Parents Perspective

Why Do Moms Have to Go Back to Work Before They're Ready?

A tragedy sheds light on the need for better family-leave policies.

Empty Child Care Room William Whitehurst/Fuse/Getty Images
Did you see the article, too? Maybe, like me, you couldn't bear to read it right away, or perhaps you couldn't read it at all. I wouldn't blame you, as the details are beyond heartbreaking.

A mother needs to go back to work after delivering her firstborn. She's not going to be bringing home much money—not after paying for the cost of child care—but she needs the health insurance, for herself, her partner, and her baby. In this particular story, the mother feels lucky, because unlike most women she knows, she gets three months of maternity leave, and her leave is fully paid. She tries to negotiate with her company for more time (unpaid) home with her baby. She's turned down. She asks again. Two more months? The answer is no.

So on a July day she straps her baby into his carrier, boards a subway, and brings him to his first day of daycare, near her job. At lunch, she can barely wait to visit him, and runs the two blocks from her office to the center. There, she comes upon the sight of her son unconscious on a changing table, a daycare worker performing CPR on him. Her son dies, two and a half hours after she left him for the first time.

Related:  Take the Parents election poll and have your voice heard.

The article, by Amber Scorah, which appeared in this week's New York Times's Motherlode blog, has received 2,000 comments so far. The story isn't about the presumed failure of the daycare to place her son to sleep properly on his back, but about a question that haunts her: Why did she have to go back to work when she wasn't ready to leave her son? Scorah writes: "A mother should never have no choice but to leave her infant with a stranger at 3 months old if that decision doesn't feel right to her. Or at 6 weeks old. Or 3 weeks old."

In most other developed countries, working mothers don't return to work so soon. Compare maternity leave in America to the leave policies in countries like Canada (52 weeks, partially paid); Denmark (52 weeks, 100 percent paid); Germany (14 months, partially paid); Italy (5 months, 80 percent paid). Also, America hardly pays attention to its fathers—we laud companies that take the unusual step of offering paternity leave, yet many fathers are too scared of the repercussions to their careers to actually take it. It turns out in European countries where mothers can take a year of maternity leave, moms' careers take a hit, putting them on the "mommy track" to lower wages for years after having children. But using this as an argument against longer leaves is problematic: It presumes women wouldn't still want the option of a longer leave with their babies, or that all women (or men for that matter) aspire to become managers at work.

A few other facts:

  • Longer leaves are associated with better health for babies. Babies of moms with paid leave are more likely to get their vaccines, and to be breastfed. And mothers who take longer than 12 weeks of leave report fewer depressive symptoms.
  • The United States is the only developed nation in the world that doesn't guarantee paid leave from work for mothers. Right now only 13 percent of American workers have access to paid family leave through their employer. The result: Mothers are pushed to return to work soon after having a baby, before they're even close to ready. "‹
  • Although the current Family Medical Leave Act allows some employees to take up to 12 weeks of job-protected leave, it only covers about 60 percent of employees, according to
  • A quarter of all poverty spells in America are caused by having a baby, according to

What can parents do? First, take our election poll to weigh in on the issues that matter most to you in the coming election.

Then you have this option: Tell Congress what you think of our country's family-leave policies, and push them to take the important step of passing the Family and Medical Leave Insurance Act (FAMILY Act). Ask your partner to sign, too, to remind Congress that these are family issues, and not just "working mom" concerns.

If parents don't fight for it, who will?

Gail O'Connor is a senior editor at Parents.