A Mother’s Touch: The Case for Extended Paid Maternal Leave in Georgia

The health of a newborn depends on the health of the mother. This was the finding of research conducted by the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children.[1] The study investigated the associations between maternal health both during pregnancy and up to 15 months from childbirth and children’s health outcomes during infancy and adolescence.[Ibid] The results of the study showed that the poor general health of a mother in the year after childbirth was associated with higher odds of poor health in infants and adolescents.[Ibid] This negative effect on infants’ and adolescents’ health expressed itself in the child’s increased likelihood of having poor general health, the presence of a chronic condition, and lower physical health scores.[Ibid] This is conclusive evidence that the health of a mother during pregnancy and in the months following birth is inextricably linked to the health and well-being of the child. As is the consensus of medical professionals and researchers, this suggests that initiatives to improve maternal physical and mental health would not only improve child health but would also reduce the national health burden.[Ibid] It is my argument that one of the best initiatives to protect the health and well-being of Georgia’s mothers and children is state-guaranteed paid maternal leave.

Currently, in the State of Georgia, the standard length of parental medical leave is generally about 6 weeks for approximately 50% of workers.[2] The remaining 50% qualify for 12 weeks of leave under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act.[Ibid] In both cases, the leave that is provided to new mothers is unpaid.[Ibid] This is because paid maternity leave in Georgia is strictly voluntary. Employers in the State of Georgia are not required by law to pay maternity leave or family medical leave of absence but can volunteer to pay for the leave if they wish to do so.[Ibid] In most cases, Georgia employers do not wish to do so. Approximately 76 percent — about 4,065,000 workers — in Georgia do not have paid family leave through their jobs.[3] This puts many new mothers in an impossible situation after giving birth: deciding whether to stay home with their newborn child and simultaneously forfeit income or go back to work before completely healing and bonding with their new infant.

Deciding whether to go back to work just a few weeks after giving birth or stay home with their vulnerable newborn is a decision that many, too many, mothers have to make in Georgia. For those living paycheck to paycheck, this could be one of the toughest decisions that they will ever make. If your ability to pay for food, gas for your car, and your utility bill depends on how much you work, staying home runs the chance of losing your job and plunging your growing family into economic hardship. But even choosing to return to work does not always mean that a mother will be able to stay at her place of work. Along with a new bundle of joy, childbirth can be accompanied by several ailments and medical diagnoses that could get in the way of a mother’s ability to work. This includes severe pain and discomfort, anxiety, and, most common of all, postpartum depression. These medical conditions could not only make it hard for new mothers to return to work, but it could also be the reason for their firing.

The benefits of instituting state-funded paid maternal leave are numerous. First, it would actually increase the number of women in the workforce by providing women with a better work-life balance. If women in Georgia participated in the labor force at the same rate as

women in countries with paid leave, there would be an estimated 174,000 additional workers in the state and $5.6 billion more wages earned statewide.[Ibid] Second, paid maternity leave has been proven to improve maternal and infant health, including physical health and well-being.[Ibid] Third, increases in paid parental and/or maternity leave decrease rates of infant mortality.[Ibid] Fourth, a 58% lower chance of reporting physical and psychological intimate partner violence in the year following birth.[4] Instituting paid maternity leave in Georgia is not out of the realm of possibility. In 2021, Governor Brian Kemp signed HB 146 to provide three weeks of paid parental leave for state employees, including employees of local boards of education.[5] While this is a small step in the right direction, it is time for Georgians to proclaim the importance of maternal and infant health with one voice. It is time for Georgians to say that three weeks is not nearly long enough and paid maternity leave should be for all new mothers, not just those who work for the state government.