Perla Saenz went back sore and exhausted just four weeks after giving birth—and two weeks after the incision from her C-section reopened. She had heard her older child cough in the night and instinctively tried to pick him up, forgetting for a moment her doctor’s warning against lifting anything heavier than ten pounds. Weak and sometimes feverish, she often found herself clutching the counter for support.
Bernadette Cano was back on the job five weeks after giving birth. Though she was in better physical shape, she wasn’t ready to be apart from her son. “I was thinking about the baby all the time,” she told me tearfully from the break room of Walmart, where she worked in the dressing room. Under normal circumstances, she enjoyed the job tidying up the dressing rooms and returning clothes to the racks. But with her newborn son at home, she couldn’t think of anything else and even broke the company policy against texting so she could check in with her family.
These women, just two of dozens I’ve interviewed in my research on parental leave, are far from alone in having inadequate time off. While many people think of three months as the typical length of maternity leave (perhaps because mothers often need at least that long to recover from birth), the majority of working mothers in the U.S. are back at work before three months is up: More than a quarter are at work within two months of giving birth, according to the latest census data, and one in ten—more than half a million women each year—are back at work in four weeks or less. Some go back to work just a few weeks—and sometimes days—after giving birth.