Adoptive Parents Must Have Paid Parental Leave Too

by Rachel Garlinghouse
Originally Published: 
Rachel Garlinghouse/Instagram

We were exhausted. Not only did we have a newborn whom we’d adopted just one day earlier, but we were stuck out-of-state, waiting for a process called ICPC. Essentially, ICPC is when the state we were adopting a child from and the state we were residents of had to agree that our adoption was on the up and up.

Until the two states agreed with each other, we were stuck in Missouri. This meant I was missing the third-to-last week of the semester—that dreaded time right before I would administer a final exam to my seventy college writing students. My husband worked for an accounting firm.

ICPC can take a few days, a few weeks, or in extreme cases, a few months. Sounds painstaking, right? It is. Adoptive parents spend a lot of their time with their fate in the hands of other people, including government employees, social workers, and lawyers.

Unlike most other parents, we had an almost unheard of benefit. My husband’s job offered paid—yes, paid—adoption leave. Not for just a few days or a few weeks, but for four weeks in total. Yet even now, eleven years later, most employers do not offer adoptive parents the same paternity or maternity benefits that they offer those who have biological children. And it’s not OK.

Now some people have questioned why parents who adopt should be granted equal leave. After all, we didn’t go through nine months of pregnancy or childbirth. We aren’t recovering from the physical act of having a baby. So why do we feel we deserve leave? Essentially, adoptive parents are moved to the back of the line in terms of priority.

Nicole Witt, the executive director of The Adoption Consultancy, told Scary Mommy that adoptive parents and their child–also known as the adoptee–need time to bond since the child hasn’t been with the family for the duration of a pregnancy. In the case of adopting an older child, the transition time is “critical to their long-term mental health and feeling of stability.”

For nine months while in-utero, each of my four children got to know their birth mothers including, the sound of their voices and their heartbeats. There was nine months of togetherness that’s abruptly cut off when the child goes from birth mom to their new parents. And that’s a big freaking deal. Some in the adoption community refer to this this break as “the primal wound”—and believe it can traumatize the adoptee.

Older children who spent time in an orphanage, foster home, or group home—and many of whom were transferred from place to place many times—also need time to get established with their new family. But if adoptive parents are forced to return to work just days—sometimes even hours—after adopting their child, when can this bonding take place?

Witt also shared that parents need time for the emotional adjustment of adding a child to their family, including time to establish a rhythm and routine for everyone—including the adoptee, the parents, and any siblings. And because adoption is often unpredictable, there can be times when there is no preparation.

In our case, one day I was painting my kitchen and grading student essays, and the next day I was in the car, headed out of state to meet my new daughter. We had all the baby stuff—because luckily, we had friends and family throw us a baby shower—but we weren’t parents yet. I didn’t have months of middle-of-the-night-taco-cravings, sonograms, or a gender-reveal party. Motherhood happened—just like that.

The day I met my daughter, we met our social worker at our hotel to sign paperwork, then followed her to the interim care parents’ home. As soon as the door opened, the woman at the door smiled and said to me, “She’s hungry and poopy, Mom!” I suddenly realized she was talking to me. I was a mom. I had a daughter!

Because of ICPC regulations, my husband and I spent about five days after we gained custody of our daughter at a friend’s house and then a hotel. We spent hours holding, feeding, and bathing our new baby. We got to know her—her personality, her preferences, and her appearance. We couldn’t get enough of our new bundle of joy.

Some families choose to cocoon with their new child—a process in which they hunker down together in their home, not allowing visitors, and solely focus on bonding with the child. This can only happen for many if the parents have paid leave or an abundance of savings. Taking three months of unpaid leave from work, especially after paying astronomical adoption fees, just isn’t feasible for most people.

My husband’s company did away with paid adoption leave for our next two children, meaning my husband used all of his vacation days to wait out the ICPC process. This left no days for sick time, first doctor visits, or any days to extend holiday weekends. It was difficult, but doable—only because he works for a company that offers flexibility and is pro-family. But most of the moms in my six-hundred-member adoption support group do not have this option.

With our fourth adoption, just weeks before our daughter arrived, my husband’s company brought back paid adoption leave. Once again, he was granted four weeks to wait out our ICPC process—bringing our daughter from another state to ours—and for a few weeks of bonding with our newborn. This time, not only did we have our daughter, but three other children who also needed time to bond with their new sister and adjust to the addition.

Those few weeks were precious. We lived at a friend’s house for a week, then we moved to a hotel in St. Louis, and then were finally granted permission to go home. We then kept our kids home from school for a few days, and we visited our local apple farm, relaxed, and gave our children plenty of time to feed and hold their new baby sister. This season was a gift.

Nicole Witt reminds us that the lack of paid adoption leave for parents is also problematic because parents need time to do practical things like secure childcare for their adoptee. She shared with Scary Mommy that daycares often have long waitlists and finding a qualified babysitter or nanny takes time. If the parents are forced to return to work, who is going to care for the child? Additionally, many daycares do not accept children under the age of six weeks. When a parent adopts a newborn infant, who will care for the child for that time period? It’s a win-win if the parent can utilize that time to bond with their new baby.

Parents who adopt children with special needs require time to establish their children with qualified medical professionals, initiate IEP plans for children who attend public school, and work to help their child acclimate. These processes can take weeks, months, and even years. Offering parents paid leave would give them the opportunity to help their children get the best possible start.

Though some companies offer short-term disability or maternity or paternity leave for those who have given birth, adoptive parents are often left to make difficult decisions—having to choose between the well-being of their new child and returning to work. If companies offer paid adoption leave, it demonstrates that they care about the mental and emotional health of the employee and his or her family, Nicole Witt shared. She added, “Happy and healthy employees are the most productive, so providing parental leave is also in the best interest of the employer.”

Of course, the decision to offer employees paid adoption leave comes down to money. Doesn’t everything? But if employers are going to demonstrate that their employees truly matter to them, they need to show that by caring about the entire family, including the newest addition.

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