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TEDxSMU

Jessica Shortall: The US needs paid family leave -- for the sake of its future

October 17, 2015

We need women to work, and we need working women to have babies. So why is America one of the only countries in the world that offers no national paid leave to new working mothers? In this incisive talk, Jessica Shortall makes the impassioned case that the reality of new working motherhood in America is both hidden and horrible: millions of women, every year, are forced back to work within just weeks of giving birth. Her idea worth spreading: the time has come for us to recognize the economic, physical and psychological costs of our approach to working mothers and their babies, and to secure our economic future by providing paid leave to all working parents.

Jessica Shortall - Strategy consultant, social entrepreneur and author
Jessica Shortall is a working mom of two and author of Work. Pump. Repeat: The New Mom's Survival Guide to Breastfeeding and Going Back to Work. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
What does a working mother look like?
00:12
If you ask the Internet,
this is what you'll be told.
00:15
Never mind that this is
what you'll actually produce
00:18
if you attempt to work at a computer
with a baby on your lap.
00:22
(Laughter)
00:25
But no, this isn't a working mother.
00:27
You'll notice a theme in these photos.
We'll look at a lot of them.
00:30
That theme is amazing natural lighting,
00:33
which, as we all know,
00:35
is the hallmark
of every American workplace.
00:38
There are thousands of images like these.
00:43
Just put the term "working mother"
into any Google image search engine,
00:46
stock photo site.
00:50
They're all over the Internet,
00:51
they're topping
blog posts and news pieces,
00:52
and I've become kind of obsessed with them
and the lie that they tell us
00:55
and the comfort that they give us,
00:59
that when it comes
to new working motherhood in America,
01:01
everything's fine.
01:05
But it's not fine.
01:06
As a country, we are sending
millions of women back to work
01:08
every year, incredibly
and kind of horrifically soon
01:11
after they give birth.
01:15
That's a moral problem
01:17
but today I'm also going to tell you
why it's an economic problem.
01:19
I got so annoyed and obsessed
with the unreality of these images,
01:23
which look nothing like my life,
01:26
that I recently decided to shoot and star
in a parody series of stock photos
01:28
that I hoped the world would start to use
01:34
just showing the really awkward reality
of going back to work
01:36
when your baby's food source
is attached to your body.
01:40
I'm just going to show you two of them.
01:45
(Laughter)
01:47
Nothing says "Give that girl a promotion"
like leaking breast milk
01:49
through your dress during a presentation.
01:52
You'll notice that there's
no baby in this photo,
01:54
because that's not how this works,
01:57
not for most working mothers.
01:59
Did you know, and this will ruin your day,
02:02
that every time a toilet is flushed,
its contents are aerosolized
02:04
and they'll stay airborne for hours?
02:07
And yet, for many new working mothers,
02:10
this is the only place during the day
that they can find to make food
02:12
for their newborn babies.
02:16
I put these things,
a whole dozen of them, into the world.
02:18
I wanted to make a point.
02:22
I didn't know what I was also doing
was opening a door,
02:23
because now, total strangers
from all walks of life
02:27
write to me all the time
02:30
just to tell me what it's like
for them to go back to work
02:32
within days or weeks of having a baby.
02:36
I'm going to share
10 of their stories with you today.
02:39
They are totally real,
some of them are very raw,
02:42
and not one of them
looks anything like this.
02:45
Here's the first.
02:50
"I was an active duty
service member at a federal prison.
02:51
I returned to work after the maximum
allowed eight weeks for my C-section.
02:55
A male coworker was annoyed
that I had been out on 'vacation,'
03:00
so he intentionally opened the door on me
while I was pumping breast milk
03:04
and stood in the doorway
with inmates in the hallway."
03:07
Most of the stories that these women,
total strangers, send to me now,
03:11
are not actually even about breastfeeding.
03:15
A woman wrote to me to say,
03:17
"I gave birth to twins and went back
to work after seven unpaid weeks.
03:19
Emotionally, I was a wreck.
03:24
Physically, I had a severe hemorrhage
during labor, and major tearing,
03:25
so I could barely get up, sit or walk.
03:30
My employer told me I wasn't allowed
to use my available vacation days
03:32
because it was budget season."
03:36
I've come to believe that we can't look
situations like these in the eye
03:39
because then we'd be horrified,
03:44
and if we get horrified
then we have to do something about it.
03:46
So we choose to look at,
and believe, this image.
03:49
I don't really know
what's going on in this picture,
03:53
because I find it weird
and slightly creepy.
03:55
(Laughter)
03:58
Like, what is she doing?
03:59
But I know what it tells us.
04:00
It tells us that everything's fine.
04:04
This working mother, all working mothers
and all of their babies, are fine.
04:07
There's nothing to see here.
04:11
And anyway, women have made a choice,
04:13
so none of it's even our problem.
04:16
I want to break this choice thing
down into two parts.
04:19
The first choice says
that women have chosen to work.
04:21
So, that's not true.
04:25
Today in America, women make up
