Giving fathers the flexibility of taking time off work in the first months after their partners give birth has significant health benefits for new mothers, a new study has claimed.
A more flexible policy
The researchers, Petra Persson and Maya Rossin-Slater, analysed the effects of a new parental leave policy passed in 2012 in a European country: Sweden.
Before 2012, new parents could already claim 16 months of paid time off work between them and were granted the opportunity of dividing most of the time as they wanted until the child was 12 years old. One main restriction, though, meant parents could not take paid leave at the same time.
For mother's post-birth physical and mental health, the Stanford University research now shows, this makes all the difference.
Looking into extensive administrative data, from Swedish birth records to leave claims and medical records, the researchers noticed that, after the 2012 policy was implemented, there was an 11 per cent decrease in antibiotic prescriptions and 26 per cent reduction in the prescription of anti-anxiety drugs for mothers in the first six months compared to the mothers who gave birth before the reform passed. There was also a 14 per cent decrease in hospitalizations or visits to a specialist.
The decline in anti-anxiety medications, in particular, was especially notable in the first three months after childbirth.
Furthermore, the study showed that the effects on health are greater for mothers with a pre-birth medical history, who may be particularly vulnerable in the months after giving birth.
The explanation behind this, the economists say, is simple: more flexibility means that families can choose to keep the father at home precisely on the days when his presence is particularly important. Indeed, the key factor in the study did not turn out to be the length of the paternal leave, but the flexibility for him to take paid time off work precisely when the mother needed it most.
Allowing women to rest, have some much-needed sleep or not underestimate their medical symptoms, the father's presence alleviated the burden on their shoulders, if only for a few days.
"Mothers bear the burden from a lack of workplace flexibility – not only directly through greater career costs of family formation – but also indirectly", the study reads, pointing to the high mental health costs of childbearing.
Two areas the researchers looked into, though, did not show significant change: antidepressant and painkiller prescriptions.
An overlooked reality
According to the World Health Organization, about 10% of pregnant women and 13% of women who have just given birth experience a mental disorder - usually, depression. The percentage increases in developing countries, reaching almost 20% after the person gives birth.
Aside from the higher risks of suicide among postpartum women, deteriorating mental health also takes a toll on the newborn: if, as the WHO puts it, "the affected mothers cannot function properly", the growth and development of children is at stake, too.
Women suffering from postpartum mental health issues have to face widespread stigma, too. A 2017 study published in the British Journal of General Practice, for instance, found that women tended to hide or overlook their symptoms of postnatal depression in fear of unsympathetic medical staff and being labelled "a bad mother". Often disclosing distress or refusing to seek professional help, these mothers may find themselves overwhelmed and alone.
Widening the political discussion
The new study can help broaden the policy discussions, Petra Persson and Maya Rossin-Slater say.
Currently, the main discussion around paid family leave in politics today revolves around finding ways to help narrow the gender wage gap, providing women with more workplace flexibility and fewer career setbacks.
The Swedish example, however, highlights the maternal health costs of childbearing - and how further flexibility for the father can alleviate them. “It's important to think not only about giving families access to some leave, but also about letting them have agency over how they use it,” Rossin-Slater adds.
At the moment, 17 EU member states meet the minimum of two weeks' paternity leave at the time of the child's birth. Only 13, though, offer well-paid paternity leave, a report by the European Commission shows. Only 10 EU countries have a period of leave reserved for fathers but, even in these countries, this right can often be transferred to mothers
Analysing research on paternal leave across the continent, the report states that "fathers commonly take a few days off immediately after their child is born, but they rarely extend this period into longer parental leave" - to the point that 90 % of fathers across the EU do not use parental leave entitlements.