National Catholic Register

Culture of Life

Maternity Leave Is a Mixed Blessing for Mothers

In a culture hostile to traditional marriage and family life, maternity leave appears to help; it seems to cultivate family togetherness.

BY Anna Abbott

May 4-17, 2014 Issue | Posted 4/28/14 at 3:23 PM


The 20th anniversary of the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) affords the opportunity to ponder the various aspects of this intersection of family and business, especially in light of Mother’s Day.

A study published in the December 2013 issue of the Journal of Health, Politics, Policy and Law argues that if women’s maternity leave is extended from three to six months, the risk of postpartum depression is lessened.

Patricia McGovern of the University of Minnesota School of Public Health and Rada Dagher, assistant professor of health services administration at the University of Maryland, conducted this study.

They tracked the mental health of more than 800 women in Minnesota.

Dr. Thomas Hilgers with the Pope Paul VI Institute in Omaha, Neb., treats mothers who suffer from postpartum depression.

"Most postpartum depression starts within the first two weeks [after birth]," he explained. "Anti-depressants can take months or years. A shot of progesterone treats it within hours: It’s a treatable condition."

Investigating the issue in depth reveals that maternity leave offers mixed blessings.

In a culture hostile to traditional marriage and family life, maternity leave appears to help; it seems to cultivate family togetherness.

However, the FMLA came into existence not to keep mothers and babies together, but to make it easier for mothers to be retained in their outside jobs. Ample leave facilitates mothers’ return to the workplace.

An example can be found in Andrea Boring, a Catholic mother with her own small business in Mesa, Ariz.

"When my boys were born, I didn’t plan to go back to work," she said of the arrival of her twin sons. "They were born 12 weeks early. I took the full 12 weeks with them in the NICU and was able to be with them without worrying financially. My focus was getting well and being in the hospital with the babies."

Boring and her husband were in the restaurant business when she took three months’ leave.

Boring commented about her plans after welcoming her third child in June: "I’m my own business owner working from home. I will take four weeks off. My family is dependent on my income."

"It’s a very delicate balance," she added about being a working mom. She plans to create office hours while her twin sons are in school and look for in-home child care for her newborn so she can continue working from home.

Study lead Dagher has observed that many mothers feel like Boring does: "Their main concerns are figuring out and finding affordable child care, more flexible policies and if they can go to their child [as needed]. They don’t have six months or a year like other industrialized countries."

This study was written two decades after the passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act, which applies to companies with 50 or more employees.

"Smaller companies could provide flexible hours or opportunities to work from home if they can’t provide paid or longer leave," said Dagher. "The FMLA did not discuss mothers’ health, but took into consideration what businesses could afford."

She suggested that the FMLA should be extended to cover all businesses and that the government should help them financially: "A lot of women work in companies with fewer than 50 employees. A lot of them work in the service industry. Up to six months’ maternity leave is beneficial."

She also noted that the World Health Organization recommends six months of exclusive breastfeeding.

Registered nurse McGovern agrees. "Longer rest gives time to recover. If you look at women who take [maternity] leave, it [risk of postpartum depression] goes down lower at six months. Six months gives them time to balance their life with the new baby. It’s about maximizing recovery. Women can take time to recover from pregnancy and childbirth, and it promotes breastfeeding."

McGovern, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, has been fascinated with the subject of maternity leave since the 1980s.

McGovern believes the FMLA should be changed. "They should extend coverage to smaller employers and have wage replacement, so people could afford to take leave."

"People need to take time off to care for their family," she added. "We need to look at the norms of the European Union, which has 14 weeks of paid leave; 40% of the United States doesn’t have paid leave. We need creative financing schemes and tax incentives, more like the European Union."

On the issue of maternity leave, Hilgers observed, "If you’re going to have maternity leave, you’re going to have to have paternity leave for equality. [Mothers and fathers] bond differently. For many fathers, bonding occurs after birth and over time. Mothers are uniquely capable of taking care of children. Women should take the primary nurturing role — it doesn’t mean they shouldn’t work."

Hilgers said he believes that longer maternity leave benefits women and children since it gives them time to bond more fully.

Psychologist, Register columnist and father of 10 Dr. Ray Guarendi sees working mothers in his practice and agrees with that assessment.

"If you look at the overall research, more women are discontent at balancing home and work," he observed. "More women are drawn to home; more women want to stay with their babies."

Guarendi noted that there is a degree of dissatisfaction in mothers when they put their infants in child care at two months. "Women are naturally wired to bond stronger and quicker; it is more inherent in women’s makeup."

He added, "Fathers bond in a more protective way. There is a wired-in sense of duty and sense of protectiveness."

Guarendi emphasized, "More women would stay home if they could. A lot feel like they have to work." He said that, with longer maternity leaves, allowing mothers and children to bond well is beneficial for all involved.

Separation between mothers and children causes distress, Guarendi added: "Our modern notions don’t look at nature and the way God wired us."

Boring wants to do her best to care for her children well as a working mother: "It’s all about setting boundaries [between working and family time], creating a schedule and sticking to it."

Anna Abbott writes from

Napa, California.