Imagine the following medical hypothetical:
DOCTOR: We ran some tests and there is a watermelon growing inside you.
PATIENT: How do we get it out?
One of two ways. We either perform major abdominal surgery while you’re awake and hold your internal organs in front of a room of strangers that includes your romantic partner …
WHAT’S THE OTHER WAY?
It comes out a hole in your body the size of a gumball.
How long does it take to recover from that?
For the surgery? Best case, six weeks. You bleed and can’t walk up a flight of stairs. Longer if anything goes wrong. Downtime is shorter on the gumball path.
What could go wrong?
Among other things, hemorrhage, pre-eclampsia, cardiomyopathy, thrombotic pulmonary embolism …. Then there’s the odd seizure and ——
OK! OK! Then it’s over? Life goes on?
Not really. The watermelon casts one of two spells on you.
What are the spells?
The first is the good spell: You will be willing to sacrifice your life to the watermelon and tend to its every need (it is a watermelon and can’t do anything) and if you don’t, it will die. You also cannot sleep more than three hours in a row because the watermelon needs to eat. And it eats your body.
What’s the bad spell?
Everything in the first spell plus you spiral into depression.
What are the chances of that happening?
About one in seven.
OK. So … what do you expect my employer to say about this?
Congratulations! See you Monday!
If you live in Canada or, say, France, you are probably amused by this little thought experiment. And possibly drinking a beer from a small and dainty glass. But if you are a person in America who has given birth or knows someone who has given birth, this is just a summary of a sobering and absolutely barbaric reality.
As it stands, the United States has no federal paid family leave benefit. And some 77 percent of private industry workers have no access to paid parental leave.
Though President Biden originally proposed guaranteeing 12 weeks of paid leave in his Build Back Better package, that has been reduced to four weeks. Even that paltry reprieve is uncertain. Senators like Joe Manchin (D-Coal Lobby) argued that the social spending bill wasn’t the right place for it.
A prevailing argument against a paid family leave policy is that it hurts employers. “Pro-business” tax cuts and incentives, the thinking goes, are a better way to ensure workers get time off when they need it. But a study released by the National Bureau of Economic Research in April suggests that taxpayer-funded paid family leave does not harm employers and indeed can improve their experience of dealing with workers’ absences. Withholding paid family leave isn’t just bad for parents and babies, it’s bad for business.
The issue, for me, is quite personal. If I’d had only four weeks of paid leave after giving birth, I might be dead. And if I were dead my 2-year-old son would not have had a semi-handmade garbage truck costume for Halloween.
Six weeks after he was born after a routine 27-hour labor (I got “the epidural” the same way I got “the novocaine” during a root canal), I noticed something maybe sort of a little odd.
At this point, I might have ignored it for a few reasons. After giving birth, people are socially conditioned to ignore symptoms that aren’t an immediate emergency.
When new parents are sent home from a hospital, it feels as if the entire goal of the medical staff is to convince them that they are ready to take an infant home. This is, of course, a huge lie. But you tend to believe the nurses when they say, “That cramping/bleeding is totally normal” and — my favorite — “That’s not dizziness, that’s love.” Turns out: It was both. My kid had naturally huge cheeks and I was quietly bleeding internally.
So after six weeks of being entranced by the watermelon, it occurred to me that something was very (probably?) wrong. Without getting too graphic, I’ll say there was an impolite but not dramatic amount of blood. The amount that would require you to get up from the table at Downton Abbey and announce, “Excuse me, I seem to have sullied your chair.”
I called my doctor, who (mercifully!) listened to my symptoms and took me seriously, and then — fortunately — rejected my apologizing and joking about the “probably false alarm.”
Shortly thereafter I was on the operating table. There was bleeding in my uterus caused by a placenta-related complication. Had I ignored it, likely no garbage truck.
This is a story of extraordinary privilege that should be a basic human right.
I am a member of a union that gives me health insurance covering all aspects of childbirth except for parking ($60 I’ll never let my son forget).
And thanks to that same union, I had paid time off from work that enabled my unplanned surgical vacation and allowed me not to ignore my symptoms. I was one of the few pregnant staff writers for a late-night show (my male colleagues took two weeks after their wives gave birth). In my own little act of precedent-setting, I made sure to ask for the maximum allowable time, and thanks to a gracious boss, I actually got it.
Of course, the potentially hypothetical paid family leave policy in the Biden plan isn’t just for people who choose to procreate. It’s also for taking care of a parent who falls ill. Or a spouse. Or for taking care of a sick older kid. Paid family leave can mean a crisis in a family doesn’t get compounded by bankruptcy or foreclosure.
But withholding paid leave from new parents can be lethal. The United States has one of the highest maternal death rates among developed countries. More than half of those maternal deaths occur after the birth. Only 17 percent occur on the day of delivery.
The death rates are higher for women living in poverty, and for Black women (who are three times as likely as white women to die from pregnancy-related complications). Adequate paid parental leave creates a life-or-death divide along racial and class lines. Survival after giving birth should not be a luxury afforded to wealthy white women.
A country with enough money to give a single billionaire a $2.9 billion lunar lander contract can afford to let women recover from the highly inconvenient task of perpetuating humanity. But we don’t. Because when it comes to an empathic or medically coherent understanding of childbirth, some of the people creating the budget proposal have the priorities of a Bond villain.
Giving birth can be a traumatic experience for a human body and brain. And a significant amount of recovery time is necessary for anyone who has suddenly had a watermelon extracted from her body.
As I write this, I am pregnant with my second child. And in a twist of fate and bad luck, I happen to have written this from a hospital bed, where I briefly sat bleeding from a pregnancy complication.
In all likelihood, I will spend the rest of this pregnancy in some state of bed rest, which, as someone who has always longed for the lifestyle of a tragic Victorian heroine, is great news. If I didn’t have paid leave through my union, I’d have to take the time out of whatever sick days I stored up for postpartum recovery to make sure I could safely bring this baby into the world. It is stressful enough sitting here hooked up to IV bags and beeping (and for some reason printing?) monitors without having to worry about how I am going to afford to keep both of us alive.
When this baby is born, hopefully many months from now, when he is truly the size of a watermelon and not whatever small fruit my vaguely patronizing pregnancy app has assigned to his current growth, he will be put in a hospital nursery next to babies whose mothers may have to go back to work before they are medically ready.
A few minutes ago, a doctor on rounds recommended I find ways to reduce my stress and anxiety while recovering from this setback. And so, per my doctor’s orders, I ask the United States Congress to pass a comprehensive paid family leave program.
Bess Kalb is a comedy writer and the author of “Nobody Will Tell You This but Me: A True (as Told to Me) Story.”