47 percent of the workforce,
04:27
and in 40 percent of American households
04:33
a woman is the sole
or primary breadwinner.
04:35
Our paid work is a part, a huge part,
of the engine of this economy,
04:38
and it is essential
for the engines of our families.
04:43
On a national level,
our paid work is not optional.
04:46
Choice number two says that women
are choosing to have babies,
04:50
so women alone should bear
the consequences of those choices.
04:53
You know, that's one of those things
04:58
that when you hear it in passing,
can sound correct.
04:59
I didn't make you have a baby.
05:02
I certainly wasn't there
when that happened.
05:03
But that stance
ignores a fundamental truth,
05:05
which is that our procreation
on a national scale is not optional.
05:11
The babies that women, many of them
working women, are having today,
05:16
will one day fill our workforce,
protect our shores,
05:21
make up our tax base.
05:24
Our procreation
on a national scale is not optional.
05:26
These aren't choices.
05:30
We need women to work.
We need working women to have babies.
05:32
So we should make
doing those things at the same time
05:35
at least palatable, right?
05:38
OK, this is pop quiz time:
05:40
what percentage of working
women in America do you think
05:43
have no access to paid maternity leave?
05:46
88 percent.
05:51
88 percent of working mothers
will not get one minute of paid leave
05:53
after they have a baby.
05:56
So now you're thinking about unpaid leave.
05:58
It exists in America.
It's called FMLA. It does not work.
06:02
Because of the way it's structured,
all kinds of exceptions,
06:05
half of new mothers are ineligible for it.
06:08
Here's what that looks like.
06:12
"We adopted our son.
06:16
When I got the call, the day he was born,
I had to take off work.
06:17
I had not been there long enough
to qualify for FMLA,
06:22
so I wasn't eligible for unpaid leave.
06:25
When I took time off
to meet my newborn son,
06:28
I lost my job."
06:30
These corporate stock photos
hide another reality, another layer.
06:33
Of those who do have access
to just that unpaid leave,
06:38
most women can't afford
to take much of it at all.
06:42
A nurse told me, "I didn't qualify
for short-term disability
06:45
because my pregnancy
was considered a preexisting condition.
06:48
We used up all of our tax returns
and half of our savings
06:53
during my six unpaid weeks.
06:55
We just couldn't manage any longer.
06:57
Physically it was hard,
but emotionally it was worse.
06:59
I struggled for months
being away from my son."
07:01
So this decision
to go back to work so early,
07:04
it's a rational economic decision
driven by family finances,
07:07
but it's often physically horrific
07:12
because putting a human
into the world is messy.
07:14
A waitress told me,
07:17
"With my first baby, I was back
at work five weeks postpartum.
07:19
With my second, I had to have
major surgery after giving birth,
07:22
so I waited until six weeks to go back.
07:25
I had third degree tears."
07:28
23 percent of new
working mothers in America
07:32
will be back on the job
within two weeks of giving birth.
07:35
"I worked as a bartender and cook,
average of 75 hours a week while pregnant.
07:42
I had to return to work
before my baby was a month old,
07:46
working 60 hours a week.
07:49
One of my coworkers was only able
to afford 10 days off with her baby."
07:51
Of course, this isn't just a scenario
with economic and physical implications.
07:56
Childbirth is, and always will be,
an enormous psychological event.
08:00
A teacher told me,
08:05
"I returned to work
eight weeks after my son was born.
08:08
I already suffer from anxiety,
08:11
but the panic attacks I had prior
to returning to work were unbearable."
08:13
Statistically speaking,
08:18
the shorter a woman's leave
after having a baby,
08:20
the more likely she will be to suffer
from postpartum mood disorders
08:22
like depression and anxiety,
08:26
and among many potential
consequences of those disorders,
08:28
suicide is the second
most common cause of death
08:32
in a woman's first year postpartum.
08:35
Heads up that this next story --
08:39
I've never met this woman,
but I find it hard to get through.
08:40
"I feel tremendous grief and rage
that I lost an essential,
08:45
irreplaceable and formative
time with my son.
08:49
Labor and delivery
left me feeling absolutely broken.
08:53
For months, all I remember
is the screaming: colic, they said.
08:56
On the inside, I was drowning.
09:01
Every morning, I asked myself
how much longer I could do it.
09:03
I was allowed to bring my baby to work.
09:07
I closed my office door
while I rocked and shushed
09:10
and begged him to stop screaming
so I wouldn't get in trouble.
09:13
I hid behind that office door
every damn day
09:17
and cried while he screamed.
09:19
I cried in the bathroom
while I washed out the pump equipment.
09:21
Every day, I cried all the way to work
and all the way home again.
09:24
I promised my boss that the work
I didn't get done during the day,
09:28
I'd make up at night from home.
09:31
I thought, there's just something
wrong with me that I can't swing this."
09:32
So those are the mothers.
09:38
What of the babies?
09:40
As a country, do we care
about the millions of babies
09:42
born every year to working mothers?
09:45
I say we don't,
09:47
not until they're of working
and tax-paying and military-serving age.
09:48
We tell them we'll see them in 18 years,
09:52
and getting there is kind of on them.
09:53
One of the reasons I know this
is that babies whose mothers
09:57
have 12 or more weeks at home with them
