingly rare for a man to try to breastfeed (although possible with extra hormones or perhaps without), adoptive mothers sometimes try. And sometimes birth mothers decide not to attempt breastfeeding for medical or personal reasons. So if the real reason to give more leave to birth mothers than to other parents was breastfeeding, the policy is not precicely targeting the right group.

In general, it's taking care of an infant that keeps people from returning to work after the birth of a child. I agree that it takes 6 weeks or more of more than full-time work to get used to taking care of a newborn, during which time it would be great if parents didn't feel compelled to go back to their jobs. But with a different amount of leave for mothers and fathers, you're setting up mothers to take on more than their fair share of parenting for a few weeks. Parents following a 6 weeks/3 weeks leave policy will have to try very hard not to let those second 3 weeks (and the culture which makes a policy like that sound reasonable) set a precedent for the mother's childcare duties once they both return to work.

I understand a few reasons why they may have set up this policy as a stopgap for other problems, but if it were my family, I would prefer 4 weeks each (8 weeks total) to the current 9 weeks total that is differentially distributed.

P.S. Postpartum depression is a problem that might lead to birth mothers needing time off but not birth fathers, right? Apparently not--though certain people want to explain how women are deficient because of their crazy hormones (the smaller brain thing just seems silly nowadays so they had to come up with something new)--it seems that fathers are also often depressed after having a child. (I just found that out reading this blog a few weeks ago.) Major life events can be stressful and can lead to mental issues, and we need adequate leave for mental health issues as well as physical health issues, whether or not they are caused by childbirth.

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