Rabekah Henderson, motherhood, maternity leave, paternity leave, workplace, benefits

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Jesus Dignifies Motherhood. Do We?

The social, economic, and theological case for paid maternity leave.

It’s been echoing around for years now: The United States is the only industrialized country without any sort of standard paid leave for new parents. In fact, one in four women return to work only two weeks after childbirth — a time in the postpartum process in which many women are still bleeding and cramping and, critically, still in the throes of learning how to take care of the newest — and neediest — addition to their family.

Though many workplaces are starting to offer paid maternity leave, it’s a benefit largely exclusive to women with higher incomes. Only six percent of low-wage earners have access to paid maternity leave through their employer. And all of this is in addition to the hurdles many women face professionally when having a baby, as some parts of our productivity-driven society seem to see motherhood as an inconvenience at best, and a disqualifier from employment at worst.

With working women facing these hurdles when considering motherhood, it’s no surprise that fertility rates are on the decline. From 2007 to 2020, the total fertility rate (the average number of children born per woman over a lifetime) shrunk from 2.12 to 1.64. However, the average number of children a woman wants to have (a little over 2.5) hasn’t changed over that time. Many women are either delaying childbirth or deciding that their finances, family, or career cannot support another child. This is bad news for our country, as declining fertility rates negatively affect productivity, innovation, and our overall economy, and this is bad news for women, as they apparently forgo their hopes of motherhood in the face of a workplace that seems to be against them.

Studies have shown that paid maternity leave can help reverse declining fertility rates, and it’s considered good public policy, too, ultimately increasing GDP. And this is to say nothing of paid paternity leave. Countries, states, and provinces that have implemented it not only report more equally divided household labor and lower rates of divorce but also a higher percentage of women returning to work when their husbands take parental leave alongside them.

But focusing on how much paid family leave can contribute to our overall productivity is missing the point. As Christians, we should also be focused on the holistic effects of a policy, not merely its economic outlook.

First, it’s important to note that motherhood is not a woman’s only calling or purpose, nor is it her highest. Not only does that assumption do incredible injustice to childless women everywhere, it also neglects to consider our true calling as Christians in Matthew 22:37: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” It’s true, however, that motherhood can be a valuable outpouring of that purpose. Consider Mary, the mother of Jesus. She was holding fast to that purpose — Scripture tells us that Mary “had found favor with God” and that the Lord was with her. Because of her trust and love for the Lord, she accepted what must have been a daunting and isolating task before her: to give birth to the Son of God, while a virgin, and to face the shame that lay ahead. And Joseph, knowing that he must also bear this shame, chose to come alongside Mary and support her — something that surely seemed unthinkable from the outside.

In addition to the parenthood demonstrated by Mary (and Joseph), there’s another story at play here. There’s the story of Jesus, the Son of God, being born of a lowly teenage girl. Jesus, who in his infinite wisdom could have miraculously appeared on earth as a fully grown man, instead chose to enter this world as a vulnerable infant, through a person whose status in life was near the bottom rung of the ladder.

By being born of Mary, a poor woman with little value according to society, Jesus dignifies and exalts motherhood. In Honest Advent, Scott Erickson puts it this way: “[Jesus] comes to us through one of us, into the womb of a blessed and humble teenage woman, and honors and dignifies the sacrificial and wholly involved life of being a mom.”

The honor Jesus shows to mothers doesn’t stop after Bethlehem; rather, it’s a refrain that echoes throughout Scripture, as our countercultural God empowers mothers, and more broadly, women, time and time again. “The entirety of God’s Word testifies to it,” write Elyse Fitzpatrick and Eric Schumacher in their book Worthy. “The Bible is clear that women are not an afterthought … nor are they ancillary to the overarching message of Scripture.”

Knowing this, Christians should seek to celebrate motherhood and empower the parents who take that journey. And publicly, many Christians, especially in political and economic spheres, do say that they are pro-life or pro-family. But all too often, these sentiments fade once a baby is born and parents are left with nary a safety net to fall back on.

So why don’t we have systems in place to advocate and empower mothers and fathers, especially those like Mary and Joseph — young parents living in poverty with little status in society? Regardless of whether you think motherhood is a vocation best lived out in the home (for that is a lengthy discussion for another time), it cannot be ignored that many low-income mothers must return to work in order to provide for their families. And it is often entire families like these who bear the brunt of hostile or nonexistent maternity policies. It is the woman like this who must return to the workplace not even two weeks after giving birth, still bleeding and aching as she recovers from the life-changing drama (and trauma) of bringing life into the world.

The risks of a shortened recovery period cannot be ignored either — returning to work too soon increases a mother’s risk of postpartum depression and her risk of poorer health compared to mothers who take a longer leave. Plus, mothers who deliver via a C-section are instructed to rest and to not to lift anything heavier than their baby for the first few weeks — tasks that prove difficult, if not dangerous, if one is back in the workplace within two weeks of giving birth.

Paid leave offers new mothers a respite in the storm of that “fourth trimester.” It honors women’s bodies after an arduous pregnancy and a trying birth by recognizing the pain they have been through and offering time for recovery, without concern about lost income. And further, paid paternity leave gives fathers the chance to bond with their new babies and create equitable routines of “baby chores,” like diaper changings and late-night feedings, preventing the bulk of them from defaulting upon the mother. This time empowers families, allowing them to take a breath and figure out life with the brand new person God has brought into their world.

Paid parental leave is good and right for families, even before considering the aforementioned social and economic impacts. It honors the suffering that women experience bringing a new soul into the world, and it empowers parents to bond with their babies and understand life with them. Just as Jesus brought dignity to motherhood by being born of young and lowly Mary, shouldn’t we, as Christians who cherish family, pursue the same? This may look like government policy, workplace benefits, or strong church and community support. And a responsibility falls on those in positions of authority — with the task to manage, provide for, and advocate for others — to lead the way. Christians in business leadership roles should consider how to offer leave for the families in their own company communities as well. Again, to put it simply, we need to support our working mothers — and we can do this by pushing for paid parental leave.

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