Mommie Dearest: Four Months Maternity Leave? We Wish!

Pop star Shakira gave birth to her son, Milan, back in January. Since then, she’s been hard at work promoting her new gig as a judge on the NBC show, “The Voice.” As part of that promotion, Shakira spoke with US Weekly and weighed in with some thoughts on motherhood:

On getting her pre-baby body back: “I mean, I guess our mothers and grandmothers weren’t under the pressure that women of today are after delivering a baby. My dad says that there’s nothing better than a little meat on the bone! He likes my mom a little chubby. So she was never under the pressure to get back to her old weight, and she never did, actually! But it’s different, I have a career, and that’s the only part that’s been a bit stressful because I knew that I’d have to come back here to do ‘The Voice’ two months after I delivered a baby. I didn’t have my four months maternity like every woman on Earth has. So I’m not trying to complain, but it’s been a process full of challenges in my life. I’m still a few pounds over! Zumba has been pretty great for me even during pregnancy. I did it almost until the end.”

Sigh. That’s a whole lot to unpack. First, I have to admit to busting out a cackling laugh at Shakira’s seemingly naive lament over not having her “four months maternity like every woman on earth has.” But then I remembered Shakira is Colombian and — oh yeah — it’s pretty much just the United States that is completely screwed up when it comes to mandated paid maternity leave. I’ve ranted about this before, but honestly, it never gets old. The U.S. is one of only four (FOUR!) other countries in the world that does not provide any sort of mandated paid maternity (or family) leave.

In other countries, new mothers — and many fathers — have the opportunity to take time off from work after having a baby while still receiving a portion of their salary, insurance benefits, and the reassurance that their job will be waiting for them when they return. In the U.S., the only thing barely covering you is the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) that provides some leave, but doesn’t mandate any payment, which means that folks who can’t afford to take unpaid time off work might be returning weeks — or even days in some cases — postpartum.

So when Shakira is bummed that she didn’t get her four months of paid leave, excuse me if I don’t feel much sympathy for her. Instead, I feel for the new mom who is struggling between trying to make breastfeeding work but has to return to work and has no secure place to pump for her child. I feel pretty darn bad for the parent who has to scramble for some form of quality infant care so they can go back to their job. And I feel awful for the parents that end up quitting or sacrificing their careers because they can’t afford to return to work after having a baby.

Other countries understand that providing paid maternity leave will most likely mean more dedicated employees who return back to work healthy, happy and ready to get back to work. Google figured this out when they lengthened their maternity leave to five months (with FULL PAY) and saw the number of returning postpartum employees increase.

But back to Shakira. One of the impacts of not having those four months of leave included not getting back to her pre-baby weight. What’s sad is that in her quote, Shakira really does seem to get it. She mentions that her mother and grandmother weren’t under the same pressures that news moms today are under. And it’s true. New mothers — especially ones in the public eye — are under constant pressure and scrutiny. Hell, most women are. One only needs to look at Kim Kardashian and the way her pregnancy has played out in the media to understand that.

Since the moment that news of baby Kimye broke, there hasn’t been a lack of media-sponsored gawking at Kim and her pregnant body. What she wears, how she looks, her weight gain – all of it has become fodder for public consumption and discussion and some of it has been quite fat-shaming and nasty. Just this weekend, The New York Daily News showed a picture of Kardashian wearing a brown dress and referred to her as “Moby Thick” and a “brown whale.” It’s no wonder that Shakira was doing Zumba until her son popped out and then hopped back to it afterward. (I have a slightly more difficult time understanding how Jessica Alba lost her baby weight by wearing two girdles, day and night, for three months.)

Becoming a new mother is hard enough. You’re learning how to integrate this new role and this new little person who now depends on you into your life. You’ll make mistakes. You’ll probably cry a few times. Your baby will definitely cry. This is all hard enough without added outside pressure to live up to some grossly distorted body ideal? No. I’m sorry, if you’re not even going to provide me with paid maternity leave — time to heal, bond with my baby, and learn how to function on only a few hours of sleep — then there is no way I will be told just how long it should take to spring back to my “pre-baby bod.”

I know Shakira most likely has a team of trainers, chefs, nannies, and personal assistants, but I still applaud her for talking about these issues regardless how some of it may be clouded by her celebrity and status in life. I just wish that instead of focusing on how new moms manage to spring back into shape, we had more people focusing on the real issues, like lack of mandated maternity leave.

Avital Norman Nathman blogs for The Mamafesto.