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David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
Longer maternity leave enhances mental health
Wed, Jun 02, 2004
by Sue Shellenbarger -- The Wall Street Journal

New mothers get plenty of gifts, toys and advice. But a new study -- the deepest look to date at how the length of maternity leave affects mothers' mental health -- suggests that what would really make them happy is a little more time off work.

Taking a long maternity leave helps stave off the postpartum blues, concludes the study of 1,762 working mothers for the National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge, Mass., a private nonprofit research organization. Mothers who take at least three months off after childbirth show 15 percent fewer symptoms of depression after they return to work, compared with women who take six weeks or less.

The study comes amid a U.S. trend toward shorter leaves. A new Census Bureau study due out at the end of the year is expected to show that a large percentage of women are returning to work sooner than women did a decade ago. In the mid-1990s, 42 percent of employed mothers returned to work within three months of giving birth.

"Both the length and quality of maternity leave have definitely been shrinking," says Marisa Thalberg, a New York marketing executive and founder of Executive Moms, a 1,500-member networking group. An Executive Moms survey of 150 mothers last fall found that some women are taking as little as two weeks.

Between 50 percent and 70 percent of women develop postpartum blues, a period of sadness, irritability or anxiety after childbirth that strains marriages, hurts mother-baby bonding and drains parenthood of joy. Between 10 percent and 20 percent of new mothers develop full-blown postpartum depression -- a more serious, longer-lasting mental ailment linked to poorer cognitive skills and behavioral and emotional problems in children.

Women face twin obstacles to adequate leave: financial barriers and bosses' resistance. Though the federal family-leave law allows 12 weeks of unpaid leave to new parents at companies with more than 50 workers, many women cannot afford unpaid leave.

How to get a longer leave
  • Start planning as soon as you become pregnant, or even before, gathering information.
  • Patch together as much paid time as possible, including vacation and sick days.
  • If your company has a short-term disability policy, new mothers are eligible, usually for six to eight weeks of full or partial pay.
  • Some couples temporarily decrease their 401(k) contributions to save cash. Consider setting up a credit line; getting approval will be easier if both you and your husband are working.
  • Don't rule out asking your employer for more paid time. A media agency director who responded to Executive Moms' survey said she negotiated a confidential agreement to receive full pay for her three-month leave.
  • Develop a strategy that anticipates and offers solutions to all your boss's potential objections to your request. Offer a written job analysis listing projects that can be finished before you leave, jobs that can be set aside until you return and work that can be delegated.
Free template for proposing maternity leave
American Psychiatric Association fact sheet for new mothers
Postpartum depression resources, self-assessment test, and contacts for support groups
Tips for husbands, partners and friends of new mothers with depression
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