The US Government Should Step Up and Join the Rest of the Modern World in Helping New Families

photo by D. Divecha

When my first baby was born, I had already studied children's development for seven years. Yet I felt unprepared. When the baby first pooped, my husband and I rang for the hospital nurse; when it came to breastfeeding, I needed to be shown how to position everything. Heading home, part of me was in disbelief that, as two-day-old parents, we could take this little person away unsupervised.

My family was halfway across the country; my husband's was halfway around the world. Both of us worked full-time, and I was on a six-week disability leave from my job. I had no help, and the clock was ticking. In those first few weeks, I couldn't get out of my nightgown. Our bed was an explosion of laundry, food, mail, papers, bills, and diapers. And the shape of the day, once driven by work, flattened to the rapid recycling of a newborn's needs, in addition to a few basic ones of our own.

Three years later I was pregnant with our second child and in a new academic job, in a department of 15 or so men and one other woman. On the advice of a "work-life balance expert," I had requested to teach one fewer course so that I would have some time for parenting--and who better to do this than a developmental psychologist? I felt radical--for a second--until the university countered by prorating both my salary and my progress to tenure. The arrangement was unprecedented there, and my status quickly became labeled The Mommy Track.

Back in 1991, a pregnant academic was rare (unheard of in my department, as far as I knew) and my male colleagues treated me with a curious distance.

"I feel like there's so much estrogen in the room," one commented in a faculty meeting.

"I'm impressed that you can be so pregnant and smart at the same time," another complimented.

It was not uncommon for my lunch to go missing from the refrigerator; most of my colleagues didn't recognize their own lunch bags, since their wives packed them. I not only packed my own but also packed my preschooler's lunch, prepped for dinner, and left the day's instructions for the sitter, all by the time I left home at 6AM.

photo by D. Divecha

When the second baby was born, I took a three-month leave-without-pay from work, and this time I recruited my mother-in-law from India to help us at home. I wanted time to settle in, and now had an idea of what that would take.  I needed to figure out new care arrangements, get to know my baby's signals, keep up with the physical demands of two little ones, recover physically, get some sleep. I wanted the older child to feel secure, I wanted space to learn about the second one, and I wanted to have enough love left to give to my husband. Most of all, I wanted to protect the inner spaciousness that would allow me into the altered state of consciousness that was my children's world, and that would keep me connected to the exquisite beauty of all that was happening.

I let my department know of the successful delivery of our second daughter. One colleague called to congratulate me. The secretary sent a plant. At the end of three months, I returned to work bearing sweets (determined that my colleagues acknowledge this birth) and my breast pump.

Anyone who is employed and has children knows the seismic pressures involved in the transformation to becoming a family. I took a hit financially and professionally, and I absorbed the micro-aggressions, but I returned to work. Many people, however, are forced into the Solomonesque choice between caring for their children and making a living. Unfortunately, American workplaces lag behind--way behind--the rest of the world in acknowledging and supporting this transition. This month, the 22nd anniversary of the Family and Medical Leave Act, I wrote an op-ed piece with my colleague Robin Stern, about why it is so important to children's development that the government protect and support families with adequate paid parental leave.

The thread that begins to be spun between baby and caregiver--that will grow and anchor and support the child throughout life--needs time, space, and attention. The quality of that thread determines the all-important "startup" process, and it also echoes throughout the lifespan in mental and physical health, relationship choices, and more.

Supporting families is an efficient investment in the nation's future.