Family policy — an issue at the forefront of many Americans’ minds — finally made it to the Democratic debate stage this past Thursday night. 

Ashley Parker, a White House reporter for the Washington Post, asked candidates what they would do about high childcare costs and the lack of paid parental leave. Andrew Yang shared the disgraceful fact that there are only two countries in the world with no paid family leave for new moms: the United States of America and Papua New Guinea.

“That is the entire list,” Yang continued, “and we need to get off this list as soon as possible.”

As unbelievable as it may seem, it’s more or less true. Whereas more than 120 countries meet or exceed a minimum set by the United Nations’ International Labor Organization (ILO) in 1952 — 14 weeks of paid maternity leave for all employed women — the closest we come here in the US is the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA)

Passed in 1993, the FMLA ensures eligible employees up to just 12 weeks of unpaid leave each year. These meager protections are limited to workers in companies with more than 50 employees. An employee must have been with the firm for more than one year and work full time, thus excluding 40% of the US workforce — including freelancers like me. 

As a self-employed person hustling in the gig economy, I didn’t qualify for the FMLA — forget paid parental leave — from any of my multiple employers. So I didn’t take very much time off to prepare or recover from the birth of my first child. Instead, fearful that I’d sacrifice any gains I’ve made in my career — and because my family needed the money — I hustled even harder up until the day I was in labor. Even after giving birth and while caring for a newborn, I struggled to give myself permission to slow down. 

At the time, maternity leave felt like a luxury my family couldn’t afford. In retrospect, I regret not taking the time off I so desperately needed. 

Maternity leave is not a vacation

Maternity leave is the period of time when a mother stops working because she is about to have — or has just had (or adopted) — a baby. While we most commonly hear the term “maternity leave,” it’s sometimes called family or parental leave, particularly because it may apply to not only birth mothers, but also to adoptive mothers, fathers, or domestic partners.

It’s a time for a birth parent to physically and mentally recover from giving birth, and for all parents to bond with their child. For those mothers who do so, it’s also a time to figure out the logistics of breastfeeding, which, though technically “free,” requires considerable maternal investment and other unrecognized costs — everything from breast pumps, nursing bras, and other gears to breastfeeding support groups and lactation consultants. 

What maternity leave is not: a vacation. 

It’s ironic then that for many employees, taking time off to care for themselves and their families requires a cobbling together of vacation, sick, and personal days. For many, it means negotiating with less-than-understanding bosses — all while dodging passive-aggressive comments from condescending coworkers wistfully admiring your “time off.” 

The benefits of maternity leave are enormous 

Prior to parenting, I didn’t fully comprehend the importance of paid parental leave. My relatively easy pregnancy conspired with misconceptions about motherhood writ large, leading me to believe I’d be one of those magical moms who somehow had it all, right from the start. 

Rather than winding down around 35 weeks — the reasonable time to begin one’s maternity leave — I was pitching writing assignments and working as a writing instructor well into my third trimester. Even though I felt fine at the time, this all but guaranteed I’d be left with a full plate of obligations after I gave birth.

Looking back, I wish I’d planned differently. 

According to researchers, mothers who are unable to start paid leave before birth may be at a higher risk of preterm labor due to stress and may have babies more prone to a low birth weight. Experts say that mothers who don’t take maternity leave are at more risk for parental burnout and other mental health concerns, such as anxiety and depression, as well as physical complications such as mastitis, which is a painful inflammation which commonly affects breastfeeding women.  

Like most new moms, I was overwhelmed and exhausted after giving birth. I struggled through my fourth trimester, bleeding and hormonal. The repetitive tasks of changing diapers, feeding, and soothing my infant consumed my days.

Meeting a newborn’s needs while also fielding the demands of my employers proved impossible.

Partners need paid leave, too 

I didn’t take parental leave. But thankfully, my husband did. 

Though we took it for granted at the time, Arran’s then-employer was a truly family-friendly workplace. For example, they allowed him to work from home whenever he felt necessary — which meant he attended all of my OB appointments and could stay nearby those last unpredictable weeks. 

Thanks to a generous paternity leave, we were able to spend some time connecting as a family. He was also able to watch the baby while I worked. Being so sleep deprived, I could hardly concentrate. Two or three hours at a nearby cafe was all I could manage before my breasts were engorged, or I’d be overcome by the anxiety of being away from my infant.

Sure, if you scroll through my Instagram, you’ll see it wasn’t all business: One afternoon, for example, we took our newborn to the museum, and we enjoyed many a leisurely brunch. But strolls in the park and afternoon naps as a family barely mitigated the enormous stress we were under, both individually and as a couple.

Some months later, my husband was allowed two additional weeks of paid paternity leave so that we could visit family abroad but, again, I wouldn’t count this as vacation: Arran entertained our then-four-month-old on the beach while I hosted a two-week-long writing retreat. Looking back, the expectations I placed on myself were unrealistic — but at least I had my partner to bear witness and shoulder the burden.

How our society can better support new parents 

I am currently 38 weeks pregnant with baby No. 2, and have learned from my mistakes. After finishing this assignment, I look forward to logging off. 

As for how long paid leave should be, six months is considered the “magic number.” According to a study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, paid parental leave for six months at a time allows families to reap the benefits of taking time off, while avoiding certain negative impacts on women’s careers that are typical in countries with more generous policies. I won’t take six months — I simply can’t afford to as a freelancer with no official paid leave policy — but I know from prior experience that my family also can’t afford for me to not take at least some time off.

Kamala Harris has been put on the spot for proposing Americans be given six-months, government-paid leave, a plan that has been characterized in the media as “generous.” In the last debate, Amy Klobochar lumped six months paid parental leave in with universal college and loan forgiveness.

Research finds little evidence to support the view that moderate periods of parental leave reduce economic efficiency. On the contrary, it actually hints at a modest beneficial impact, particularly when considering paid time off work. A 2011 report by the Center for Economic and Policy Research found that 87% of Californian employers mandated by law to provide paid maternity leave said that doing so did not increase costs. Nine percent said they actually saved money because of decreased turnover or benefit payments. 

Paid parental leave is neither frivolous nor unnecessary. It’s not a luxury, as I once believed. Instead, it is — as President Obama said in his 2014 State of the Union Address — a “basic need.” Let’s hope our next president agrees.

Originally published on Business Insider.

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