I was 30 years old when I became a single mother. For the past few years I have worked as a social worker and administrator for a women’s health center that provides both abortion and birth center services. I felt I had a firm idea of what would be involved in single parenthood. I knew I would face challenges, but was ready to love and provide for my child.
My employer does not offer paid maternity leave. Although the Family Medical Leave Act would normally not apply to a company with less than 50 employees, my employer did opt in so I knew I would have job security. I saved up nearly all of my sick and vacation time for the year – about three weeks – and planned on combining that with my disability time during which I would receive only $170 per week. I planned to stay home with my baby for six to eight weeks. My employer also agreed that I could work part time for a few more weeks before returning full time.
But life does not always go as planned. My sweet baby, Adira, was born on July 19th at just under 29 weeks. She weighed 2lbs 2oz. Thankfully, she is healthy and doing well.
Which brings me back to the need for paid family leave. This system doesn’t work for moms and families in the best of situations, but it is completely devastating for families with babies in the NICU.
My doctor put me on bed rest for preterm labor and I began to receive TDI after the weeklong waiting period. After Adira’s cesarean birth I was eligible for eight weeks of TDI, however I only took one month before returning to work. Since disability pay is so low, I felt that I needed to save up what financial resources I had so that I could be with her as much as possible after she came home.
I have always been a huge advocate for breastfeeding, but it becomes completely critical for a preemie. Formula greatly increases a baby’s risk for developing necrotizing enterocolitis; breastmilk provides many benefits particularly in helping to develop baby’s immune system. Mothers of premature babies produce high-protein milk that is especially suited to the baby’s needs!
In addition to the benefits for Adira, pumping felt like one of the only things that I was able to do for her while she was being cared for by the NICU staff. Providing breastmilk helped me to feel more connected to her and to feel more like her mother, less irrelevant.
For most of her NICU stay, Adira was gavage fed (breastmilk was put through a tube in her nose or mouth). After a month of pumping exclusively, Adira’s doctors finally decided it was time to try to feed her at the breast. I was thrilled… but it was the day before I had to return to work! I could no longer afford to stay home receiving only TDI, yet I finally had an important role to play in the NICU. The timing was terrible!
Adira needed to be fed every three hours, so I got up and went to the NICU every day by 7:30am for her 8am feeding, before running to work to arrive by 9am. After work I would pump and then run immediately back to the hospital to be there for her 5pm and 8pm feedings. To make this work, I was unable to work full time. If I hadn’t had to go back to work so soon, I would have been able to be available for more than only three feedings a day and, arguably, Adira would have learned to breastfeed sooner and have been discharged earlier.
While this experience has been so challenging, I have been lucky to have wonderfully solid support. My amazing mom and a dear friend close (a former NICU mom herself) have been at my side throughout the past few months. My mom will take care of Adira when I return to work.
I am able to make this work financially, but it is very tight. Emotionally, it is even more of a challenge. The fact is, because there is no US policy of paid family leave – and TDI is totally inadequate in even the best of circumstances – I had to return to work before I was ready physically and emotionally.
I am finally at home now with my sweet, strong girl, but it is heartbreaking to think that I will have to return to work again soon. This experience has brought home for me the devastating consequences of not providing real support to new and growing families. I am happy to share my story with the hope that Paid Family Leave becomes a reality.