I will never forget the day I found out I was pregnant with my son. It had been three long years in the making. Finally, after countless tears and three rounds of in vitro fertilization, we were having our long-awaited baby. I used to joke that he was my one good egg. Our million dollar baby.
I will also never forget the day I found out I was pregnant with my daughter. I thought I was coming down with the flu. But I knew from experience that my doctor would first ask if I could be pregnant. So I took a pregnancy test, even though the fertility specialist that gave us our son said there was less than a two percent chance of conceiving without medical intervention. I laid the plastic stick on the bathroom sink and went about getting ready for the day, not really giving it any thought. Ha! I came back in to brush my teeth and glanced down to see the word "pregnant" on the little gray screen. I almost passed out. My husband's first reaction? "We can do that?"
We were overjoyed! But also shocked. And scared as hell. My husband and I weren't prepared for this at all. We figured if we ever had more children it would involve the familiar parade of doctor's visits, injections, and disappointment. And since I had lost my insurance coverage for infertility treatments, we didn't plan on trying IVF again anytime soon. We thought there was time to pay off debts, save up money, move to a bigger house, etc. But here we were, pregnant. My husband's second reaction was, "How are we going to pay for two kids in daycare?"
It turned out to be the first of many, many financial problems that would pop up. I found out a couple weeks later, after informing my HR department that I was expecting and would need details on how our short term disability worked, that I didn't actually have short term disability. I swore up and down that I had signed up for it during open enrollment, but along the way somewhere I must have made a mistake, because the fees were never withheld from my paycheck. Short term disability was not handled directly by my company, so no one noticed that I had not signed up.
Now the panic really started to set in.
Like most places of employment in the United States, mine did not provide maternity leave benefits. I hadn't been at this company very long, less than a year at the time, so I didn't have many vacation days. There were just enough to cover the first four weeks of a standard six week maternity leave — assuming that no one would ever get sick and that I would never need a day off for a doctor's visit of any kind or just general life stuff. To avoid using any time, I went to work no matter how sick I was.
Strep throat? Constant nausea? Crippling sciatica? Still went to work. I remember being really excited that winter when I got the flu at the beginning of a three day holiday weekend. Imagine my good fortune! I would have a luxurious three days to recover without using any paid time off.
Even with hoarding away PTO as much as I could, by the time my due date started to creep up, it became clear that my PTO would only cover three weeks of leave. Which meant we would go three weeks without my income. My husband and I both have decent jobs that pay fairly well, we are solidly middle class in a very affordable area of the country. But, we are stuck in what can generously be called a debt vortex. We have two car payments, a mortgage, and loads of credit card debt racked up from the years of IVF. Every time we start to make headway on getting the debt paid off, something comes up to sink us right back down into the deep of it. We simply could not go three weeks without my paycheck.
I had to find another solution.
That is when I decided to approach my HR department about working from home while on maternity leave. I work in public relations, so a great deal of what I do can be done from home. I was very lucky in that they agreed to let me work at most 20 hours a week from home, as long as my doctor signed off on it. The doc said it would be fine, as long as I took the first two weeks after delivery to rest and recover. After several meetings we worked out a system to report my hours, and everything was set.
I know how lucky I am that my company agreed to let me do this. There are so many women out there who aren't as lucky. Women who work in fields without a telecommute option, women who work in literal fields, or women who work for companies that don't provide health benefits. Families with more financial concerns, and less much support. According to the Department of Labor, only 12% of private sector workers receive paid family leave through work. And over 40% don't qualify for the Family and Medical Leave Act, meaning that their job may not be there waiting for them after recovering from giving birth. The fact that I could do this was amazing, and I am grateful.