10:00
are more likely to get their vaccinations
and their well checks in their first year,
10:02
so those babies are more protected
from deadly and disabling diseases.
10:06
But those things are hidden
behind images like this.
10:11
America has a message for new mothers
who work and for their babies.
10:18
Whatever time you get together,
you should be grateful for it,
10:23
and you're an inconvenience
10:27
to the economy and to your employers.
10:30
That narrative of gratitude
runs through a lot of the stories I hear.
10:33
A woman told me,
10:37
"I went back at eight weeks
after my C-section
10:39
because my husband was out of work.
10:41
Without me, my daughter
had failure to thrive.
10:43
She wouldn't take a bottle.
10:46
She started losing weight.
10:47
Thankfully, my manager
was very understanding.
10:49
He let my mom bring my baby,
10:52
who was on oxygen and a monitor,
10:53
four times a shift so I could nurse her."
10:55
There's a little club
of countries in the world
10:59
that offer no national
paid leave to new mothers.
11:03
Care to guess who they are?
11:07
The first eight make up eight million
in total population.
11:09
They are Papua New Guinea,
Suriname and the tiny island nations
11:13
of Micronesia, Marshall Islands,
Nauru, Niue, Palau and Tonga.
11:17
Number nine is
the United States of America,
11:23
with 320 million people.
11:25
Oh, that's it.
11:29
That's the end of the list.
11:31
Every other economy on the planet
11:34
has found a way to make some level
of national paid leave work
11:35
for the people doing the work
of the future of those countries,
11:39
but we say,
"We couldn't possibly do that."
11:42
We say that the market
will solve this problem,
11:46
and then we cheer when corporations
offer even more paid leave to the women
11:49
who are already the highest-educated
and highest-paid among us.
11:53
Remember that 88 percent?
11:56
Those middle- and low-income women
are not going to participate in that.
11:58
We know that there are staggering
economic, financial, physical
12:03
and emotional costs to this approach.
12:09
We have decided --
decided, not an accident,
12:11
to pass these costs directly
on to working mothers and their babies.
12:15
We know the price tag is higher
for low-income women,
12:19
therefore disproportionately
for women of color.
12:22
We pass them on anyway.
12:25
All of this is to America's shame.
12:27
But it's also to America's risk.
12:30
Because what would happen
12:34
if all of these individual
so-called choices to have babies
12:36
started to turn into individual choices
not to have babies.
12:40
One woman told me,
12:45
"New motherhood is hard.
It shouldn't be traumatic.
12:46
When we talk about expanding
our family now,
12:50
we focus on how much time I would have
to care for myself and a new baby.
12:52
If we were to have to do it again
the same way as with our first,
12:56
we might stick with one kid."
13:00
The birthrate needed in America
to keep the population stable
13:03
is 2.1 live births per woman.
13:06
In America today, we are at 1.86.
13:08
We need women to have babies,
13:12
and we are actively disincentivizing
working women from doing that.
13:15
What would happen to work force,
to innovation, to GDP,
13:19
if one by one, the working mothers
of this country were to decide
13:22
that they can't bear
to do this thing more than once?
13:26
I'm here today with only
one idea worth spreading,
13:31
and you've guessed what it is.
13:35
It is long since time
for the most powerful country on Earth
13:37
to offer national paid leave
13:40
to the people doing the work
of the future of this country
13:42
and to the babies
who represent that future.
13:45
Childbirth is a public good.
13:48
This leave should be state-subsidized.
13:50
It should have no exceptions
for small businesses,
13:53
length of employment or entrepreneurs.
13:55
It should be able
to be shared between partners.
13:58
I've talked today a lot about mothers,
14:00
but co-parents matter on so many levels.
14:02
Not one more woman
should have to go back to work
14:07
while she is hobbling and bleeding.
14:10
Not one more family should have
to drain their savings account
14:13
to buy a few days
of rest and recovery and bonding.
14:17
Not one more fragile infant
14:21
should have to go directly
from the incubator to day care
14:23
because his parents have used up
all of their meager time
14:26
sitting in the NICU.
14:29
Not one more working family
should be told that the collision
14:30
of their work, their needed work
and their needed parenthood,
14:33
is their problem alone.
14:37
The catch is that when this is happening
to a new family, it is consuming,
14:40
and a family with a new baby
is more financially vulnerable
14:45
than they've ever been before,
14:48
so that new mother cannot afford
to speak up on her own behalf.
14:49
But all of us have voices.
14:53
I am done, done having babies,
14:55
and you might be pre-baby,
14:59
you might be post-baby,
15:01
you might be no baby.
15:02
It should not matter.
15:04
We have to stop framing this
as a mother's issue,
15:06
or even a women's issue.
15:08
This is an American issue.
15:10
We need to stop buying the lie
that these images tell us.
15:14
We need to stop being comforted by them.
15:17
We need to question
why we're told that this can't work
15:19
when we see it work
everywhere all over the world.
15:22
We need to recognize
that this American reality
15:25
is to our dishonor and to our peril.
15:29
Because this is not,
15:33
this is not,
15:35
and this is not
what a working mother looks like.
15:37
(Applause)
15:42

