As many of you probably know by now, I wasn’t planning on getting pregnant or having children. Pregnancy has not been the easiest experience for me (of course I am happy and excited to be a mom). I say this first because I have never been more aware of how ignorant I was to the experience of pregnancy and motherhood. At my old job in Diversity & Inclusion consulting, I spent a lot of time researching this topic. Despite the fact that I knew the US is the only high-income country that doesn’t offer paid maternity leave on a federal level (it is guaranteed in 178 countries), I never fully grasped the absolute shamefulness of that. As a self-employed business owner, the first thing I thought about when I found out I was pregnant was how will I take time off of work? This business is the sole income for our household. It’s primarily run by me. The reality is, I can’t just shut down and step away for four months. While I am still figuring out how we will navigate leave once I have the baby, it has opened my eyes to the very real and difficult choices women and their families have to make every day.
When I asked for readers to submit their own maternity leave stories a few weeks ago I had no expectations, and I was humbled by how many of you shared your very real experiences. From vaginal birth to c-sections, premature delivery, surrogacy, and adoption one thing that struck me the most was the common phrase, “I’m lucky.” Having access to proper care and support for a new mother and her infant should not be due to luck, it should be a fundamental right. I hope that sharing these stories provides a sense of comfort and community to women going through this phase of life, as well as give those who (like me) might not fully grasp it, a better understanding of that experience. More importantly, I hope that this is just the beginning of creating awareness and pushing for meaningful change, because we can’t keep going like this. I have decided to turn this into a series of posts, including a follow-up with additional maternity leave stories, information and resources for how to best navigate maternity/family leave in the US, and a call to action for how we can push for change.
Below is a portion of the stories submitted by readers in the US and abroad. The experiences are different but all equally important to hear. Part two will go live in a few weeks. To give some additional context for maternity and family leave in the US, I’ve included some statistics below. I look forward to hearing your thoughts, feedback and continued dialogue on this subject.
US Maternity Leave by the Numbers
- Approximately 40 percent of women don’t qualify for the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). This is 12 weeks of protected job leave, unpaid, at the federal level. So if you do qualify, a family bringing a new child into their family (and therefore more expenses) is also expected to give up 3 months of income. (Source)
- Only 13 percent of private sector workers have access to paid family leave. (Source)
- Women are not only primary caregivers in the majority of US households, but over 60 percent of mothers are either breadwinners or co-breadwinners in their household.
- Four states currently have paid family leave- California, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island. Washington D.C. enacted a paid family leave measure which takes effect in July 2020. Washington state passed a paid family leave program to take effect at the beginning of 2020. Massachusetts recently passed paid family and medical leave that will begin in 2021. Connecticut it set to pass a family and medical leave act that would go into effect in 2022. (Source)
Maternity Leave Experiences
When I found out I was pregnant with my son, now 4 years old, my husband and I left our jobs in Boston and moved to a small town in CT where my husband grew up. We both began working for his family’s business. My position was part-time, 3 days per week. I negotiated with my boss, who is also my father-in-law, for a 2 month unpaid maternity leave. When I returned to work, however, I would bring my son with me. (Provided I was able to keep up with my work and that the baby didn’t prove a huge distraction for the rest of the office.) I felt so fortunate to be able to keep my son close those first months. It proved to be a huge benefit for breastfeeding, as I was able to nurse him throughout the day instead of pumping. At 9 months old, when he needed more attention than I could provide while still getting my work done, we enrolled him in daycare.
The 2 months I initially took off were not enough. I struggled with postpartum anxiety, which didn’t begin to resolve until my son was 3 months old. My husband had only taken 1 week off after his birth, and I often felt overwhelmed and unsupported. When we were expecting our daughter last year, we negotiated a more generous maternity leave. I would take 3 months paid leave, my husband would take 1 month followed by a flexible schedule that would allow him to work from home regularly.
