America Erased the Postpartum Pause New Parents Need—Here’s How to Get That Time Back

For many American families, taking time off after the birth of a baby is a luxury that's out of reach. Experts share how to afford that time to nurture a newborn and yourself.

Women working with her newborn

Aleksandra Jankovic / Stocksy

In 2003, after Heng Ou gave birth to her first child, her aunt and cousin drove down from the Bay Area and temporarily moved into her suburban Los Angeles home for 10 days. They became fixtures in the kitchen, cooking soup and meals that perfumed the home with delicious aromas. 

“It was a really satisfying experience because I was being nurtured,” says Ou. This postpartum practice of nurturing the parent aligns with the Chinese cultural practice of zuo yue zi, or sitting the month, a time when a new parent’s path to recovery starts with rest. Many Asian and Latin American countries have cultural practices that center the birthing parent in the sacred time after birth, but in America, there is no equivalent practice.

“I think that is a humongous part that goes missing,” says Ou, author of the 2022 book, Nine Golden Months: The Essential Art of Nurturing Mother-to-Be. “The notion of knowing that someone is caring for you, so you could just have a moment of pause.”

But in the United States, there is no federal right that says that you are entitled to take any time off to care for a new family member. The inclusion of “and” in the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) means the right to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave per year is not exclusive to postpartum care. So, if you need to care for an ailing parent or another child, you lose days from your postpartum leave. For many American families, even 12 unpaid weeks can be out of reach. Often birthing parents and partners return to work within weeks of the baby’s birth to financially support their family. 

“We have such a crisis because the transition to motherhood should be protected. Instead, it’s treated like a luxury.”
—Wendy N. Davis, Ph.D., PMH-C, executive director of Postpartum Support International

“We have such a crisis because the transition to motherhood should be protected,” says Wendy N. Davis, Ph.D., PMH-C, executive director of Postpartum Support International (PSI). “Instead, it’s treated like a luxury.”

Pregnancy takes time, allowing a person to process the changes in their body and identity. But birth and the transition to parenthood, matrescence, can happen overnight. In the U.S. when that happens, there is no formal time for a new parent to adjust to one of life’s biggest transitions. 

If you are one of the small percentage of workers to have access to family leave through private companies, you can have a few weeks off to focus on caring for a new baby. But the way we talk about the time after birth makes it sound like a black hole in which a new parent disappears, learns to care for a baby, and comes out the same on the other side.

“That's not what's happening,” says Amy Beacom, Ed.D. the founder and CEO of the Center for Parental Leave Leadership (CPLL). In the tenuous fourth trimester—defined roughly as the first 12 weeks after birth—when new parents need the most support and care, “attention for the mother just doesn't exist,” says Dr. Beacom.

This baby-centered focus contrasts with other countries that dedicate resources and care to new parents because of the recognition that their well-being lays the foundation for a healthy family, workforce, and society. We know this, and yet there is still no U.S. federal policy to protect the postpartum pause. It just shouldn’t be that way. And as we wait for more comprehensive change, it’s time to rethink the fourth trimester as a time to nurture the parents as well. 

What New Parents Need

In the fourth trimester, most new parents need support, rest, nourishment, and community. Most other life transitions come with educational opportunities that center you, but parenthood is one of the few times when the training is solely fixed on the care and well-being of another tiny human being. 

While Tara Tyson was pregnant with her son, she researched state family leave laws and advocated for herself to her company’s human resources representative. If she didn’t do all this work, she would’ve been shorted some of her time off. 

“You're just so on your own that there's no room for error,” says Tyson, who works in entertainment and technology research in Los Angeles. A few days after her son—now 6 years old—was born, her partner took a job in television production to financially support the family. Tyson knew she needed to prioritize other people around her to make her maternity leave work. 

“I'll figure it out here by myself,” Tyson told her partner. “I'll be okay.”

Currently, the fourth trimester is set up to be a lonely time. Most new parents are not taught to ask themselves, “How am I feeling in all this?” Public health experts say it’s time to reimagine the fourth trimester as a personal growth experience instead of a series of traumatizing events that just happen to a new parent. But that can’t happen without a postpartum pause.

“I'm not saying that there has to be some red carpet rolled out,” says Tyson. “But there certainly seems like we could just be more thoughtful in the way that we try to just create the ability for a woman to continue to be an employee or be herself and then also be a mom.”

How to Map Out Your Parental Leave

When you have time to reflect, you have time to grow, says Beacom. “We need to rethink how we ask for and receive help.” At CPLL, a consulting company that helps families and employers improve their parental leave practices, the fourth trimester is mapped out in three phases: preparing for leave, the leave, and returning from leave.

Since there is no national policy for paid parental leave in the U.S., new parents can reclaim their postpartum pause by creating their own support structures. Determining the support systems in those three phases—even for banal tasks like walking the dog—can help a new parent achieve the much-needed pause. 

Federal protection for new parents doesn’t exist yet in the U.S, but “what's wonderful is that this whole safety net exists of peer support,” says Davis. 

Free and paid support organizations

Not Self-Care, It’s Care For the New Parent

If it sounds like a lot of work to carve out a postpartum pause for yourself—it is. But the work expands the focus from the baby to include the parent, and if done before the baby’s arrival, it can help provide new parents with time to reflect on their transition to parenthood.

It’s not about putting the burden of care on a bleary-eyed new parent; it’s about providing continual care for the new parent.

After all, “Don't people want their mothers to be treated as well as they could possibly be treated?” asks Tyson. 

Learn More About Taking Back Your Fourth Trimester

Experts share more on how to take back your fourth trimester. Here, read Parents' guide to self-advocacy during postpartum and learn how communities can come together as support systems.

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