They say you should try to only have one major life change at a time, so during my first pregnancy, I simultaneously finished school and started a new job, and my husband and I bought a house. When we decided to have our second child, we were excited to experience pregnancy without the heaping side of stress and anxiety. We owned our home, my husband was happily employed, I had an amazing job in IT at a biotech company and, with our combined experience, we had this parenting thing on lock. I felt great, like I had the chance to be the calm, present, organized mother I had always dreamed of being – until our mid-point ultrasound, when my doctor told me I was on the verge of miscarrying.
Up until that point, everything had been completely fine, but I was told that I might lose the baby altogether, or deliver him suddenly. If I delivered at that point in the pregnancy, my son’s chance of survival was less than 50 percent. I spent a month in the hospital while my husband took care of our first son, and then they let me go home on bed rest. After one month at home, I went into labor, still two months too early.
We were on our way to the hospital when a black cat suddenly ran across the road. My husband and I looked at each other and started hysterically laughing. What else could possibly go wrong?
When my sweet second son was born, he weighed a little less than four pounds, so tiny you could hold him in the palm of your hand. When he took his first breath on his own I started crying with relief. He spent four weeks in neonatal intensive care and then, when he weighed a whole five pounds, we finally got to take him home. His immune system was so at-risk the doctors advised that he be quarantined inside the house completely until he was six months old.
This was the moment I had planned to start the 12 weeks of leave that my job gave me, so I could be with my baby and recover from childbirth. Instead, I began my leave when I went on bed rest, which kick-started a complicated mathematical equation designed like two different sides of a battlefield. On the one side, the worried parents, desperate to help their frail new baby; on the other side, the most lackluster parental leave policy of any developed nation and a supportive company whose hands were largely tied.
The time off my company granted me was covered through both short and long-term disability insurance and the Family and Medical Leave Act. I missed a total of nine weeks of work prior to my son’s birth, and during that time I got paid some part of my salary, and my job was legally protected. After my son was born I started a six week term of short-term disability insurance. He spent four weeks in the NICU. By the time they sent him home I had been away from my job for 13 weeks and had exhausted my FMLA coverage. There were some things we could have tried earlier if we’d known what was coming – I could have worked from home on bed rest, for example, and saved some of my leave – but neither my company nor I fully understood what my options were, and there was no expert on hand to explain it. Unsurprisingly, maternity leave questions don’t necessarily come up all that often in the IT department of a biotech company.
In the end, I was left with two weeks of short-term disability coverage before I had to return to work or lose my job. My husband didn’t have any benefits through his job, so any time he would have taken off from work would have been unpaid, and that wasn’t an option we could consider at the time. We had a new house, two sons and medical bills piling up, and my husband and I needed every cent of our combined incomes. I went back to work, months before my son’s quarantine period should have ended.
Our child care provider told us my son was the smallest baby they had ever seen. The day I left him with strangers for the first time, I should still have been pregnant. I wasn’t ready to be away from him, not physically, not mentally or emotionally. But I couldn’t lose my job. I felt like I was failing him. I was devastated.
The early months of his life are a blur. I know we went to doctor’s appointment after doctor’s appointment. I had three weeks of vacation days saved up and mapped out a flexible schedule with my boss, working half-time for six weeks between the office and home. I got some help from my family and tried to keep life stable for both of my sons and breastfeed a sick infant on an irregular schedule. That first pregnancy, new home and new job stress started to look like a picnic from the middle of the tornado we were sitting in.
My son’s developmental milestones were months behind. Things he should have been doing at three months took about six. But, like with most things in life – and most things with kids – it got slowly, incrementally better. About half a year after our son was born, my husband made the difficult decision to take some time off from work and become a stay-at-home dad. It wasn’t that we needed his income any less; it was that the cost of child care and our other expenses effectively negated it, to say nothing of the time we were sacrificing with our young kids. Before nine months, our baby started to even out. His milestones came a little faster, a little more “on time.”
He’s 4 years old now and he’s a dream: bright, energetic, loving, engaged. We got so lucky, but I don’t ever take that luck for granted. That first year was like standing right on the edge of a cliff, gusts of wind coming unexpectedly from all sides, just trying not to go over.
What this experience taught me most was that my circumstances weren’t unique; if anything, with supportive family members and a company that did everything they could to help me out, we had it easier than many people. But we’re redefining a rock and a hard place for many parents.
My experience led me to want to see a change in our workplace policies and society to make sure this doesn’t happen to other families. It’s so important to me now, that last fall I got involved with the Make It Work campaign to try to help make a change in this country.
Should I have chosen to stay home and protect my son’s health, or to work so that we could afford to take him to the doctor? Should I have stayed quietly on bed rest and protected him during my pregnancy, or woken up every morning and logged in to my computer to earn us a few more precious weeks at home later? Did I do what was best or could I have done more? I’ll never know the answer, but these aren’t the questions any parent should have to ask, and hopefully one day, they won’t have to be.
Katie Rock is now an activist with the Make It Work campaign. She works in IT and lives in Des Moines, Iowa with her husband and their two sons.
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