However, even knowing all that, I still feel a little cheated. Hearing another coworker talk about her 12 week maternity leave fills me with sadness and makes me feel like a horrible mother. Every day, the minute my brand new daughter fell asleep, I laid her down in the crib or her swing so I could log on to my work computer and get stuff done. When she woke up crying during phone calls, I had no choice but to go to the other side of the house until the call finished, leaving her to cry in her crib. Thankfully that only happened a few times and I was able to wrap up the conversation relatively quickly. If she had a fussy day, I strapped her to my chest and did branding research. When she caught a fever from her brother and had to be admitted to the hospital for three days, I seriously contemplated taking my computer with me to the hospital and working from there. But that is where I decided to draw the line.
The work I did at home wasn't particularly taxing physically, but it was mentally. I stressed about getting projects done on time, and whether or not I gave them enough of my attention. I became paranoid that my boss might be annoyed with my constant emails or thought I was at home eating bonbons and catching up on soaps. I worried about whether or not I was bonding enough with my baby. I mourned the loss of the perfect maternity leave I had had with my son. I spent quite a few hours in bed clutching my new baby girl and sobbing while post-partum hormones and guilt streamed through my body. With my son, I spent days napping when he napped and lying on the floor doing tummy time, going on walks and staring at him for hours on end, and Googling every poop to make sure he was okay. This time around I prayed for longer naps from the baby so I could concentrate on work, wrote press releases while also trying to fit in some skin-to-skin time with my daughter, and I barely left the house. My thoughts were always split. And since I wasn't sleeping when she did during the day, I was exhausted. All new parents are, but six weeks of running on two hour stretches of sleep a night was grueling. It was like I was undergoing some kind of psychological experiment.
Two weeks into the working from home arrangement and I already regretted it. I wished I had just taken the unpaid time and opted to play catch up with our bills after going back to work.
I felt pulled in a million directions and tired beyond words. I kicked myself over and over for being dumb enough to not double check that my disability went through when I tried signing up for it the year before. I berated myself for being the main reason our family was so much in debt. After all, it was my body that failed while trying to conceive our first child and resulted in thousands of dollars in medications. I am also the one that went through a depressed period after each failed cycle and went on shopping binges to fill the baby shaped hole in my life. And I felt silly for being so emotional over the whole thing when there were women out there who had it so much worse than I did.
By the end of my maternity leave I perfected the art typing while balancing a sleeping baby on my chest. Also, how to write coherently while running on zero sleep. I can credit this whole experience for getting me back below my pre-pregnancy weight after only a month. It turns out trying that to care for two kids while working from home leaves little time for silly things like cooking meals or eating.
However, even with working from home, I still ran out of PTO early, and I wasn't able to work enough hours to cover it, so my paychecks fell far short of what they would normally be. We ended up playing the Which Bill Should We Pay game for a few weeks. Now we are trying desperately to catch up, and it's looking like it will be at least a few months until we get back on track.
Over the past year a lot has been made of the lack of parental leave laws in the U.S. We've all seen the infographics on social media showing how we are one of only two countries without paid maternity leave. Politicians, including the president, called for the government to require paid maternity and sick leave from employers. Celebrities got in on the act by making videos calling for mandatory paid family leave.
While the conversation seems to be dying down, the issue has not gone away. Every day American women have to decide between keeping a job and raising a family.
Even though we personally don't plan on having more children (can't let them out number us, then the real trouble starts), I still very much wish there was a way I could prevent other women going through my post-partum work experience. But the only way that will happen is if we keep pushing and talking about the need.
So what can you do? Find out who your congressional representatives are and write them an email. Sign a petition and encourage your friends to do the same. Share stories like this one with everyone you know who has a woman in their life. Open a dialogue with the women in your office and see if everyone knows where they stand with benefits and coverage.
Whatever method you choose, speak up, stand up, and don't shut up until there is a change in policy.
Brandy Ayers once had dreams of being the next Nora Ephron, which did not pan out. Instead she has spent the better part of the past decade working in journalism and public relations. In addition, she is the proud writer of two romance novels. Brandy lives in Pennsylvania with her husband, son, daughter, neurotic boxer, and Satan worshipping cat.