I feel as though I am the luckiest person in the world. Three months ago, I had my first baby, the most adorable and astonishing little girl. My husband and I were overwhelmed with her cuteness, and dazed that we were lucky enough to have a healthy and good-natured baby. Far more than my husband, I worried throughout the entire pregnancy about our baby, and our ability to raise her. Not because I doubted our ability to parent; I was certain we would love our baby and each other enough to do as best as we could. My concern for her health evaporated the minute she was born, and will always be what I treasure most as far as my lot in life. The one worry that remained was our financial instability. Despite our daughter being born to two married parents in their late thirties with college degrees, my husband was unemployed for the duration of the pregnancy, and I was laid off from my women’s advocacy nonprofit job after giving birth.
We had moved from the supremely unaffordable city of San Francisco to Philadelphia one year ago, and got pregnant almost immediately after moving. The timing was not intentional, but the news was thrilling, and terrifying. Unemployed, uninsured and wracked with first trimester nausea, I could not look into our future with certainty that we could manage to raise a baby without struggling financially. I lived for fifteen years in San Francisco on working poor wages and managed a comfortable lifestyle, but did not wish to impose a working poor lifestyle on my baby. Part of the allure of leaving San Francisco for Philadelphia was an easier cost of living threshold to meet. Wouldn’t a baby push us further from that goal?
It turns out, no. But I write this as an outlier, one of exceptional good fortune. Hardly anyone else in my position can boast such a satisfactory outcome to our conundrum. Because our country does very little to help families who identify as working poor who wish to take time off to bond with their newborn.
Most of my “luck” came with being laid off, and with an unemployed husband. By default, we were forced into maternity and paternity leave. Our daughter was a delight. We managed the interrupted sleep pretty well, and fell into parenting patterns and rhythms naturally. Nursing, while a challenge at first, became less painful and she quickly began gaining ounces upon ounces, then pounds. But the most special part about the first weeks of her life was being together as a family. The time to bond with a newborn is crucial: No family or parent should have to miss it. Aside from the obvious necessity of having time to heal physically from giving birth, fathers, partners or adoptive parents need just as much time at home as a birth mother. The reason is less obvious or instinctual to people who haven’t been through it, to try to explain how fundamental family leave is can be tricky. Luckily, there are studies and science.
But the reality is that our country, despite 23 years of the Family Medical Leave Act, does not offer any national paid family leave. For working class and most middle class families, taking unpaid leave is not viable. Very few businesses recognize this; fewer states do as well. To date, California, Rhode Island, New York and D.C. offer partially paid leave to families who have a baby, adopt a child or are taking care of a sick family member. Companies like Netflix offer paid family leave, but restrict the requirements to full-time, salaried workers, leaving more vulnerable employees with no paid leave options. Leaving the option of whether to offer partially paid leave to families up to states is a massive disservice of the federal government. Despite the politicians and business leaders who vocalize full support of paid family leave, no serious legislative push for a national policy to override the FMLA has taken root. Most recently, New York Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand made the case for a national paid family leave act at the DNC. But calling for family leave and drafting a bill to push through the House and Senate are two different approaches to a solution. Comfortably middle class and upper class families can often afford to take several weeks or months off without a paycheck. But millions of Americans cannot. The decision between a paycheck and bonding with a newborn or sick family member is gut-wrenching. No one should have to make it.
As for us, we didn’t have to. I ended up having to have a c-section after 36 hours of labor, I was restricted from working for six weeks until I was cleared by a doctor, rendering me ineligible to collect unemployment despite having been laid off. But I looked for work when our daughter was one week old, knowing I couldn’t wait too long. My husband never stopped looking. And last month, within a 24-hour window, we both got jobs. My husband, a feminist and advocate for women’s rights and equality, began working at a women’s health clinic, helping low-income patients find funding for abortion services. And I was hired as a communications and PR specialist for the Parental Leave Project, which provides a solution to families that lack paid family leave. No other job could be more appropriate or meaningful.
Our story is incredibly fortunate and rare. Even more remarkable is the fact that I work remotely, meaning I can stay home with my daughter and not have to pay for daycare, which arguably would be prohibitively expensive to the point of impossible. But that’s for another essay to discuss. For now, my professional goal is to help other families in a similar situation.
#parentalleaveproject #momlife #dadlife #FMLA23