Then, despite no pre-term birth risk factors and a completely normal pregnancy (until that day!), I unexpectedly went into labor at 26 weeks and my daughter was born weighing 2 lbs 5 ounces. I was discharged from the hospital after 48 hours, while she would go on to live in the NICU for the next 99 days before we could bring her home. For the first couple of months, everything about our daughter’s future health and well-being remained relatively unknown. She was at high-risk for many short- and long-term health issues. Not knowing what future support she might need, we made the only decision we felt comfortable with, which was for me to leave work permanently. When she was 9 weeks old I officially gave my notice that I wouldn’t be returning to work. (My boss, being my father-in-law, was obviously understanding.) This maternity leave was drastically different from my first. I spent my days in the hospital with my baby, and my evenings at home with my husband and son.
For me, the choice to stop working was easy, but most NICU parents don’t have the option. All the other NICU moms I met during my daughter’s stay had to budget their maternity leave strategically. For most, this meant returning to work soon after their baby’s birth so the remaining days off could be used when the baby actually came home from the hospital. Then you’re left to balance working full-time, caring for older siblings at home, and visiting your preemie in the hospital when possible. One of the moms I became close with used to visit her daughter at 4am every morning, it was the only time she could get there.
Since coming home, my daughter has been thriving and meeting all her milestones. By every measure, she’s a healthy, happy, almost 1-year-old baby. I have no plans to return to work in the near future, though I probably will once she begins school. I’m so thankful that we’re able to make things work financially as a one-income household. And I’m beyond grateful for two healthy, happy children.
I’m entering week three of maternity leave with my firstborn, who was born via gestational carrier (surrogate). I live in Philadelphia but, up until a year ago, was working remotely from NYC through a New York-based company. I did not consider this when I switched to a Philly-based job last October, and lost all my eligibility for New York’s paid parental leave, which would have covered 55-65% of my income for twelve weeks.
My current job’s leave policy is totally dismal. It’s even worse if you’re adopting, and worse still if your baby is born via surrogacy. Because I wasn’t pregnant and she’s a blood relative (we have an adoption policy for leave that only covers non-blood-relatives), I was only eligible for one paid week during my 12 weeks of FMLA. On top of that, because I work in education and we get some school vacations, I only accrue 18 flexible sick/vacation days per year. Convenient when you want to take off spring break, but not so much when you need to bank days for a baby.
I’m lucky that my direct manager saw how crazy this was and was willing to work with me on it. To cobble as much as possible together, I’m taking comp time for spring break and our “shutdown week” in June, then taking all my vacation and going into the red by another 40 hours. This means I only have to take five of my twelve weeks unpaid—but that still requires me to replace $7,500 of income somehow. I’ve been saving and am cashing out a small IRA to cover it.
If you’re on FMLA, company holidays don’t apply to you. So while I’ll be out on Thanksgiving, and all my colleagues are getting paid not to work, I’ll be taking those days unpaid because while I’m on leave, and ineligible for holiday pay. I’m going back to work one day before we close down for Christmas just so I can be reinstated.
On top of the expenses of surrogacy and just of raising a kid in general, this has been inordinately stressful. We are also in a tough spot for childcare, as my husband runs a start-up and doesn’t pay himself consistently, but can’t be a stay-at-home dad and work as much as he needs to. We’re so happy to have our amazing, sweet, loving baby (who’s sleeping on me as I write this), but it would be wonderful not to be semi-panicked about money during the entirety of my leave.
My due date was Feb 13, 2018, and the week before I didn’t want to go into the office anymore. Wearing any work appropriate clothing was impossible, sitting at a desk was awful, staying awake and on task was difficult… so I started working from home for a few hours each day at that point. I let the office know each day what I was doing. Then went into labor on a Sunday, baby was born on Monday and I think I told them late on Monday.
I had insurance paperwork and everything all done way ahead of time. My plan was to take 3 – 4 months, unpaid and I would just let them know when I was ready to come back. Which they were fine with; this is very uncommon in architecture, and maybe in all businesses.
I took about 15 weeks, and asked to work from home when I came back, because of the nursing schedule. (No one else at my firm works from home, and there is one other woman who is having children right now. Everyone one else is 50’s or older.) Pumping was terrible for me, and I wanted to nurse my baby, to maintain my supply better and to get that time with him. I was available via phone conference for our managers meetings. I started back to work after 15 weeks, and had a minimum number of hours to work each week to keep health insurance.
