The Importance of Maternity and Paternity Leave

The importance of maternity and paternity leave is often overlooked until the moment it affects your family directly.  ROFPAC founding member Shanna Reimer was kind enough to share her story with us.  You can always share your story of why you support ROFPAC at raisingourfuture@gmail.com.

I was totally guilty of thinking that maternity leave was an extended vacation full of sweet snuggles, long walks with a stroller, and trying out the stay at home mom life by lunching with the ladies who came before us. I practiced the lullabies I would sing, and changed my mind ten times about the first bedtime story we would read in our spacious room in the brand new hospital where I was scheduled to deliver. But in all of my many lists of questions at my prenatal appointments, not one of them dealt with what life would be like in those days after my perfect baby and I came home from the hospital in our adorable matching outfits after we took a few adorable first photos as a family of three.

I had a vague idea that I would need to fill out some paperwork to get my time off, and that we’d have to make some financial adjustments to take the full 12 weeks, but how hard could that be without all the regular costs of commuting?

And then, when I was 32 weeks pregnant, reality slapped me in the face, as it tends to do when someone is as far off base as I was. I left my regular prenatal checkup where everything checked out completely normal as it had from the beginning, went home and had a completely normal evening, and woke up in the middle of the night soaking wet – my water broke.

1:30 am – called the “I THINK I’M HAVING A BABY” emergency line.

2:00 am – arrived in the ER and set off a panicked chain of events: local hospital doesn’t have the facilities to handle a premature baby, the larger hospitals nearby are understaffed because of a holiday weekend, the doctor is making increasingly loud and frantic phone calls trying to find us a place that can safely deliver this baby early.

6:00 am – board an ambulance for about an hour long transfer to a hospital with a NICU.

8:00 am – call my boss and say “Uh, doesn’t look like I’ll be in today, sorry.”

9:00 am – ultrasound. All looks good, no active labor, let’s start discussing hospital bed rest because I’m going to be here for awhile. Ummmm….do you have Wifi? Because I’m going to have to work from here to delay starting my maternity leave clock.

9:30 am – my back kind of hurts from all these gurneys and stuff, can someone get me a Tylenol?

9:45 am – seriously, this is not cool. Where’s my Tylenol? And why are there two of you?

10:00 am – I’ve got everyone in the whole hospital up in my business. We are flying down a hallway now. I can’t have a baby today, I don’t start birthing class until next week! And I haven’t even hired the assistant to cover for me on leave yet!

10:20 am – Wait, what? I have a baby? What do you mean respiratory distress? Where are you taking him? When do we get to do the adorable first family photos?

So here I am, a mom eight weeks earlier than planned, and suddenly hearing very expensive words like “neonatal intensive care” and “he’ll have a minimum of three weeks’ stay here” – you know, in the hospital an hour away from where we started. And then it hits me – I can probably only afford to take the six weeks’ disability time off instead of my twelve weeks of leisurely lunches and delicious smelling baby snuggles. I might have to go back to the office before I ever even reach my due date.

In the end, I was home for 15 weeks. I negotiated with my employer to work from home for the remainder of the time after my disability leave – luckily, the majority of my tasks can be completed from anywhere with an Internet connection. For the next three months, I lived my life in a three hour cycle:

Try to breastfeed until one or both of us was too frustrated to continue. Finish feeding with a bottle. Change his diaper and/or clothes. Do our kangaroo care or therapy exercises. Rock the baby to sleep. Pump for the next feeding while snacking on something that was always more nutritious than enjoyable. Cram in a little bit of work or a little bit of sleep depending on whether I could keep my eyes open or not.

This wasn’t helpful or productive for anyone. My colleagues got incoherent answers at the strangest hours (doesn’t everyone do their traffic analysis reports at 2:37 am?), my body felt completely alien to me, and my brand new tiny human was ingesting a medical and digital marketing education along with my milk because I constantly had him in one arm and my phone in the other hand.

I returned to work exhausted, saddled with huge medical debts, and a terrified certainty that I was never going to be able to keep up with being a working mom, and that I would be on this treadmill for the rest of my life.

And then…we went out to dinner to a family owned neighborhood restaurant. And I saw a tiny baby in a car seat, tucked away in a corner booth. I noticed our server checking on him frequently and asked if he was hers and after exchanging the usual compliments about how beautiful our babies were, I asked how old he was. She told me he was four days old. Four. Days. She came straight from the hospital back to work because there was nothing else she could afford to do.

And I realized that as much as all of the past few months had sucked, I was one of the lucky ones. I had a job with a company big enough to be covered by the Family & Medical Leave Act, I had short term disability insurance through my benefits plan, and I had an established career in a field that allowed the flexibility to work from home for a time. I also had the benefits of an ACA compliant health insurance plan that provided a breast pump and eliminated the lifetime cap that could have hamstrung my son’s future medical insurance eligibility before he ever left the walls of the hospital for the first time.

This is what made me a firm believer in and advocate for universal paid family leave. Too many new parents are straining their bodies, their minds, and their finances to the breaking point. Too many babies in my son’s NICU didn’t have their parents visit regularly because they had to go back to work to preserve what little leave they could scrape together for after homecoming.

The US fertility rate is at a record low. Among my own professional community, the rates of people living a “digital nomad” lifestyle with their children is rising as young parents seek more supportive environments for raising their families. The gender wage gap and rates of women leaving the workforce after having children haven’t noticeably changed in decades in spite of women’s gains in education.

As a country, we need to get better at this. We can’t stay at the back of the global pack in supporting new families. We have to implement new solutions before the next generation of new parents decides that having a family and participating in the US economy are incompatible goals. Please join us in supporting a national, universal paid leave policy. The next super cute baby you see will thank you!