In the U.S., many parents return to work after giving birth before they're ready—emotionally, physically, and mentally. But, in the U.S., many parents have no choice. In a country without mandated paid family leave, many can't afford to take time off regardless of their situation. One mom recently shared her heartbreaking situation in a TikTok that quickly went viral.
Last month, Rebecca Shumard returned to work just 12 days after giving birth to her daughter, who was being treated in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit after being born at just 27 weeks. Shumard, still physically recovering and an emotional wreck, recorded herself on her first day back to work as a medical assistant.
"POV, you have to return to work 12 days after having a premature baby at 27 weeks, so that when she is eventually discharged from the NICU you can spend what little maternity leave you have with her,” Shumard wrote in the video.
The reality of leaving the hospital without your baby is brutal enough, but NICU moms are often forced to return to work quickly so they can take a shortened maternity leave when their baby comes home. Like many NICU moms, Shumard tried to pump every few hours to feed a baby she couldn't feed herself directly. For many nursing parents, pumping alone isn't enough to stimulate milk production into a sufficient supply.
“You try to pump at work every three hours, but they’re understaffed. Your milk supply is diminishing at eight weeks postpartum. Will you even have milk available when she gets home?” she continued.
In Shumard's situation, many moms take the bare minimum amount of days off to physically recuperate for a brief period of time before going back to work. Then, when their baby eventually comes home, they can take their remaining time—usually less than the 6-8 weeks initially offered by their employer at that point, often unpaid or at a reduced pay—to be with their baby.
“What do other NICU parents do? How can anyone afford to stay home during a NICU stay? How can anyone handle the guilt when you have to work and can’t be with your baby? This. Is. America.”
In short, this experience is a nightmare. And it's an all-too-common nightmare for many families across the country, and it disproportionately affects lower-income households. Having a premature newborn in the NICU is terrifying and stressful enough, having to return to work while still physically restricted because of childbirth on top of the mental anguish of all of the above, well, it's simply too much for any parent to bear. And yet they do, time and time again, because of the complete lack of options provided by the U.S. government.
Currently, the only federally protected leave is unpaid family leave—the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Parents are legally able to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid family leave for the birth, adoption, or foster care of a child. But only if they work at a company of 50 or more employees. Did I mention it's unpaid? So sure, you can take a whole three months off. But you're going to be financially penalized for it.
Thanks to Shumard's viral video, the TikTok community donated enough money for her to be able to take FMLA to be with her baby girl for the remainder of her NICU stay.
In November, the House passed President Biden's Build Back Better bill after deliberating for weeks. The bill includes a wide range of spending aimed at social safety net packages, including four weeks of paid family leave, free universal preschool, and more affordable childcare and healthcare.
Before any of that can go into effect, it must be passed by the Senate. They are officially deliberating on the bill now.
All of these, and many other real-life reasons, are why paid leave is not a perk. It should be a right afforded to all American parents.