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Baby blues: The dangers of the trend toward shorter maternity leaves [US]

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Shellenbarger, Sue
Publication Date: 
20 May 2004

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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, Cambridge, Mass., a private nonprofit research organization. Mothers who take at least three months off after childbirth show 15% fewer symptoms of depression after they return to work, compared with women who take six weeks or less. Those who take at least eight weeks show 11% fewer symptoms.

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 a large percentage of women are returning to work sooner than women did a decade ago. In the mid-1990s, 42% 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 some women are taking as little as two weeks.

Between 50% and 70% of women get the 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% and 20% 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. In the National Bureau study, authors Pinka Chatterji and Sara Markowitz found longer maternity leaves mainly helped mothers with postpartum blues. For mothers who were already clinically depressed, more time off work isn't enough to solve the problem.

Maternity leave is a hot-button issue. Angered by being granted only two weeks of paid maternity leave, among other issues, a Bank of America employee, Kimberley Euston, last month filed a sex- and pregnancy-bias lawsuit against the Charlotte, N.C., company. She alleged she was denied the six weeks of paid leave given some other employees partly because she had complained about the bank's failure to promote more women. A Bank of America spokeswoman says its managers had legitimate business reasons for their decisions, adding that the complaint lacks merit. The suit is pending in U.S. District Court in Manhattan.

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 employers with over 50 workers, many women cannot afford unpaid leave.

To build a financial foundation for time off, patch together as much paid time off as allowed by employer policies, including vacation and sick days, suggests Michael Lotito, San Francisco, a partner in the law firm Jackson Lewis. If your company has a short-term disability policy, new mothers are eligible, usually for six to eight weeks of full or partial pay. If you live in New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Hawaii or California, you may be eligible for disability pay from the state.

- reprinted from the Wall Street Journal