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A woman in a suit holding a child.

The U.S. Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 allows working women to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave each year for childbirth or the adoption of a child.

Challenges for new mothers who work

From eNews, April 21, 2005

Women with infants are one of the fastest-growing segments in the U.S. workforce. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 31 percent of mothers with children under a year old worked in 1976; this number grew to 55 percent in 2002.

Many studies and reports have been published about women in the workforce, on issues such as gender equality, work schedules, and family-related leave policies. For Patricia McGovern, an associate professor in the U's School of Public Health, one of the crucial issues is also one of the most overlooked--the mental and physical health of the postpartum working woman.

Recently, McGovern released preliminary findings from an ongoing 18-month study of more than 700 mothers working after childbirth. The women, on average, suffered from six different health problems--breast soreness or infection, fatigue, headaches, back and neck pain, and (about 5 percent reported symptoms of) postpartum depression--a serious health condition that can last for several months or more. Only 7 percent of the study participants returned to work within the first six weeks of giving birth.

Her findings support a number of notions: that new mothers require time off from work to rest and recuperate; that access to health care providers, especially mental health professionals, is important; and that postpartum health should be considered when crafting policies for family leaves.

McGovern has also found that most women are ill-informed about their companies' family leave policies. She says employers must do more to inform women about the often-complicated family leave options that may be available to them. Although federal law does not provide paid maternity leave, some U.S. companies do offer new parents some paid time off--in some cases, up to six weeks.

The United States joins Australia and New Zealand as the only industrialized nations that do not provide paid maternity leave and health benefits by law, according the International Labor Organization. Women in the U.S., however, can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave each year for childbirth or the adoption of a child under the U.S. Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993. This maternity benefit allows the mother to recover from childbirth and to care for her newborn infant without economic anxieties. In 1995, a National Science Foundation study reported that 83 percent of new mothers returned to work within six months of childbirth.

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