By Avalon Kelly
In the five years after having or adopting a child, 17% of women choose to completely leave work. On the other hand, a mere 4% of fathers leave work during this time. While some new mothers may simply feel compelled to leave due to personal preferences, the undeniable truth is that expecting and new mothers are all too often pushed away from their jobs after childbirth, labeled by male employers and/or coworkers as incompetent and distracted. This resistance to the coexistence of motherhood and work is a result of the lasting impacts of the cult of domesticity—the time period in which women were expected to have influence solely over the home and family life. This resistance is faced by women in many forms: workplace stigma surrounding breastfeeding, inflexible work schedules, and minimal paid leave after birth.
When prompted, “Have you ever had a negative interaction with a co-worker because of breastfeeding/pumping?” 34.9% of working mothers in a survey conducted by Aeroflow responded “Yes.” Breastfeeding has for so long been a victim of stigmatization and even sexualization. Only about 25% of workplaces have designated lactation accommodations (these include lactation areas and adequate breaks). In the other 75% of workplaces, breastfeeding mothers are forced to pump at their work stations or in the bathrooms, neither of which provide total privacy or comfort. Lactation areas are required by law in many states, yet are still not widely implemented. The stigma surrounding breastfeeding leads to many new mothers feeling uncomfortable and unsupported in their place of work.
Employer resistance to flexible work schedules adds to the push against mothers choosing to continue to work. New mothers need flexibility in their work schedules, so they can accommodate doctors appointments, child emergencies, daycare, and child activities. However, employers often provide a single solution of part-time working, which many times means a significant decrease in salary and a relatively similar workload. Employers can accommodate complicated schedules by offering flextime and by remaining understanding of a new mother’s situation.
Post-childbirth, women are typically offered six to eight weeks of paid leave at approximately 65% of their original salary. Once those six to eight weeks are up, many mothers are forced to return to work for economic reasons. This can simply be too early for many women. In fact, the minimum recommendation of paid maternity leave by the International Labor Organization is 18 weeks; the average recommendation by experts Aitken and Rossin- Slater is 40 weeks of paid leave with gradual return to work. Only taking six to eight weeks before a return to full-time work can be dangerous for new mothers or for newborns who need special care. Paid family leave must be made more fair and flexible for all parents, but especially for new mothers.
The challenges which mothers face when choosing whether or not to return to work post-childbirth represent a continuation of society’s push against women in the workforce. It sends a message of “You belong at home, not here,” to all women. Workplace equity remains a large issue for women’s rights, and the specific challenges of balancing motherhood and work are only exacerbated by sexism and misogyny in workplaces.