My firm was incredibly flexible and willing to let me start back when I was ready – within reason. I really didn’t want to go back to work, but this is our only option for affordable health insurance right now. I wish I had taken at least 4 full months, or maybe 4 and a half. Our 4 month sleep regression was very real, and it was hard balancing 4 hours of sleep, 6 hours of total nursing time, and working/billing 5-6 hours a day. I was exhausted and felt guilty knowing I wasn’t giving my usual 100% to my job.
Now my “baby” is 19 months, and I am still working primarily from home. I am up to about 7 hours a day, and I go into the office for a few hours a couple of times per week. But I would say it took me until 15-16 months to feel really productive and functional again.
I was told you get 6 weeks of leave through FMLA with vaginal delivery and 8 weeks with c section. Then the additional time for the 12 weeks you had to use from your PTO and sick days. Our sick days could accumulate so I had 3 weeks of sick days to use and 3 weeks of vacation I could use to fulfill my 12 weeks. I ended up having a c section and was told because there was not a medical complication (thought my c section was a complication of not being able to vaginally deliver… but I digress), I still only got 6 weeks of FMLA and wasn’t able to use my PTO to try and extend my leave. My husband took 2 weeks off, but he is a consultant so while he took that time off, he was not paid.
My son was born in September, and with cold and flu season just starting, and coupled with my postpartum anxiety, we didn’t leave the house much. After 12 weeks of leaving the house less than 10 times, I was very much ready to get back and have adult conversation. I also had a very structured schedule and a good baby, which likely made my experience much better than some.
Going back to work was awful. I was exclusively pumping at this point. My first day back my boss told me I had to get through my almost 1k amount of emails, get caught up on where all my client accounts were and do a 25+ market campaign within the same day. I also had a new computer I needed to set up. I was instantly overwhelmed and was in charge of picking up my son by 6pm (when daycare closed). My commute was 55 minutes so I had to leave right at 5. I also had to figure out how to pump at work and get acclimated to that. I pumped three times initially, 15 minutes at a time, but had a laptop so I was able to work while I pumped. The first month back I lost 20 lbs from illness and stress.
Things did not get better. I ultimately ended up leaving my job to grow my family business which is a different story. While I was ready to go to work, I think my job was the reason it was a bad work/life balance, not necessarily the time off. Though I think going back later, I may have had a better experience. Who’s to say? I think my biggest disappointment was how insurance played out with my time off and the pay.
Bailey, New Jersey
I’m 32, back at work for 3 months post maternity leave. I took the full amount of what my company offers. It was just under 6 months. 16 weeks fully paid by the company and the rest are supplemented through the state at about 2/3 of your salary. My husband took 2 weeks.
I had an emergency situation during my labor. Everyone is ok, but at the time I suffered an injury from childbirth so while recovering I wasn’t allowed to drive, walk, or pick up anything heavier than baby. I was essentially on bed rest for the first few weeks. I personally went through all the ups and downs of healing after the craziness that is childbirth, and I needed support (both emotional and physical). We had a baby nurse (this is sort of a jewish thing) come for 5 days and I VERY MUCH wish we had her longer. They help you so you can sleep at night and they bring the baby to you if you’re breastfeeding in the middle of the night then let you go back to sleep after and they stay up with baby. They also help you with how to bathe baby, what to pack for the first pediatrician appointment, and more. After the baby nurse left my mom stayed for a few weeks. My mom was honestly more around to take care of me which I so needed in that time.
In total, I had about 6 months, my husband for 2 weeks, a baby nurse for 5 days, and my mom for about a month. I wish I had my husband longer, because I was scared and overwhelmed but unfortunately we didn’t have that flexibility. I started to heal and be able to do more around 3/4 months postpartum but of course that’s just when I started to think about going back to work. I think 9 months is perfect for a mom that wishes to go back to work.
Our son came to us through adoption. Our story is kind of all over the place for a few reasons though- one, I’m self employed. I own a business that basically cannot run without me, so even though I had an employee helping out when my son was born, I couldn’t stay away too long. Second, it all happened so quickly. We were trying to adopt for about 4 months before he was born. He came a week and a half after we were matched. It was all, so so fast.
