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HomeHealth & FitnessMy Maternity Leave Abroad Showed Me the US Deserves Better

My Maternity Leave Abroad Showed Me the US Deserves Better

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When I first told a fellow American about my 12-month maternity leave in Canada, she raised her eyebrows: “Not paid though, right?” Paid parental leave was a reality my friends back home couldn’t comprehend. They were used to fighting for any leave at all and measuring it in weeks. But outside the US, having a baby looks a little different.

For the first year of my daughter’s life, Wednesday afternoons were spent clinking glasses with a circle of moms at the local brewery as our babies cooed on a blanket beneath us. We swapped stories about how naps were going (not good) and whose babies were starting to crawl (not mine). I was a first-time mom far from home, and these women had become family to me. We gathered every Monday at music class, Tuesday at yoga, Thursday at the park, and Fridays at a rotation of house concerts, where string quartets and guitar sing-a-longs transfixed our babies.

Since year-long parental leave is normalized in Canada, it was easy to find a group of parents on the same schedule as me. At the end of a challenging year of sleepless nights and messy meals, I was grateful for the built-in friends and support during what could have otherwise been a lonely time.

Because society in Canada is arranged in a way to support substantial parental leaves, it also wasn’t seen as an inconvenience when I left my job for a year. My team hired a maternity leave cover so they weren’t left scrambling, and I didn’t have to feel guilty for not being there or pressured to check in.

And when it came time for my daughter to start daycare, I watched her wave goodbye to me and walk right in, a big girl who was ready to start making friends. (And then I went and cried in my car.) But I was ready, too: taking the year to care for my body and mental health alongside my baby helped me feel prepared to return to work.

Five years later, I was back in the US, walking through my quiet neighborhood with my second baby strapped to my chest. We were both crying. Life was chaotic, and I constantly felt alone. Without the same culture of regular parent meetups, I struggled to find community. There were probably programs at the library, but I had only recently come out from under the fog of having a newborn, and it was almost time to go back to work already, so it seemed too late to make the effort. The idea of somehow seeking out a group of friends seemed exhausting and I couldn’t muster up the strength to organize anything.

At four months old, my daughter still felt so young. It was heart-wrenching to say goodbye to her as I put on clothes that weren’t sweatpants and prepared myself to fake-smile at my first morning meeting.

I was lucky to be working remotely, but still, pumping felt impossible to schedule — I would get so caught up that I’d realize I missed a session, and by ten months, I wasn’t producing any more milk. I can only imagine how much harder it would have been if I had to schedule a pumping room and coordinate bringing everything to and from the office every day.

Postpartum depression snuck up on me, until I felt constantly frustrated and out of energy. The difficulties that a support structure helped alleviate with my first child now felt insurmountable. The baby wouldn’t nap in her crib, she wouldn’t breastfeed, and alone, I felt like a failure. Sometimes I’d lay on the floor, unable to stop my racing thoughts. It took me a year to finally realize what was wrong and get the help I needed.

Parental leave in Canada isn’t perfect, but I did feel like society was working with me to help set me up to bond with my baby, feel confident in parenting, and form strong connections with my community. It allowed me to keep my job and feel valued in my career. Most importantly, it made me feel like I could take the time I needed to be a mom. In the US, I felt like I was swimming through sand, trying desperately to raise a baby before I had to go back to work, and the effects lasted long after the day I signed back into my email. But it doesn’t have to be like this.

Several countries offer over a year of paid leave, according to Pew Research Center: Bulgaria, Hungary, Japan, Lithuania, Austria, Slovakia, Latvia, Norway and Slovenia. Estonia offers a year and a half. The United States is in the minority as only one of six countries to offer no national leave at all. Although some states are beginning to pass leave laws, it’s not comprehensive enough.

I hope that Americans can stop taking our lack of parental leave as a given. We deserve the same protections that other countries provide to help support new parents and set them up for success. I wish Americans knew that the idea of sipping a beer with fellow parents next to a blanket of cooing babies is not so wild after all.

Erin Hug is a parenting writer and video editor/producer. She was a Telefilm Canada New Voices Award recipient for her original TV pilot and is currently working on a memoir. Erin is passionate about spreading awareness of paid family leave and improving queer representation in the media.

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