Dear Mr. President,
When I had my first child, at age thirty one, I was extremely lucky. I worked part time as a Public Relations associate at an agency for the deaf and I had a private office. Since no one was bothered by noise, I was able to bring my child to the office up until the point he could walk. It was wonderful! But by the time I had my second child, five years later, I was a full time professional at a large health agency and I was given the same option as most parents; six weeks for a vaginal birth or eight for a c-section. My partner was also working full time, with no options for leave, and we absolutely needed both incomes in order to pay our mortgage and other monthly bills. The consequences of this very different situation still haunt me.
Since I had a c-section, I had eight weeks to recover my own emotional and physical health, figure out breast feeding, bond with my child, and get to those important early medical visits. After several months of searching, we had located a stay at home mother with other children who would provide day care. We had some concerns about the arrangement, but it was the closest to what we hoped to provide for our infant at a price we could afford. Larger day care centers just seemed too impersonal with not enough staff or time to hold and attend to our baby. So after eight weeks, I tearfully left my baby at this woman’s house, along with several bottles of breast milk that I had learned to pump. That day, and every other day for several more months, I went into a single stall bathroom in my office twice a day and leaned over the small sink where I used a plastic hand pump to get the milk that was so important to my child’s health. I tried–often fruitlessly–to keep the milk from staining my work clothes.
Today I still wonder if this was the right thing to do. Why? Because unlike his brother, my younger son struggled for years with a lack of self confidence and with difficulties making and keeping friends. He was bullied in school over a long period of time, despite our efforts at intervention. He was and is an intelligent, kind, hard working and emotional man, but for a long time we did not know if he would even graduate from high school. I cannot help but ask myself every day if this was not somehow related to the kind of care he had as an infant. Maybe not. But I will always have that question.
Fast forward to February of 2006. I was in Washington, D.C. at a work related conference, when I received two phone calls. The first call informed me that my mother of 92 years would require a second amputation, which the entire family recognized she might not survive. The second call informed me that my younger son, a senior in high school, had been diagnosed with non-hodgkin’s lymphoma…cancer. My mother died in August, almost at the same time my son completed his last chemotherapy treatment.
Once again, neither his dad or had access to any paid leave; just accumulated sick time which we used up rapidly at doctor visits. We had an older son in college on top of our regular expenses. Thanks to the flexibility of my workplace, I was able to take extended lunch breaks to visit my son when he was in the hospital for chemotherapy treatments, and both his dad and I went to be with him every day after work. But for many, many hours and days, my high school son endured spinal injections, and all the many side effects from his chemo treatment alone. We all like to say that Rory became a man in those weeks; he found his self confidence and began to monitor and direct the nursing staff to be sure he had his proper medications on time, and received the medical attention he needed. But once more, we could not be with him. And that was emotionally traumatic for all of us.
Two years later, I was away at the same conference when I learned that my Dad had been diagnosed with leukemia. He died in June. Just a few weeks later, as I was helping plan his memorial service, my partner of 28 years had a heart attack. He underwent triple by-pass surgery and, two months later, a stent operation. he took on the challenging task of advocating for himself in the hospital. When I traveled to take care of my Dad, I continued to telecommute part time, supervising staff by phone and email. My partner spent many difficult and painful hours alone as he recovered. I wanted to be there to help, but I no longer had any paid sick time available.
I know exactly what Carol Aboya means by her term “The Club Sandwich Generation.” I am not sure how we made it through that period in our lives. We had good friends. We had adult siblings who helped. We had excellent health insurance and medical care. And I had an employer who allowed me to flex my time, telecommute, and to use sick and vacation time. What I did not have was paid family leave. The U.S. is virtually alone in the world in failing to provide any paid time for workers with a new baby or a sick or dying relative that needs their care.
It is time that we woke up as a society to the fact that today’s workers are also caregivers who should not be forced to choose between economic security and the people we love. Paid family leave, especially when provided through the expansion of the Temporary Disability Insurance Program, helps both employers and employees. It leads to better medical outcomes for children and adults, stronger families, and higher retention and productivity in the workplace. That’s why I am working to pass Paid Family Leave Insurance in New York State, and hope you will call on Governor and state legislators to support programs like this.