For Mother’s Day this year, I had the honor of joining moms and women’s health advocates to speak at a congressional briefing on the policies mothers need. The event kicked off the March for Moms weekend and included the March of Dimes and two inspiring women — Timoria McQueen, a postpartum hemorrhage survivor turned maternal health advocate, and Jamie Zahlaway Belsito, a commissioner for Massachusetts’ Special Legislative Commission on Postpartum Depression.
Timoria’s and Jamie’s stories made a lasting impression on me as someone who works to advance family friendly policies that support moms and all working people, and I can’t stop thinking about them in light of the news about the Trump administration’s budget proposal. The plan includes dramatic changes to health care and a very limited paid leave policy that would only provide six weeks of leave to new parents so they can care for a newborn or adopted child. It would provide no time for people with serious health issues, including women with serious pregnancy-related conditions, like Timoria and Jamie.
Timoria’s pregnancy was normal, but after 27 hours of labor and the birth of her daughter, things took a drastic and life-threatening turn. Timoria started hemorrhaging and she watched her blood pressure drop and felt as if a heavy curtain was falling over her eyes. She survived, but a series of ineffective and even harmful mental health interventions followed as her body recovered. A year later, she was traumatized again when she suffered a miscarriage.
Jamie also had a miscarriage, which she was forced to endure at home because her local hospital was too understaffed to perform the necessary surgical procedure. The process lasted six weeks. Fortunately, her second pregnancy was successful, albeit stressful, but she ended up developing postpartum depression, just like at least one in nine women who give birth in the United States — a number that does not include depression associated with miscarriages.
These stories demonstrate the importance of access to quality maternity care, including mental health services. Shockingly, the United States has the highest maternal mortality rate in the developed world and postpartum hemorrhage, other serious complications and postpartum depression are all too common. Some 600 women die of pregnancy-related causes each year, and pregnancy-related death disproportionately affects women of color.
The stories also make clear how essential access to paid medical leave is for new moms — a point too often missed in the paid leave policy debate, in which the focus tends to be on maternity leave. More than 75 percent of people who take unpaid family or medical leave annually under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) do so for family caregiving and medical reasons. These are people like Timoria and Jamie and their loved ones, who need time to receive and provide serious medical care.
And access to paid family and medical leave is rare. Just 14 percent of U.S. workers have paid family leave through their jobs, and fewer than 40 percent have access to personal medical leave through an employer’s temporary disability insurance program. A handful of states have paid family and medical leave programs, but nearly half of first-time moms do not take any paid leave for a child’s birth and nearly one-quarter of new moms are back at work within two weeks of giving birth.
The Trump administration’s new paid leave proposal offers only six weeks of paid leave to new parents — compared to the national standard of 12 weeks established by the FMLA — leaving behind many new moms and working people who need time to address their own serious health issues or to care for seriously ill or injured family members. It is a phony and reckless plan that puts the onus of providing paid leave on states while making cuts that will hurt women, families and communities.
The United States can — and must — do better for all moms and all working people. People should not have to suffer like Timoria and Jamie did because they do not have access to quality maternity care, postpartum care or paid family and medical leave. People should not have to fear that taking time away from work due to pregnancy or another serious health condition will lead to unemployment, financial insecurity, a new need for public assistance to survive, homelessness or worse.
Timoria and Jamie have inspired me, and all of us at the National Partnership for Women & Families, to remain vigilant in the fight for quality maternity care and comprehensive paid family and medical leave for all. America’s women and families deserve better than deep cuts and harmful proposals like the American Health Care Act and Trump’s paid leave plan. Investments in our care and the Family And Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act are what moms and many others truly need.