I had been at my job for 10 months when my daughter was born, not enough time to qualify for maternity leave. I took six weeks off, paid by the state at a fraction of my salary. Of that amount, which was not enough to cover the rent for our two-bedroom apartment, I wrote a check to my employer to cover my insurance premium. “You’re lucky you still have a job,” someone told me when I complained about the lack of parental leave. “Legally they don’t need to hold it for you.”
I could not afford to take more time than that, but I was privileged in many ways. The end of my leave coincided with winter break at the university where I teach, so I ended up with closer to three months at home. My husband had two months of paid family leave, and we were not living month-to-month.
My postpartum hormones had not yet settled by the time I returned to work. I dropped my sleepy infant off at day-care and went to the office, where a supportive colleague asked how I was doing. I began to cry.
The weeks before the pandemic were a blur. At 3 months old, my daughter was still waking up multiple times a night. I’d get her up at 5 a.m. to feed her, pack bags for work and day-care, and drive bleary-eyed down the highway. My husband, who commutes two hours from our New Jersey suburb to the Bronx, sometimes went whole days without seeing our daughter.
On campus, I spent a good part of the day running between my office, classes and the lactation room, a converted supply closet with no sink. I washed my breast pump in the kitchen at the end of the hallway. I was embarrassed when male colleagues, many of whom I did not know, came in to make coffee while I was rinsing out the plastic flanges that had just been over my nipples.
When the pandemic hit and classes went online, breast-feeding became far more manageable. I gave my daughter breast milk for a full year as a result. A friend told me her milk supply dried up pre-pandemic because she did not feel comfortable requesting time at work to pump. Unsurprisingly, breast-feeding success rates are higher when mothers have at least 12 weeks of paid leave.
I’ve spoken to many working parents with children around my daughter’s age. Those fortunate enough to work from home tell me how relieved they have been to have their babies nearby. “I feel like our children are the perfect age for this,” a friend commented two months into lockdown. Our babies were no longer fragile newborns, yet still too young to need socialization and home-schooling. We have treasured the time this horrible pandemic has unexpectedly gifted us.
Like many people in my town, Alex Isayev works in New York City. She told me that she was on the verge of a nervous breakdown pre-pandemic. Commuting meant she was away from her 3-month-old for 11 hours a day. “I saw her in the morning when it was a mad dash to get her to day-care and get to work on time, and then for a half-hour at night, which included driving home from day-care and feeding and bathing her. I felt like she didn’t even know who I was. All of that changed in March 2020.”
Working from home has been difficult, of course. My partner and I cannot afford a nanny and were not comfortable sending our daughter back to day-care. We take shifts with work and child care, which means we never have a break. When she’s sleeping, we are working — at 5 a.m., at 10 p.m., during her naps. Our apartment is too small for an office and our only desk is in the living room, where my husband watches our daughter during my work shifts. That means I teach from an uncomfortable folding chair in the bedroom, hunched over a bedside table. I’ve stacked books on the dresser behind me to make the background seem professorial. Off camera, toys and laundry lie strewn at my feet. Yet I am grateful for every moment and know that we are immensely privileged to have full-time jobs that are flexible enough to allow this arrangement.
My daughter is now 15 months old. She sleeps well at night and naps during the day on a regular schedule that is not determined by morning traffic or the first train into New York City. Rather than boxing up her meals and sending her off to day-care, my husband and I introduced her to solid foods at home. We watched her squash avocado between her fingers and try a banana for the first time. We watched her clap for herself after she took her first wobbly steps. We were there for her first words — in English and in Spanish (my husband’s first language). “Guau guau!” she shouts if we’re by the window and someone walks by with a dog.
I remember pre-pandemic, when her teacher texted me a picture from day-care. “Your daughter sat up today!” I missed that milestone.
I feel guilty sometimes for my good fortune when the pandemic has been the source of so much loss and loneliness for others. Yet I know many other parents who feel similarly grateful for time gained this year. “So much precious and irreplaceable time,” said Amy Nelson, a lighting designer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “I am incredibly grateful for this silver lining and hope enough parents, and non-parents alike, hold firm on a cultural change for better work-life balance.”
That better balance must include reasonable family leave. Parents shouldn’t need a pandemic to have the right to bond with their babies in the first year of life.
Victoria Livingstone is a writer, translator, and educator based in Montclair, NJ. Find her on Twitter @ToriaJL.