He was born on a Friday. We got the call at about 7am that he was on the way, & we had an 8hr drive ahead of us to get to him. I called my employee then & told her I’d be unavailable the rest of the day.
We brought him home (by home, I mean an Airbnb we had rented because he was born in another state and we couldn’t cross state lines with him until that state had spoken to our home state etc) from the hospital on Sunday. Monday morning I was working. I remember (vaguely because it’s all an exhaustion blur) working sometimes at 4am because he had woken for a bottle and gone back to sleep and I thought, ‘well, now I have sometime…’
I thought as a newborn it would be easy- I’d take him into the office with me, I’d feed him when needed, he’d sleep and I’d work. Ahhh the naivety of a professional woman whose never had or been around kiddos. I was clueless. I took him to the office once. After that I worked from home for about 6 months. Work suffered, but he is worth it. I don’t remember much about that first year honestly- it’s a freaking blur.
If I could have, I would have absolutely taken time to just learn being a mom. I thought I wouldn’t need maternity because my body didn’t need healing. But what I didn’t realize was that my entire life changed in a matter of 24 hours. Not just having a child- but your entire schedule, sleeping/ eating/ life in general changes. You can’t just run to the store anymore. You live in a state of constant jet lag. Like that, everything is new. And you need the time to adjust. Being the breadwinner in my family, I couldn’t have taken leave if I had wanted to. But it did make me realize how important it is to offer to families. Dads too- their lives have changed just as much.
I’m currently on maternity leave with my second. For both of my daughters I took 8 weeks paid leave and 12 unpaid. I’m a teacher and felt fortunate to have 8 weeks of paid leave, some of my friends in other fields only have 6 weeks paid. The additional 12 weeks unpaid was the maximum I could take and still maintain my insurance- I carry insurance for my family so this was important.
I personally felt like going back when my girls were 4/5 months old was enough time for me. Maternity leave was a wonderful time of bonding and connecting with my girls but I felt that I lost a part of me that connected to my personal goals that centered around my career. The balancing act that has followed has been tough for sure but I feel more fulfilled and empowered when I work and I love that I can be that mom and role model for my girls.
Erica, Rhode Island
I’ve always worked full time, mostly in an industry that is highly emotional. The idea of taking so much time off was overwhelming for me to think about. I think having a baby later in life added to my anxiety, in regard to the thought of losing my identity. Who am I if I’m not working? Work was this thing that always defined me, or rather it was how I defined myself. The anticipation of being out of work was way more difficult than actually disconnecting when it came down to it. As soon as she was here, thinking about work was the last thing on my mind.
I received 12 weeks paid leave, and in RI we also receive TDI and TCI so I took 5 months off. I did have the option to take up to a year off, and have my job held for me. Financially, I knew I wouldn’t be able to take that much time off. Mentally, a year seemed crazy. My husband received no paid leave. He took a week off, and then went back to work full time. I was very happy when he came home every day – it was nice to have someone else to talk to, and I wasn’t used to being alone so much. I really enjoyed the alone time to bond with our daughter. Especially because breastfeeding didn’t work out for me, I think that time alone really helped us bond in ways that I honestly did worry about missing.
At 3 months, I was 100% not ready to go back. It took me about 6 weeks just to get comfortable with the idea that I now had this tiny little person to care for and keep alive. By the time my 5 months was up, I was ready to go back to work. I was excited to go back, get dressed, have adult conversations again, and figure out who I was now that this job was no longer something I defined myself by.
I’m a teacher and my son was born in the summer, about two weeks before the new school year would start for teachers. Our current family leave policy allows us to take paid leave (from our sick leave pool, so, depends on how many hours you have accrued) for 6 weeks if it’s a vaginal birth, 8 weeks for c-section. I qualified for the 6 weeks. It’s counted from the day of birth. My first paycheck after his birth was still on the 2017-18 school year contract (summer pay, so sick leave wasn’t needed because I get my salary paid throughout the entire year). I asked if I could start my 6 weeks sick leave when the 2018-19 year started and that was denied. So, I got about 4 weeks of paid leave (the district paid me back for 60% of those hours through short-term disability coverage), then about 2.5 weeks of leave without pay. Employer insurance meant that they had to dip into my first few paychecks once I returned, to cover the insurance coverage I had while on unpaid leave (and thus they didn’t have paychecks to take my premium from).
