Postpartum Experience: A Female Physician’s Account of Returning to Work After a Short Maternity Leave Part 3

As a working, physician mom, I am no stranger to knowing how to be extremely efficient- multitasking and working hard. However, mentally, this was taking a toll on me.

As Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stated recently, “If puppies are allowed to stay with their mothers for 8 weeks after a dog has given birth, why should women be leaving their children at 5 or 6 weeks postpartum?” The United States is the only developed country that does not offer paid maternity leave. Not only that, it offers one of the shortest lengths of leave, comparing it to 50 weeks in Canada and 1 year in some European countries.

American women have been working later into their pregnancies and going back to work sooner after birth like no other country. I, myself, was supposed to work and see patients until the day I went into labor. In some cultures, women take the 2-3 weeks at the end of the third trimester off for preparation for the baby.

In my residency program, of the 6 weeks maternity leave they give you, four of them are sick leave and the remaining two are your vacation weeks. This then leaves you with one week of vacation after. I understood at that moment the root of the issue- that maternity leave was being considered a vacation period rather than the crucial period of precious bonding between a newborn and its mother, as well as sacred time for healing and rest. But that is far from true. My leave was full of sleepless nights and hours of breastfeeding and pumping on demand.

I knew that if I did not stand firm on the boundaries from work while on leave, then I would be inundated with emails, texts, and patient tasks. I had my automated email reply on, did not check any of my patient task inbox, or respond regarding any research papers or work-related obligations. I did my very best to ignore the messages that I did receive that were work related, even though the guilt would still creep in. I did this so the respect for a woman’s time to heal and to bond with her baby would be known.

This topic was highlighted in an article by The Washington Post, “The World’s Richest Countries Guarantee Mothers More Than a Year of Paid Maternity Leave. The U.S. Guarantees Them Nothing.” That alone says it all. There are only a handful of countries without a national paid leave policy – Suriname, Papua New Guinea, a few small islands in the Pacific and the United States. This is compared to Estonia where new moms get 1.5 years, or Canada, Japan or Italy get 6 months or more of leave. In the United States, a quarter of women return to work within 2 weeks. More than 75% of dads are back to work within one week. This is despite the evidence that paid maternity leave is linked to improved health for mothers and babies; has been linked to lower rates of postpartum depression, lower rates of newborn and infant mortality, and higher rates of breastfeeding. Even the Centers for Disease Control has determined that women who return to work at 12 weeks or later are more likely to start and continue breastfeeding for at least 6 months, compared to women who return at 6 weeks or less.

I don’t know what 12 weeks of maternity leave would feel like, but I do know that compared to 6 weeks or less, it would be a blessing. I only know of having to figure out pumping within a week after my baby was born, planning for childcare soon after, and dreading all the work emails that continue to come through. Like so many new resident physician mamas, I was faced with both maternal discrimination for needing to pump every three hours, but also dealt with the fact that I was separated from my baby as a new mom at 5 weeks. I know there are so many other women who face these same challenges.

Now all I can do as a mom physician with a new baby is go to bed and wake up every morning stating these 10 mantras to myself:

  • Being and enjoying, not wishing and wanting.
  • This is my motherhood. I only get to do it once.
  • Everything I do serves a purpose for my family.
  • I am learning.
  • I am a great mom.
  • I can totally do this.
  • Just breathe.
  • Gratitude is my attitude.
  • Enjoy it, because it's happening.
  • I HAVE enough. I DO enough. I AM enough.
  • These have helped me get through the tough times. Your mindset is so important. In addition to these mantras, regular exercise and eating a nutritious diet, as well as the love and support from my husband and church family has helped me get back into feeling somewhat back to normal- how I used to feel before being a mom.

    Was time of leave sufficient? Absolutely not. Would I have preferred more time? Definitely. My only hope is that this continued conversation will result in change. I want to help current and future generations of physician mothers as we strive for this, so that we can do what most other societies do after childbirth. I hope that we can redefine the rules of society and start to treat women who give birth with the basic respect and dignity that they deserve.

    For more, be sure to follow Nikoleta @drnikoleta or subscribe to her podcast The Millennial Doc Podcast.

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