Little Teadrinker has just made it successfully through her first full week in daycare. After 8 months at home together it feels like a wrench, but looking at the moms around Campusville I'm reminded of how lucky we've been. The UK maternity deal may be average by European standards but it wipes the floor with the measly twelve weeks of unpaid job protected leave on offer to American women (and that’s thanks only to the relatively recent efforts of the Clinton Administration). The US is the only Western country where women have no statutory right to paid maternity leave.
You'd be forgiven for assuming that America's less appealing national traits are rooted in this epic failure to support parent/baby bonding in the critical first year of life. But it doesn't seem so. According to the Professor teaching the sophomore psychology course I’ve been auditing, around 2/3 of children are “securely attached” – i.e. when stressed they go to their primary care giver for reassurance - and this is consistent across Europe and the US.
So how come US children seem unaffected by such early separation? A recent US study suggests that going back to work brings benefits to income, relationships and mental health that outweigh the negative effects *. That sounds like apple pie, but I can't help thinking there must be more to it. A couple of features of family life on Campusville give pause for thought...
First, the moms here hug their babies tight. Baby-sling wearing is such big business that the European designer pram fetish seems to have passed many by. I've not seen a single Bugaboo, or for that matter a single newborn in a pram. According to the New York Times there are now at least 30 companies promoting designer baby carriers in the US, and between 2006 and 2008 sales of carriers rose 43% .
Second, the women here pump like daemons. By the time they go back to work many have produced enough breastmilk to fill all the teacups in New England. But it doesn't stop there. As of this year, women's rights to pump are protected by Federal law and increasing numbers of employers have “mothers' rooms” specifically designed for the purpose.
Third, the ready supply of low-wage migrant labour here seems to mean that better off families have their pick of talented and dedicated nannies. Latinos are unsurprisingly the most common - hiring someone who speaks Spanish to your children all day is seen as a bonus - but recently Tibetans have been gaining popularity. And crucially, its not uncommon amongst the nanny hiring class to appoint a nanny before the child’s been born, allowing the baby to get familiar and form attachment from day one.
So women here, like women in adverse circumstances around the world, do find a way to make it work for them and their children. And there are no doubt things that early returners in Europe could learn from their US counterparts. But personally speaking, I'd take nine months maternity pay over office pumping any day.
*Note that this study looks at the effects of going back to work in the first year for American Moms - i.e. Moms who do not have an alternative of paid maternity leave available. It does not offer any rationale for cutting UK maternity benefits in case you were wondering Mr Osbourne...