My husband got 8 weeks paid leave from his employer, to split as he pleased over the first full year. He took the first month off, and it was so, so good for us to have that time to figure out the new routines together. He switched jobs in January, but the new job has a similar leave policy for him (if not better).
Our son started daycare when he was 9 weeks old (ours is close to my school, and opens early so I can drop him off before the 7:30 bell). Going back to work was WILD, I strongly recommend not starting the school year over a month in. My bosses were flexible and accommodating when I needed time off for sick baby, or sick me. But I was definitely grappling with figuring out a lot of new stuff at once, and it was hard. I’m glad I’m back at work (teaching is a big part of my identity), but it’s absurd that a field that has so many women in it AND is supposed to be about serving children, has such atrocious family leave policies.
Jess, New Jersey
I went back to work and sent both my sons to daycare at 12 weeks of age. The first time I really didn’t want to go back to work. I was devastated and would calculate the hours on my fingers trying to figure out how I could somehow get more waking hours with him than the daycare did. Somehow when my second son was born it was a little easier. I had all these fears at the beginning that I wouldn’t have enough time with them, that it would ruin my bonding experience, etc. My kids are now 12 and 10 years old – and we couldn’t be closer. They were happy at daycare and I was always mom. My husband did not really ever take time off (other than a few days). His job is the bulk of our income so that made the most sense financially.
I actually work at a daycare! Previously I was an elementary school teacher, but I started there shortly after my first son was born. So over the years I’ve seen lots of parents bring their babies at varying ages. There are a whole bunch of positives my children and the children I work with get from the daycare experience. I really wanted to stay home with my boys when I had them. Financially there was no way. Over time I’ve realized that working makes me a better parent, partner, person. Not saying that’s true for everyone – but definitely is for me. My husband and I went from not wanting to ever have kids (or get married) to where we are now. Life.
Caitriona, Rhode Island
Maternity leave is a beautiful, wonderful time with your little one that you will never get back… but some days it’s also long and lonely. My first I honestly had no idea what I was doing. He had a 2 hour evening witching hour, that felt like it was never going to end. When my husband would finally get home, I would be thrilled to have someone sharing in the parenting, and both figuring out how to soothe and calm him down. Then right when you get into a rhythm, and have it kind of worked out, it’s time to go back to work.
Rhode Island is pretty great, meaning you actually get paid a little from the state. I come from Ireland, and over there women take off before baby comes, and can take up to 18 months, with usually 12 paid. The company I worked with for my two kids (tomorrow is my last day with them), did not pay me, and also had me pay back my health insurance while I was out. It made me realize that I did not want to work for a company that didn’t look out for their employees, and made me make this jump into a new job 4 weeks after I came back. My husband took 10 days with our first, and our second he could only take 4-5 days.
We balance our parenting routine pretty evenly. I do all the kids lunches for daycare, I pump/nurse the new baby, and he does drop offs, my mother and I split pick ups. It takes a village, more like a town to raise these little cherubs, but those little smiles when you walk into picking them up from their day at ‘Aunties’ daycare, makes it all worth it… and wine, wine helps at the end of the crazy days.
I’m 36 and have two kids. My son is 3 and my daughter just turned 7 months. I took 12 weeks with each. My employer offers 8 weeks of paid parental leave and I stockpiled vacation days to get to the full 12 (I say “full” since 12 weeks is what is covered by FMLA). My husband took 2 weeks for our first child, but his company thankfully expanded their paternity leave and he got 4 weeks with our daughter. I definitely would have loved to have him home longer.
I was thankful to be able to take that much time. I couldn’t imagine going back 4 or even 6 weeks after, which many women do. I had a relatively issue-free labor both times, but postpartum is no joke. The physical recovery was much more intense than I thought it would be, plus you’re trying to figure out this whole “take care of a newborn” thing!
