Memories of the months after I gave birth to my daughter come to me in flashes. I see myself rising in the morning to pump and thinking, “I am worthless. I am a mother only. I can never be anything else. I don’t deserve to be anything else.” I see my husband sobbing at the dining room table, unable to stop, telling me that he does this sometimes at work, too. I see myself holding our daughter in my arms in the rocking chair, tears streaming down my face. “What’s wrong?” my husband asks. “Nothing,” I reply. “I don’t want anything whatsoever to change in my life. But I can’t stop crying.”
When my husband, Ryan, and I began our journey into parenthood in 2017, we never thought we’d wind up where we did. We were so excited to start our family and ecstatic to discover I was pregnant. We had a small amount in savings, and I added to it every month, knowing neither of our workplaces offered paid leave.
But by the time I delivered in December 2017, when the reality hit of having no time, no paid or unpaid leave, and, despite our best efforts to save, not enough money to cover our bills, we both sank into the mire of postpartum depression. Instead of being filled with joy, we felt bereft of hope, consumed by sadness and unable to imagine a future other than constant financial strain.
Before giving birth, I was an adjunct professor at a Nashville university and worked part time at a used bookstore. I worked about 50 hours a week, but, because both jobs were part-time, I didn’t qualify for any leave — paid or unpaid. (Both jobs agreed to take me back when I was ready to return, with certain conditions.) Ryan also did not qualify for leave, paid or unpaid. Eight months before I gave birth, he had taken a new job as an inventory clerk at the same hospital where I would give birth. He worked 60 hours a week. But because he’d worked there for less than a year, he didn’t qualify for unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). And the hospital did not offer hourly employees paid family leave.
Studies show that a lack of paid parental leave is associated with an increase in depression and that longer paid leaves improve both physical and mental health for parents as well as infants. The research shows what my husband and I experienced acutely: New parents need time to recover, to heal, to mend bodies and minds, to bond with new lives, and to figure out how to be a family. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 1 out of every 8 women experience PPD, which is defined as prolonged depression and a sense of hopelessness following the birth of the child. While many factors can contribute to PPD — changing hormones, a history of depression, other health issues — a lack of paid leave and financial worries directly contributed to my and my husband’s depression.
“Women who experience better postpartum mental health generally have stronger support structures in their lives, including breastfeeding support, relationship/social support and workplace support,” said Heather Sipsma, a researcher in women’s postpartum health. But “the lack of compensation during this time is prohibitive for many families in the U.S.,” she added.
According to a 2019 analysis by UNICEF, the United States is the only country — out of the 41 wealthiest countries the agency examined — that does not provide any paid parental leave. President Biden’s American Rescue Plan, signed into law last month, broadens who is covered by the FMLA and provides 14 weeks of paid leave — but it’s temporary, and still can leave people like me out.
My story should serve as a harbinger for the kind of financial help parents need. A week before our daughter was born in 2017, I was hospitalized for irregular heart rhythms. We had saved $6,000, and I felt confident it would be enough to cover at least three months of my leave, and possibly more if we were cautious. I thought, with insurance, the medical costs couldn’t be too bad.
But life had other plans. We came home with my daughter two days after her birth to a freezing house. While I was having a C-section, an animal had crawled into our air ducts and torn them to pieces. We bundled up together in the living room and kept warm as best we could. The next morning, my daughter had her first pediatrician’s appointment. When we arrived, her temperature was so low that he eventually instructed us to go to a children’s emergency room, where my daughter spent a week in an incubator until she could control her temperature.
Our savings, instead of giving us needed time to heal and bond with our daughter, were eaten up by the repair bills on our home. And then the hospital bills began to roll in. Although our insurance did pay those in part, we were still left with far more than we’d anticipated, and much more than we could afford.
Then, when she was 2 months old, our daughter was diagnosed with laryngomalacia, a condition wherein the larynx is too soft at birth and flops into the baby’s airway. She had difficulty eating and breathing. Bills continued to pile up from this diagnosis. I also developed postnatal physical complications that required more testing and doctor visits.
I spent hours on the phone with medical billing companies, attempting to negotiate for lower monthly payments. Our medical bills for that first year after her birth ended up being between $8,000 to $10,000 out of pocket.
Although I had hoped to take more time off, I returned to work when my daughter was 3 months old because of financial strain. A few months later, my husband and I were both diagnosed with postpartum depression and given medication, which did alleviate our feelings of worthlessness and depression.
Studies have shown that low socioeconomic status can contribute to PPD. And women who have 12 weeks or less of parental leave are more likely to experience PPD. A 2020 CDC study found that PPD rates are higher among ethnic minorities, with 22 percent of Native American women, 19.2 percent of Asian/Pacific Islander women and 18.2 percent of Black, non-Hispanic women reporting PPD, compared with 11.4 percent of White women. Men also report postpartum depression: A study from 2010 found that 10 percent of fathers experienced it.
By the time our daughter turned 1, we felt relatively human again and, shortly thereafter, stopped taking medication. And we finished paying off our medical debt in November 2019, almost two years after our daughter’s birth.
When I was pregnant and imagining that first year with my daughter, I knew there would be many sleepless nights and baby tears. I imagined, though, the moments of joy amid those tired moments, of the smiles and laughter I’d share with Ryan as our daughter learned new things and explored her world. While we still had some of those shared moments, that first year will forever be scarred by financial worries and feelings of worthlessness. I cannot remember the first time my daughter sat up without also remembering that I was on the phone with a billing company at the same time. I cannot remember the first time she rolled over without also remembering my feelings of loneliness and despair. It did not have to be this way.
I’m not sure if I’ll have another baby. I love children. I love the laughing, playful joy of my 3-year-old. But remembering how miserable we felt that first year makes me never want a baby again.
At 37, I don’t have long to decide. I wonder if, with time and financial support, maybe next time it could be different.
This piece was completed in conjunction with a reporting grant from the Better Life Lab, the work-family and gender equity program at New America, a nonpartisan think tank.