My son, Mukund, recently turned four months old. For his first three months, I was on leave from medical school. My days were spent mostly with Mukund: we would sing or gurgle to one another, and go for short walks. Mukund would bottle feed vigorously, sometimes locking eyes with me when doing so, and sometimes he would let me put him to sleep.
Now, I’m far away from Mukund, as I started residency in a different city from where my family is currently living. I love my colleagues and my work, but I find myself simultaneously wishing I could have had more time with Mukund before going back to work. I recognize now how hard it must have been for my wife, who went back to full-time work just two months after Mukund was born.
In the U.S., only 13 percent of private sector employees have access to paid family leave. Among the 193 countries in the United Nations, the United States is one of just a handful that does not have a national paid parental leave law. Recently, attention has been drawn to short paid leave policies within academic medicine, and at top medical schools the average paid leave is just 8.6 weeks, which is less than the 12 weeks recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics.
As my wife and I return to our careers as family physicians, we are acutely aware of the sacrifices we are making in going back to work: we are giving up time to bond with Mukund, to watch him grow, to play with him and hold him. On July 11th, for the first time, I missed one of Mukund’s pediatrician appointments. In order for my wife and me to continue our careers, we have to give up spending time with our baby.
While some of this is to be expected in the “work-life integration” of parents who are professionals, our experience could be much better with some systems-level changes that are desperately needed in America. For one, we should have at least six months of nationally-mandated paid parental leave to put us on par with many other industrialized countries.
Second, this leave should be equal between men and women: by assuming that women need more time off after having a child, we are perpetuating a system that encourages men to work while women raise children. This is blatant sexism and also hurts men, who lose out on an opportunity to be with their kids.
Finally, we need more opportunities for childcare that are seeded into workplaces. Neither my nor my wife’s hospital offers internal childcare services, which would allow us to see Mukund during the day, instead of having to leave him for ten-to-fourteen-hour stretches.
I am grateful that while my wife and I continue to build our careers, Mukund will be raised in part by his grandparents. We have managed to find a way to raise Mukund within a system that desperately needs a change.
I do believe that one day, we will see truly equal, nationally mandated paid parental leave. It will probably begin with electing more women and men who are allies to office.