Having a baby is not for the faint of heart.
We women put our physical safety on the line to be pregnant and deliver a baby -- even American women, who have access to the most highly educated of medical professionals, the most advanced of medical technologies, and the most gleaming of sterile operating rooms. Ectopic pregnancies and preeclampsia are two of the more common potentially deadly side effects of pregnancy, but there are plenty of others: pregnancy-related infection and sepsis, pulmonary and amniotic embolisms, hemorrhage, placenta previa, placental abruption, and postpartum depression or psychosis which can lead to suicide attempts, to name a few.
In fact, according to 2010 statistics gathered by the CIA, the US ranks 47th in maternal mortality rates, which means a woman is more likely to die from pregnancy or childbirth in the US than are women in Japan, Slovakia, Qatar, Montenegro, Lithuania, Malta, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Serbia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, South Korea, Croatia, Bahrain, Puerto Rico, Hungary and basically every Scandinavian and Western European country. We are tied for maternal mortality rates with Iran.
For women who make it through their deliveries more or less unscathed -- or, at least, alive -- there are a host of other health-related risks, mental and physical. One in three women have some symptoms of PTSD related to labor or childbirth, 11-18% of new moms report symptoms of postpartum depression, and one or two out of every 1,000 women who give birth experience postpartum psychosis. Physical complications of pregnancy, labor, and delivery include, but are not limited to, such oldie-but-goodies as postpartum fatigue, body pain, back pain, sciatica, perineal pain, headaches, allergies, breast engorgement, mastitis, hemorrhoids, constipation, urinary incontinence, fecal incontinence, pelvic organ prolapses, disturbed sleep, sleeping disorders, tendonitis, thyroid disorders, lack of sexual desire, and painful intercourse. Bottom line: pregnancy is, in fact, a risky business indeed, even in the U.S.
And those are just the physical risks of having a baby. Working mothers experience plenty of career-related hardships, as well -- hardships not faced by working fathers. Women who choose to temporarily stay-at-home with children are subject to the "Mommy Tax," a phrase coined by former New York Times economics reporter Ann Crittenden to describe the financial setbacks women experience when they return to work after time off to raise young children. Crittenden notes that in America, a working mother with these kinds of gaps in her resume is less able to negotiate competitively for her salary, and, on average, "she will lose about a million dollars in lifetime earnings."
And regardless of whether a working mother takes any time off or not, she faces real, measurable prejudices that women who are not mothers and men -- including men who are fathers -- simply don't. Research published recently in the Harvard Business Review revealed that even when women don't take significant time off in conjunction with childbirth, "motherhood often triggers strong and blatant workplace bias." As the HBR reports, working mothers are perceived as "significantly less competent and...least likely to be hired or promoted," and "visibly pregnant women managers are judged as less committed to their jobs, less dependable, and less authoritative...and more irrational" than women managers who were not visibly pregnant.
This bias doesn't just come from men; women are just as likely to harbor prejudices against pregnant women and mothers. It's easy to recognize that we internalize this kind of bias, blaming mental fogginess and forgetfulness on our hormone-saturated "mommy brains," rather than on the more likely culprits: the not-necessarily-gender-specific sleep deprivation, priority reorganization, and task saturation that being responsible for meeting (in addition to our own needs) every need of a small, sticky, frenzied, screaming little person entails.
And if we mothers -- and our coworkers -- aren't already rolling our eyes enough at how incompetent, addle-brained, and pathetically useless pregnancy and motherhood have made us, we also have the charming reactions of the culture-at-large to remind us of what crummy human beings we are. There is nothing like the judgmental and unsolicited advice of a perfect stranger who knows nothing about you, your family, your child, or your priorities to ruin your whole day, except for the diametrically opposing expectations society seems to have of pregnant women and mothers. You vain creature, for God's sake, make sure you eat enough during your pregnancy! But not too much, you fat cow, destined to have fat-cow kids! Make sure you get enough rest during pregnancy! But why aren't you exercising, you lazy sow! You must breast feed! But not anywhere anyone might be able to see you! Travel, and expose your kids to the world so they're not spoiled American idiots! But not on my flight! Get it together and teach your kids some table manners! But not at my restaurant! Stop hovering and get your own life! But if you weren't willing to sacrifice every aspect of your own life, why did you even have kids?!? Between the judgmental, demoralizing social attacks and prejudices, the financial liabilities, career setbacks, and sheer physical risk that pregnancy and motherhood entails, it's a wonder any women become mothers.
