As MSNBC anchor Katy Tur ends maternity leave after the birth of her daughter, she reflects on the past six months, becoming the "lead parent" in her relationship, and why the 4 weeks of paid leave proposed in the Build Back Better plan is truly the "barest of bare minimums."
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"Maternity leave is both joyous and extraordinarily difficult," says MSNBC anchor Katy Tur, of Katy Tur Reports. "I know everyone likes to think that, 'Oh, you're off! Hasn't it been so wonderful?' Yeah, in a lot of respects, but it's also starting another extremely difficult full-time job—and trying to survive it."

Today is Tur's first day back from maternity leave after the birth of her daughter, Eloise, in May. She spent the past six months healing from a C-section, cleaning up an overactive flow of spit-up, and adjusting to her new life while finding the balance at home with a newborn, toddler, and two older stepkids. She's feeling ready—physically and emotionally—to return to work. She's survived. And she knows how fortunate she is to have been able to get paid time off—and have a partner, CBS This Morning co-anchor Tony Dokoupil, have the same option—to do all of that.

In 2019, Tur returned to work after having her first child, Teddy. After an unplanned C-section and difficult postpartum period—at the time Tur recalled being so exhausted in the hospital that she thought her mother in law was hiding under the bed—she became a very vocal advocate for paid leave.

Katy Tur

"That first month while I was still recovering from major surgery exhausted and in pain adjusting to my new self, Tony was there changing diapers, bringing me food, letting me nap, then he was back at work and it was all me," Tur said on her first show back after maternity leave with Teddy. "And, yes, I figured it out and, no, nothing about this story is exceptional. Except for the fact that I got a lot more paid time off to figure it out than the majority of new moms in this country and Tony took more time than at least 70 percent of fathers out there and that is insane. It is insane that 25 percent of women go back to work after two weeks. And I think it's insane that seven out of 10 men go back after 10 days or less."

The Luck of Getting Paid Leave in America

Tur considers herself lucky for the paid maternity leave she was able to take with both of her kids to heal, soak up snuggles, and figure out breastfeeding—but also for the support she received from her husband, who was also able to take six weeks off following the birth of Eloise.

But why, in America, is luck the biggest factor when it comes to family leave and being supported postpartum? Why are we the only industrialized nation without a federal paid leave mandate? When the global average for paid maternity leave is 29 weeks and the average paid paternity leave is 16 weeks, why must American parents accept the measly four weeks—which Tur considers "the barest of bare minimums"—being proposed in the Build Back Better plan by Congress right now?

Years ago, before having kids and while living abroad, Tur learned about the paid year-plus off that Swedish parents of both sexes receive after having children and remembers being completely taken aback.

"I just thought the way you had kids, it's a hardship and you deal with the challenges that are presented to you," she says. "I mean, my mother gave birth to me on a breaking news story. She was working up until the last second and then she went right back to work immediately. She was at home with me for a couple months, but she was—she was a news person as well—listening to scanners, she was calling the fire department, she was helping sustain the family business. And then when they got an assignment she was on a plane. It was supposed to be a day, it turned into a week. And suddenly I was weaned onto formula, like, very quickly, because it was just unexpected. There was no choice! So I just assumed, you know, you tough it out and that's the way you do things."

Katy Tur
Katy Tur and baby Eloise.
| Credit: Courtesy of Katy Tur

Moms and Dads Need More Support in the Early Days of New Parenthood

In the United States most parents do have to tough it out. In fact, only 23 percent of workers have access to paid family and medical leave through their employers.

Take Mary Bissel, a teacher in New Mexico without access to paid family leave, who gave birth on a Tuesday and was working again the following Monday because she couldn't afford to take time off. She's since been supported by MomsRising, a grassroots movement working to secure economic security for parents, but has struggled to recover and adjust to life with a newborn.

Then there's Rob. L and Carl T., a married same-sex couple in New Jersey that spent two years on the process to adopt their son, now 10 weeks old. Rob got four weeks of paid parental leave from work while Carl got no paid time off, though they were both fortunate to qualify for 12 weeks of paid parental leave through their state. They spent the first month of their son's life—meaning that first month of parental leave—in the NICU after he was born premature.

And for Weesie Thelen, a freelance communications consultant in Oklahoma City, it took saving up on her own to cover the 12 weeks of maternity leave she wanted to take after the birth of her second child.

Tony Dokoupil
Tony Dokoupil and baby Eloise.
| Credit: Courtesy of Katy Tur

The System Is Failing All New Parents

Even with the more generous leave situations that Tur and Dokoupil were offered, the focus in America is still often on maternity leave versus family leave. Despite Dokoupil's six weeks of paternity leave, Tur is feeling the effects of an unbalanced dynamic created by a system that's not supporting all parents.

"Because I got six months [of leave] straight and because I have been home every single day, I have by default become kind of 'lead parent,'" she says. "And not because of any of [Tony's] choices. He is very, very hands-on, but in terms of when does Eloise need to eat, what is she eating, what does her cry mean, and why is Teddy screaming—all of these things fall to me because I'm spending the most time with the two of them. I can see how it creates an inequality in the relationship and in the ability to go back to work. I mean, obviously I'm in a very fortunate position. My company allowed me to take this time, they paid for much of it, I have a nanny at home who can help. So I'm in a position where I'm able to go back [to work], but if we were not I can very easily see how, because I'm the one that spent the time, I'm the one that's going to continue to stay home. My career would stop because I'm the one who's become, by our cultural standards, the lead parent."

As it is now, the system is not set up to support parents, and it really does little for working mothers. Dads, like Dokoupil, are left frustrated—missing out on milestones and longing to be home with the kids. Moms are being forced to choose between their careers and their families, taking on the brunt of child care responsibilities and leaving the workforce entirely. Things are unfair for everyone when there's no federal paid leave policy. "Because of the way our system works, some people get some, some people get a little bit more, other people get none. And it's totally off balance all over."

The Bottom Line

The majority of Americans support paid parental leave, including for adoption. It's actually healthy and beneficial for fathers and for children, and would be good for the economy, too.

"It feels like one of those issues that has all the agreement it needs, but still can't make it through Congress," says Tur. "That is the definition of a broken system. Everybody wants something and it's still not happening—what's going on?"

That's why, because even though Tur was fortunate enough to receive paid time off from work and enjoyed time with her husband at home and a full house of kids adjusting to the new family dynamic with a newborn in the mix—and even though she's on the other side of maternity leave now—she won't stop advocating for equal, paid time off for moms and support partners.

As she puts it, the way things are now just don't make sense. "It doesn't make sense to sustain a functional, successful, healthy society."

Catch Katy Tur on MSNBC's Katy Tur Reports, weekdays at 2 p.m. ET.