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Jessica Shortall - Strategy consultant, social entrepreneur and author
Jessica Shortall is a working mom of two and author of Work. Pump. Repeat: The New Mom's Survival Guide to Breastfeeding and Going Back to Work.

Why you should listen

What do breastfeeding and paid leave for working mothers, sustainable eye care, hunger, green investing, giving shoes and the business case for LGBT equality have in common? 

For Jessica Shortall, they have all been opportunities to change the world: challenges that need sustainable solutions and require a deep understanding of market forces, audiences, and cultures. They all require an intense dive into data, and they all benefit from powerful storytelling.

Shortall has provided strategy consulting to dozens of businesses, social enterprises, non-profit organizations and campaigns in the US, UK and beyond. Her first book, Work. Pump. Repeat: The New Mom's Guide to Surviving Breastfeeding and Going Back to Work, was inspired by her own experiences of circumnavigating the globe with a breast pump. She interviewed hundreds of working mothers and dozens of HR professionals to create a practical, relatable, judgment-free guide for women who want to try to continue breastfeeding after they've returned to work.

Shortall started her adult life as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan, and she haven't stopped searching for ways to change the world since, across non-profit and for-profit worlds. In the early 2000s, she co-founded and franchised a non-profit organization that is now active in more than 40 communities. In 2006, she received an MBA with honors from the University of Oxford, as a Skoll Scholar in Social Entrepreneurship. She went on to spend three years providing consulting services to social entrepreneurs. From 2009 to 2014, she was the first Director of Giving at TOMS Shoes, hired to build out the now-iconic One for One giving mission and strategy. 

She currently lives in Dallas, TX with her husband Clay and her two children.

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