But, here's the tricky part: as a society, we actually need women to have babies. Putting aside any eschatological worries about the continuation of the human species, there are some practical concerns about the number of babies women in America are currently having (or not having), and both liberal and conservative voices agree. We are experiencing the lowest birth rate in nearly one hundred years, and this could have far-reaching impacts on our economy, which depends on a stable (or growing), goods-and-services-consuming population, as well as on Social Security and other programs (like, oh, everything else the federal government pays for) that depend on a stable, tax-paying population.
So, if having and raising a baby is a considerable burden that women (especially) and families (more generally) bear, and we, as a nation, need them to bear it, it is simply our responsibility to do what we can to make it a bit easier for them. After all, we show our appreciation for the service and sacrifices of our military members (who, much like parents, are currently an all-volunteer force who sometimes have actual fun doing the tough job they've volunteered to do) by providing health and dental care, housing allowances, tax-free grocery shopping, retirement benefits, education benefits, housing loans, and employment programs. In a similar way, we ought to show our appreciation for the service and sacrifices mothers and families make when they put their physical and mental health, and their financial well-being, at risk in order to undertake a difficult task -- the bearing and raising of children -- that society depends on for continued financial and social stability.
One way we can show our appreciation is through legislation which protects and promotes the interests of pregnant women and families -- such as the FMLA. The FMLA allows qualifying employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave (with continued health care coverage) for the birth or adoption of a child, or to take care of a family member with a serious illness or medical condition, or for their own serious medical condition. The FMLA has been used over 100 million times since it was passed 20 years ago, so it's clearly doing some real good for many Americans. Of course, it's nowhere as comprehensive the kind of maternity support offered by almost every other country on earth. Australia offers nearly a year of job-protected, unpaid leave for the birth of a baby, and every other industrialized nation (163 of them) offers paid leave; these are countries that, as Crittenden writes, recognize "how important good caregiving is to the rest of the country."
Let's stop pretending that a woman's decision to have a baby is the functional equivalent of taking up a dangerous or irresponsible hobby, from which she -- and she alone -- benefits. Taking medical leave from work for three months because your OB/GYN has put you on bed rest is not the same thing as taking an "Eat, Pray, Love" backpacking trip through Europe. Coming late to work because you need to drop your child off at day care is not the same thing as coming late because you drank most of a bottle of tequila the night before at your friend's birthday party. Needing to limit the number of hours you spend in the office because your autistic child requires frequent occupational therapy appointments is not the same thing as needing to limit the number of hours you spend in the office because you are a gifted adult-kickball player who needs to "hone your craft."
Laws and workplace policies targeted to benefit pregnant and breastfeeding women, and families engaged in the work of raising children, aren't discriminatory "special treatment." They simply acknowledge the fact that having and raising a child isn't purely a vanity project, but rather, a risky, demanding, and important project which, when done well, benefits us all tremendously.
Incidentally, I'm not the only crazy feminist in the history of the world to view childbirth and motherhood this way. Ancient Sparta, a culture known for its military prowess and the ferocity of its warriors, also recognized the role that childbirth and motherhood played in the security and prosperity of their society. Two groups of Spartan heroes were allowed to have their names inscribed on gravestones, an honor reserved for those who gave their lives in service to the state: men who died in battle and women who died during childbirth. The ancient Spartans recognized -- as does the rest of our contemporary, industrialized world -- the important personal contributions mothers and families make to the success and prosperity of a nation.
It's time we did, too.