When I had my first baby, I was a busy resident trying to complete my residency on time. I didn’t want to extend my residency even if it meant sacrificing time with my newborn. In order to get my 8-week leave, I banked days whenever I could. There was one period I worked 45 days straight (well, not straight, I did get the mandatory 24 hours off between once a week) so I could accumulate my time. I worked with my program do research instead during that time right up the end. I was exhausted and very pregnant but worked up until the day before my due date. I had such a short time home with my baby that when we became pregnant again, I swore I would take more time. Then we decided to take jobs half way across the country and move with our 18 month old, 2 cats and all our possessions.
Now onto pregnancy #2. I began moonlighting at my new job when I was a newly pregnant, but still in transition. Two months later I actually started as a benefited employee. This new job was with a 20 person group staffing a large trauma center. My prior employer was also a larger hospital group. At that job, I had flexibility and given significant free reign by administration. It wasn’t until I announced my pregnancy that I learned what I had really given up.
My due date with baby #2 was seven months after my benefited employee start date. Per the benefits office, who was not too helpful in the overall process, because I was not employed for a full year before I became pregnant (not gave birth, but became pregnant), I did not qualify for FMLA time. For the same reason, I also did not qualify for short-term disability. In fact, I qualified for nothing except for emergency short term leave (EST) [minimal] and my earned time off (ETO), a.k.a. vacation time. All in all, that added up to roughly three weeks of paid maternity leave. Three. Weeks.
But there was more. They said once I “ran out of time” I wouldn’t qualify for benefits. So, not only would I be unpaid but I would have to pay them in order to keep my insurance. I was heartbroken.
My husband and I are usually very savvy planners. But we didn’t plan for this. My husband had just graduated residency, and I had been caught up in all of the to do about moving and settling in a new area. We did not consider my benefits would be this bad. My previously employer, who I loved, would have given my much more paid time off for the same amount of time worked.
After I finished crying (and having a mild stroke, wondering how we were going to pay our student loan bills) we decided I would take eight weeks off again; so much for more time with this little one. I would work as much as possible before my due date to accrue as much time as I could before I delivered. So much for time with my 18 month old. I again worked up until my due date and was exhausted. The worse part is, this appears to be the norm.
“Take as much time as you can.” “You can never have too much time.” “It goes so fast.” That’s what I was hearing from others that had gone through this. The stories of anguish over leaving virtual neonates in the care of others are heart-wrenching. How do these women find the emotional strength to return to work so soon after delivery?
Families are being stretched financially in order to maximize their time at home. And without paid leave, we are all cobbling together short terms solutions against mounting loans, physical recovery, and total exhaustion. According to my benefits office, I was “entitled” to 6 weeks leave. But, of course, only three of those were paid. They were so generous as to let me take the rest unpaid. As if going without pay is an option for most of us. They reminded me I was lucky to have the time I did.
In the end, we had a good savings built up, and I could work the extra hours. But this cushion did not come without a cost. The extra work amidst all our other life events put strain on my already stressed family.
We know the first few months with our babies are so critically important for everyone involved, and we should not have to choose between paying the bills and doing what is right. My experience motivated me even more to raise my voice in protest of unreasonable maternity leave practice. I hope my experience motivates others to do the same. As women physicians, we have a unique opportunity to demand better of our politicians and our society. I hope this encourages others who feel the same to also say enough is enough.
Of note, my husband only received four days off for his “paternity leave,” otherwise known also vacation days. But that fight is for another essay.
Alicia Welder is an emergency physician who blogs at FemInEm.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com