Looking back, I wish I had more time. I fully understand how fortunate I am to a) get paid leave b) have smooth birth experiences with no real complications for me and baby and c) have a supportive partner who shares 50% of the work taking care of a baby, all things that help make the transition easier. But they are only babies for so long, and like everyone says it goes by so fast. Plus, we’re done having kids. So my time at home with them is finished. Won’t have time like that ever again. It makes me sad.
The only other piece I’ll add is about breastfeeding. This was really important to me. I breastfed my first for a year and a half and we’re going strong with my daughter. Having 3 months at home to really get the hang of that was crucial for me. If I had to leave them after a month, I don’t think I could have stuck with it. My employer also supports me pumping three times a day at work. The time at home with your newborn is so special and fleeting and hard and wonderful. The US really needs to get with the program and support our parents and their babies.
Kavita, The Netherlands
I am an Australian expat living here (with a Dutch passport). We are given the exact same health care rights that all Dutch people have. I pay circa €140 per month on health insurance. This is for one of the “best coverage” packages which I elected to get knowing that I wanted to have a child this year. A basic health insurance package comes in at €100. It is compulsory for everyone who lives in The Netherlands to buy health insurance.
The overarching philosophy on childbirth here is that it is a natural process and not a medical procedure. In light of this – here is an overview:
When you find out you’re pregnant, you call your local midwife clinic and let them know. Each town has at least one and you can choose to go there or any other one you want. The clinic has a rotation of 3-4 midwives. You will meet them all and when you are ready to give birth – the one “on duty” will usually be present.
Each midwife clinic visit costs around €33. This is always covered by insurance (even basic insurance). Ultrasound Scans are completed by the midwife 3 times during your pregnancy. 12 weeks, 20 weeks and 32 weeks. These are free. Extra scans can be requested and if they are not medically required they cost around €30.
Birthing options include home birth, birth clinic or hospital birth.
For home birth, the midwife will come to your house and deliver the baby. This is free. For a clinic birth the midwife will meet you at the clinic and deliver the baby. These are often attached or very close by to hospitals but pain relief is limited. There is a small fee which is covered by basic insurance. A hospital birth, the midwife will meet you at the hospital and hand you over to the hospital midwives.
I elected for a hospital birth. This was covered in my insurance package meaning I would have NO out of pocket expenses. With a basic insurance package there is a small fee for electing to have a hospital birth. This has a maximum cost of around €350 no matter how many days you end up having to stay. Drugs are not encouraged – if electing for an epidural the risks are clearly outlined and you’re required to consent to them- even if you have an epidural you are encouraged to “turn it down” for birth so you can maintain some control and push most effectively- babies are placed skin to skin immediately and the cord is cut within 5 minutes. There is no rush to weigh and measure baby. Skin to skin is most important. Most natural births result in the mother going home within 6-8 hours of having given birth. I gave birth at 14:30 and was home by 20:00. The true cost of my birth was around €2500. This included the room, drugs, care, blood work etc. My insurer paid this and I never saw a bill.
Post Birth Care
Everyone, I mean EVERYONE is “given” a baby nurse for 40 hours immediately following birth. This is usually split over a 5-7 day period. They meet you at your home after the delivery. In my case: we came home at 8pm, a nurse arrived at 9pm to answer questions and settle us all down for the night. At 8:30am the next morning our permanent nurse arrived. She stayed with us the full week. Her duties include everything to do with care of the mother and baby. Medical check ups, teaching us everything, making sure the environment is safe, cooking meals, monitoring guests and visitors, forcing the mother to nap, breast feeding help etc. The true cost of the baby nurse is €2500 but as mentioned, all insurance packages cover the majority of this. Sometimes there is a “contribution” that must be paid which equates to around €100. If you have more than the basic insurance – you don’t pay this. I actually cried when our baby nurse left – she really was such a vital person for us in those first days when you’re tempted to google everything (and scare yourself silly).
For Western Europe, the Netherlands is quite far behind. We have 16 weeks paid leave. Minimum 4 weeks before birth and 12 after – adjusted if you give birth too early or late of course… we are also legally entitled to unpaid parental leave which is 26 times your weekly hourly working hours. In my case… 40 hours x 26 = 1,040 hours. I choose to take 1 Friday off (8 hours) every fortnight which means for circa 3.24 years I can take every second Friday (unpaid) off work.