A family in Pasadena, Calif., goes for a walk on April 13, 2020, during the coronavirus pandemic. (CNS photo/Mario Anzuoni, Reuters)

Eight weeks ago, I gave birth to my second child. Today, I’m expected to return to my job at a Catholic university. As I write this at eight weeks post-birth, my body is still healing. I can walk a few blocks, but my typical fifteen-minute walk to work is beyond my capabilities. My breast-milk supply is still regulating, and my clothes—which are still maternity clothes—are often drenched in breast milk or sweat from my postpartum hormones. I am acutely aware that I am barely sleeping. Some nights I only wake up once to feed the baby. Other nights, I am awake for hours at a time with an infant who can barely tell the difference between day and night. My constant state of exhaustion makes me worried about my job performance, where decisions often rely on my quick judgement calls.

At eight weeks old, my daughter’s habits and needs are also constantly changing. During the day, I breastfeed her every two to three hours, and she needs to be held constantly. When she turns two months old, I will take her to the pediatrician for her first round of immunizations. But this vital appointment falls outside of the eight weeks of paid family leave my Catholic employer provides, as required by a new city mandate. Decisions surrounding childcare, which are typically marked by concerns about cost and extensive waiting lists, are even more fraught in a pandemic. My spouse and I weigh our concerns about COVID-19 exposure with our exhaustion at working full time and caring for a newborn. My experience underscores what so many new parents know to be true: a lack of paid parental leave impacts all aspects of family life. And when paid leave is provided, it too often falls too short and does not correspond with the healing of a parent or the needs of a child.

My eight weeks of paid leave, while inadequate, exceed the time offered at other workplaces. Catholic institutions in the United States, such as schools, universities, parishes, and diocesan offices, have no standard practice for parental leave, or more broadly, paid family leave. While some Catholic organizations provide paid parental leave, many provide none at all. Often, their policies are determined by their local jurisdiction; before my city mandated eight weeks of paid family leave, my employer offered only short-term disability for the birth parent, and the length of leave was determined by one’s doctor. Despite advocating for pro-family public policies, the U.S. Catholic Church doesn’t require adequate paid family leave for its own institutions, failing to support families in a concrete way as they navigate the birth or adoption of a child, or care for a family member.

The debate over paid family leave is a uniquely American one; the United States is the only industrialized nation that does not offer paid maternity leave. Not only that, out of almost two hundred countries, we are one of the very few to have no national paid parental leave policy whatsoever. New moms in the United States are eligible for twelve weeks of unpaid leave—and only if they meet certain employment criteria (which I did not). According to one study, “close to one in four new mothers who are not eligible for paid leave return to work within ten days of giving birth.” Anyone who has given birth or been around someone in that early postpartum period knows that at ten days, a person is not even physically healed from birth, to say nothing of the mental and emotional impact of caring for a newborn.

Imagine if instead of simply talking about a culture of life, Catholic employers actually started to build one.

The research on paid family leave is clear: paid leave helps children, mothers, and workplaces thrive. Less than eight weeks of paid maternity leave leads to higher rates of depression and lower rates of mother-baby attachment. More than twelve weeks leads to higher rates of vaccinations and lower rates of domestic violence, infant death, and postpartum depression. Unsurprisingly, you’re more likely to have access to generous leave policies if you have a high income. For instance, 62 percent of mothers earning less than $30,000 per year receive no paid leave. But only 26 percent of people making $75,000 or more did not have access to paid leave. The Family and Medical Leave Act provides unpaid leave for qualifying employees, but taking unpaid leave is often not an option for families. Of those with unpaid leave, 37 percent reported taking on extra debt to cover parental leave and 33 percent were unable to pay bills.

It’s clear that providing paid leave often corresponds with better physical outcomes for mothers and newborns. But what if we shifted the question away from what kind of parental leave is medically necessary to what kind of family policy is just? What if we created a culture of life? Imagine if pro-life clubs at Catholic high schools and universities directed their advocacy toward their schools’ paid family leave policies. Imagine if parish social justice groups ensured that paid leave was available to parish staff. Imagine if colleges provided paid leave and benefits to all faculty and staff, modeling a holistic way of life for students grappling with the question of how to balance work and family. Imagine if instead of simply talking about a culture of life, Catholic employers actually started to build one.

How might that change the way we think about work and family? Politically, providing a robust paid family leave program would help change the conversation between stratified pro-life and pro-choice groups. Being pro-life isn’t simply about opposing abortion; it should include caring for families and children after birth as well. As pastor and author Dave Barnhart observed, “The unborn are a convenient group of people to advocate for. They never make demands of you.” Addressing the injustice surrounding family leave would require a shift to addressing groups that make demands, such as parents and newborns. It would also offer a more expansive vision of “life” and “family.” Too often, these words feel like dog whistles: they mean one thing, while actually signaling another. Life does not mean all stages of life, but only birth. Family means only a mother, father, and children, leaving out same-sex partners or divorced and remarried couples. By requiring a generous paid family leave policy for its organizations, the Catholic Church could visibly stand for life, supporting families as they navigate life in all its complexities.

It would also address issues of credibility and authenticity for young Catholics who may one day start families of their own. I see this firsthand with my students at the Catholic university where I work. Many of them believe in aspects of the Catholic faith, but often fall somewhere between questioning their role in the Church and leaving the Church entirely. They don’t take issue with Catholicism’s teachings; they just don’t see those teachings being lived out. When the Church preaches the value of life and family, but fails to enact practices that can help life and family flourish, the Church fails to live out its mission authentically. Rather than providing concrete support to families, the Church remains in a world of platitudes, preaching about the importance of the family while avoiding actually supporting them. We need Church officials to shift their thinking about what employees are owed, and how financial resources are allocated, if we want a Church that truly lives its mission of creating a more just world.

Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation on the family, opens with that vision: “The joy of love experienced by families is also the joy of the church.” The joy of the family cannot be the joy of the Church if employees of Catholic organizations are unsupported in family life. Catholic schools, parishes, nonprofits, and even the Church hierarchy have the potential to model what truly pro-family paid leave might look like—one that goes beyond complying with our current inadequate national policy.

Annie Selak is a systematic theologian based in Washington D.C. She specializes in issues of power and authority in the Catholic Church in the United States.

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