My sister-in-law returned to work as an administrative assistant in an architecture firm four weeks after her first son was born. Luckily, family helped care for the baby so she could go back to work; at the time, she was the breadwinner while my brother finished school.

And yet, at one month post-partum, most new moms aren’t physically or emotionally ready for work. Even if they had an uncomplicated vaginal birth, they’re just beginning to return to their body’s regular rhythms—not yet cleared for physical exercise, drained from the trauma of birth, and still in pain from cramping abdomens, stitches, and breastfeeding—all on top of the sleepless stress of a needy newborn.

At the time, it bothered me that she had to return so soon, but I didn’t think too much about it. Now that I know what it’s like to deliver a baby, nurse a baby, and have a new baby turn your life upside down, I’m furious and heartbroken to know that she and so many others have to leave their infants behind so early.

When I gave birth for the first time, my twin boys spent five long weeks in the NICU. I cried when I left them behind for just a few hours. The mother in the room next to me—already back to work at her fulltime job—cried knowing she wouldn’t see her baby again for days. I can’t imagine. Ever since then, I haven’t been able to think of parental leave in the same way.

For a while, paid maternity and paternity leave were considered just another benefit at the cost of employers or the government. The political right and left took their expected sides. Republicans fear a mandate for paid leave hurts businesses and fosters government overreach. Democrats see it as a social ...

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