Sunday , July 25 2021

Opinion: All pregnant people deserve a law like New Zealand’s

I had just told my employer I was pregnant a few days, maybe a week, prior — a decision some friends had argued against for the very reason I was now experiencing. It’s hard enough telling your employer you’re pregnant; telling them that you’re not any more feels unimaginable.

I returned to my job the very next day, writing and editing stories about parenthood and newborns and healthy pregnancies as I bled into an oversized pad. I told myself I had been “only” 12 or so weeks pregnant, hardly a reason to make a “big deal” out of losing that pregnancy. I would soldier on, because I had to. Because what would it say to my employer or my colleagues about me if I couldn’t?

It would have been so different for me — as it would for so many others — if employers (or better yet, governments) sent workers the message directly: We know this happens. We’re here for you. You’re entitled to take time to care for yourself and your family.

New Zealand recently became the first country to offer bereaved women paid time off after a miscarriage or infant loss. Employees will be entitled to three days’ leave following a pregnancy under the law, which lawmakers unanimously approved and which is set to gain royal assent. This new measure immediately gained traction and started trending around the world. It’s crucial to talk more about why.

This revolutionary step forward is a sign of what could be if we, as a society, gained a better understanding of the needs of postpartum people, whether they’re post-infant loss, post-miscarriage, post-abortion or post live birth. This policy gives people what my partner and I did not have: the opportunity to heal — mentally, physically and emotionally — from a wanted pregnancy that did not end with a living infant and the expansion of our family.

Which is why this policy also makes me angry. It’s 2021 and still, still, it’s revolutionary to include those who suffer miscarriage and infant loss in discussions and policies that aim to support and care for postpartum people. I’m furious that for every other country on the globe, it seems that such a monumental policy is still out of reach.

It’s a commonly cited statistic that one in four pregnancies will end in a miscarriage (though that number is likely higher as many pregnant people miscarry without knowing they were ever pregnant). But the commonality of miscarriage does not diminish or erase the trauma that often occurs as a result of pregnancy and infant loss — trauma of both the body and the mind.
Nearly 20% of women who experience a pregnancy loss will experience symptoms of depression and/or anxiety, according to one 2015 study published in journal The Primary Care Companion for CNS Disorders. One in six women who experience pregnancy loss will also experience long-term PTSD symptoms, according to a recent 2020 study. When combined with the physical effects of pregnancy loss (which vary widely), these dire ramifications warrant time off to process, grieve, seek treatment for and begin healing from.
Yet pregnant people in this country are rarely afforded such time. The United States remains the only industrialized nation in the world that does not mandate paid family leave following the birth of a child, let alone following a pregnancy or infant loss. One in four women return to work just two weeks after giving birth — an apparent byproduct of a capitalist nation that prioritizes pontificating on the importance of working mothers over actually providing them adequate support via paid time off, affordable childcare, access to maternal mental health care, and equal pay for equal work.
It’s not just the lack of support via policies and laws that harm those who have experienced pregnancy or infant loss, either. Our country has a dire misunderstanding of miscarriage in general, let alone how it can impact those who experience it. One 2015 study of 1,084 adults found that a majority erroneously believe miscarriage occurs in 5 percent or less of pregnancies and that it can be the result of lifting something heavy (not to mention the significant number who said it was the result of contraception or an argument).
Due to lingering pregnancy discrimination in the workplace, pregnant people are rarely provided adequate workplace accommodations or paid time off for health-related reasons, let alone when they’re no longer pregnant due to a loss. In all likelihood, I could have taken time off to heal from my miscarriage. I was one of the privileged few who worked at a company that would have granted me that time had I only found it in me to ask for it. But I didn’t. If there was no baby, then who did I need the time to heal for, exactly? Surely, the answer couldn’t have been simply…me.
But that was the answer. I struggled after my miscarriage with my emotional and mental health. Had I been made to feel as though I could prioritize the needs of my post-pregnant body, whether it was holding an infant or not, by taking time away from work, I might have been better equipped to deal with the perinatal mood disorders that followed during my subsequent pregnancy. After all, studies show that a past history of postpartum depression and anxiety puts someone at an elevated risk for perinatal mood disorders.

While New Zealand’s paid time off policy for those who have had a pregnancy or infant loss is an important and necessary step forward, it is also a referendum on governments around the world that it took until 2021 to happen. And if we are ever going to make significant strides in the US toward lowering the maternal mortality rate, prioritizing maternal mental health and better positioning moms to succeed both in and outside the home, than we must start treating the needs of every pregnant person, regardless of the outcome of their pregnancy, with the same level of dignity and urgency.

The legitimacy of a postpartum need — be it mental, physical or emotional — does not hinge on the presence of a living infant, but the presence of the need itself and the person who says they have it.

I had those needs once. In many ways, I still do. It’s far past time for more countries — the US included — to acknowledge them.

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