The association of directors of residency training in psychiatry has just started surveying program directors about their ATTITUDES toward maternity leave for residents. Years ago, when I was a member, I tried to survey them to find out what the range of actual policies might be, but no one wanted to disclose this for fear, I guess, that women would choose programs with better policies. Still, this punt is a form of progress, and the day may come when young women may have that kind of information, and not be penalized for making use of it.
Since I have changed to medical student education as my professional focus, I have become even more concerned about this issue. My first year in the job, an excellent student failed her clerkship exam about a month after delivering her first child. This led me to research the issue of "motherbrain"--cognitive problems women report after delivery. (I recall my pregnancy friend describing it as "someone took my brain out, administered a few swift kicks, and replaced it rotated 45 degrees.") Although the problem is one women commonly report, the research on it, like earlier research on perinatal depression, has been dismissive. Because the studies all exclude women with depression, severe insomnia, or medical complications, they have not found "objective" evidence of impairment on a limited number of tests.
Research or not, cognitive impairment (poor concentration and short term memory) may be a significant problem for women after delivery, lasting an unknown period of time. While I don't want to discourage anyone from working and demonstrating that mothers can be competent professionals, inadequate maternity leave and too early return to work is not a trivial problems. Students may fail their exams, and the rates of human error, already too high in medicine, may be affected as well. If I thought the information would be used in a non discriminatory fashion, I would be advocating for more attention to research in perinatal cognition. As it is, I try to warn students and residents not to underestimate the impact of childbirth, and to take adequate leave, even if it requires financial sacrifice or prolongs training.
Has anyone else been concerned about this?