I poured another 3 am bowl of cereal while pumping and pondered how my exhaustion could be causing nausea. I read copious books, bought all the necessary gear, and had a supportive husband who was ready to share the load, but no amount of preparation could have prepared me for the first several months with my baby.
After more than 24 hours of labor, my daughter was born and my heart was full. I was exhausted—and I would stay in a foggy state of semi-exhaustion for a good year.
I may have been tired, but I was among the luckiest parents in the country. I live in the state of California, which has Paid Family Leave, and on top of that, my employer gave me paid leave for many more weeks. My four months of leave—generous by most standards in the United States—gave me a chance to really get to know my baby, become proficient in feeding, and get to a point of only one night feed before I needed to return to work.
The United States is the only developed country in the world without mandated paid leave for birth moms. Estonia has 86 weeks; Japan, Sweden, and Korea all have 40 weeks, and the US lags embarrassingly behind without any federal laws guaranteeing the paid time parents need to adjust to parenthood.
Numerous studies show that parental leave is positive—even imperative—for baby's health, for mom's health, and for the family's well-being. With ample leave from work, parents have a chance to ensure their own mental and physical health and the health of their babies. By the time they do return to work, they're equipped to contribute in more meaningful ways, which only serves to benefit companies' bottom lines.
Fortunately, several states and cities have created their own rights to paid leave to fill in the gap. Still, navigating through these rights can be confusing given the unique eligibility requirements for employers and employees.
After taking three maternity leaves in California, I still made mistakes in the process—despite having a supportive employer, and despite having been through the process multiple times. I founded Exhale Parent to help parents navigate through parental leave laws by state, and then navigate through the labyrinth of legal and financial responsibilities that new parents have. Here are my top tips for navigating through parental leave.
Your rights to pay and job protection are often separate.
Research the economics of your leave, but also be sure to know your rights for health insurance during your leave and your rights when you return to work. For example, FMLA requires certain "covered" employers to provide job protection and health insurance for eligible employees during leave, but it does not offer pay. In many cases, your employer is required to put you back into your previous role or an equivalent role upon return.
Research both your company benefits and your state rights.
Paid leave is not a given in this country; in fact, only 19% of civilian workers receive it. Consequently, new parents need to do their homework. Ask your employer about what benefits they offer, but also make sure you know the rights within your state.
Consider paid leave for all parents in your home.
Parental leave is not just important for birth moms; studies have shown benefits when partners and non-birth parents take leave as well. These benefits include greater involvement in parenting, more stable marriages, and reduced maternal stress, among many others.
Stay tuned; this is a dynamic topic.
Parental leave may not be part of the picture for every parent now, but our leaders have a track record of supporting families. Biden has previously supported 12 weeks of paid sick and family leave, and Kamala Harris's Children's Agenda included up to six months of paid leave. Given the new administration's support of these topics, coupled with its left-leaning Congress, could enable change—fast.
Pregnancy and the newborn phase may be full of confusing firsts, but navigating through parental leave shouldn't have to be one of them. Visit Exhale Parent to learn about parental leave rights by state, and follow us to stay updated on the dynamic landscape.