I Was 'Lucky' To Have Maternity Leave

by Rhiannon Giles
Originally Published: 
maternity leave
Joey Boylan / iStock

I am one of the lucky ones. Privilege is basically pouring out of my white, educated, middle class ears. I’m reminded of this as I begin a post in which I am going to lament, bitch, whine, and rant about the lack of adequate paid family leave in this country.

I am lucky because my employer has to provide me with at least the basic unpaid FMLA. I am lucky because they provide me with three weeks of paid leave. I am lucky because I could take an additional unpaid leave of absence from my job after the FMLA ran out because extenuating circumstances are extenuating. My job wasn’t secure during this time, but I’m lucky to work with people who like me well enough.

I had it all figured out. I did the things that privileged people would do. I had money in my savings account. I timed my pregnancy (again, lucky!) with my son so there would be a gap of a couple of months where we did not have to pay for day care, which was supposed to cover the unpaid time of my maternity leave. I would be out of work for the standard 12 weeks, at our least busy time of year.

And then Rowan was born two months early after I had already been in the hospital for two weeks. I finished my maternity leave when he had only been out of the hospital for a month. I’m lucky because I had options and could extend my unpaid leave, because I didn’t have to go back to work while he was in the hospital. Imagine that: because of our lack of sufficient leave, many mothers have to juggle a baby in the NICU and going back to work at the same time. That way, if they are also lucky, they can have some maternity leave when the baby comes home.

So what’s the problem?

I am lucky. And yet I am staring at my end of year pay stub, and seeing that I made 20% less last year than I made the year before.

Like most women, I came back from maternity leave with no sick or vacation time left. Oh yeah, I’m lucky that I have those things in the first place. I put my tiny baby in the loving cesspool that is day care, and took myself to work, while still dealing with the fallout, health issues, and trauma of his early birth.

You can guess what happens next. I had appointments for me. Rowan had appointments. Rowan got sick. Rowan got the rest of us sick. So no matter how “responsible” I was, I couldn’t get ahead of the sick time drain.

And then last week Rowan got respiratory syncytial virus, followed by bronchiolitis. I spent a sleepless night at Duke, holding him as he struggled to breathe, as his skin pulled under his ribs and his nostrils flared, as his body was wracked with coughs, and he cried from the pain and difficulty of it all. I had six hours of sick time left. Now I have zero. And I only got paid for 28 hours last week. But I’m lucky.

I’m lucky because I have a job that allows this. I’m lucky that I still have a job.

I’m lucky because it could be so much worse, because other parents are having to choose between keeping their job and sitting with their sick baby in the hospital. Other parents are returning to work after mere days of “maternity leave” because they need to feed their families. Other babies are getting delayed health care because their parents couldn’t leave work without losing their jobs.

Being able to care for our children (or partners or parents) should not be considered lucky. It should be the expectation. I know there are people who will cry that we should not have had children if we were not ready to face the consequences, that children are a choice. I call bullshit on that logic.

There is so much to this that there is no way I can touch on every point. The cost of health care, day care, and unpaid or nonexistent parental leave are all intertwined to create a society that fails the very children who will one day make up our tax pool, where 12 unpaid weeks is considered adequate time to bond with your baby, even if your baby should happen to come early. We are spending tax dollars and emotional currency as we pay for the reverberating public health effects that result.


Baby came early.

I made 20% less last year.

Spent last week caring for my baby while he struggled to breathe.

Lucky because I still have my job.

I think we need to change our definition of “lucky.”

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