With the new era, gender roles are getting blurry and the gender divides is practically non-existent. Notwithstanding the fact that we are in charge of the uterus and bearing babies, mother, and father both contribute to rearing babies in today’s evolved family structure. The father is not anymore the sole breadwinner and many families take a call as to who should work after a baby is born taking into account total earnings and insurance benefits. It isn’t surprising that some fathers these days have taken the nurturer’s role and the mother is the hunter-gatherer so to speak.

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Where lines of societal norms are getting blurred, the concept of maternity break also becomes a wee bit redundant. In more progressive countries such as The Netherlands and Sweden, family breaks are given instead of the singular lump of maternity break as seen in India. If you think practically, in a nuclear family a woman cannot get by alone looking after herself and the baby especially in the first few weeks. She needs to focus on herself and her baby and try to get as much rest as possible and not worry about the dishes and ordering diapers. When everyone wants to stand independently on their own two feet, there is not much of a backup support system in place in the tiny nuclear setup.

When the Indian parliament increased the paid maternity break from twelve to twenty-six weeks in 2017, women rejoiced in the country but only temporarily. When the buzz of this bold change wore off, did we come to realize that this supposed blessing was a curse for gender equality. Women were seen as a liability in the company, someone who would get knocked up and leech resources from the business for six months. And to prove themselves as worthy of being employable and an asset in the workplace, more women rushed to rejoin work and prove their usefulness within a month or so after their deliveries. Weeks of paid maternity leave lay wasted as new mothers scurried to join back the rat race that their corporates were.

I am a feminist but I do not believe in gender equality. For as long as women have to bear children in their wombs, the genders cannot be equal.

We have a mighty responsibility placed on our shoulders by nature. If we could share our baby-bearing burden with our husbands, we would do it without thinking but as for now, as our worlds and families shrink, and our duties expand in this disconnected family unit, parental leave and not maternity leave is the way to go. I say this because:

  1. Women get to have the rest they require if her spouse/partner is there at home full time to support her without worrying about the added cost of having a new member in the house.
  2. Even though the genders are not created equal, the burden of the way employees are viewed in the workforce, as a liability or an asset, is equalized if parental leave comes into force.
  3. In the nuclear family, where duality in earning is the norm and many a times even a necessity, duality for baby care is also required. A woman cannot, and should not, be expected to care for the baby all by herself with scarce support for breastfeeding and childcare. If the baby or mother fall ill, the father is often the only support they have to fall back on. When the father is there to assist the mother in her breastfeeding journey, which is often an uphill one, she has better chances of succeeding.
  4. The long-term benefits of breastfeeding and increased mother-child bonding put to shame the short-sighted view corporates seem to have about paying the mother for six months. Take obesity for example. Breastfeeding has a protective effect on the child against obesity. To put matters in perspective, look at the number of children suffering from childhood obesity. Decreased breastfeeding is to be blamed along with long hours of sitting and engaging with gadgets. The US spends billions on healthcare of obese adults and the cost is just rising with the diseases associated with obesity.

Paid maternity leave is a great start to a new life and has more far-reaching consequences on the lives of the mother and child. And if we take away from every mother’s life this essential need, then we stand to disrupt hers and her child’s life for many years to come.

Dr Farah Adam Mukadam

Dr Farah is a family physician based in Bangalore. She is the author of the bestseller Newborns and New Moms, an urban woman’s guide to life after childbirth.

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