My husband and I are the proud parents of three wonderful children: ages 5, 3 and 1. Each experience I had giving birth and bringing a newborn into our family was different. Taken together, our experiences with childbirth and growing our family drive home how important it is that everyone be able to take paid time away from work when they bring a new child home.
When I gave birth to our first child, we were living in New Jersey, which is one of a handful of states with a paid family and medical leave program. New Jersey’s policy allows people to take paid leave from work when they become parents (whether by birth or adoption), as well as when they need to care for themselves or a loved one battling a serious illness.
New Jersey’s law, coupled with additional benefits offered by my employer, meant that I was able to take six weeks of fully paid maternity leave followed by six weeks of New Jersey family leave at 60 percent of my pay. I am the primary earner in our family, so being able to take 12 paid weeks away from work was the best way I could fully adjust to life as a new parent without the additional undue burden and stress of finances.
While incredibly rewarding, becoming a parent is also incredibly difficult. Being able to focus all my time and energy on bonding with my son and recovering from birth was so important. Studies show that a mother’s ability to be with her child during this “fourth trimester” — the first three months postpartum — reduces rates of postpartum depression and childbirth-related complications, increases the likelihood of a successful breastfeeding relationship and plays a part in the infant’s ability to thrive.
I educated myself in how to be a mother, but if I hadn’t been given the opportunity to stay home with my first infant due to financial worries, I would not have been able to pursue this huge life transition in the beautifully focused way that I did.
When I returned to work, my baby was 12 weeks old and my husband took his six weeks paid New Jersey family leave. Of course, I missed my son terribly, but that was my biggest concern. Our combined paid family leave allowed us time to bond as a family without having to worry about falling behind financially.
After our first child was born, our family relocated to Virginia. Unlike New Jersey, Virginia has no paid family and medical leave program. I knew from giving birth to my son how important it was to be home after the birth of our next child, but without paid leave, paying the bills during that time period would be much, much harder.
We had to scrimp and save for months to make sure that we could cover the hospital bills — on top of our normal family expenses — so I could take three unpaid months off, to be with my newborn. We made it work, but it was incredibly stressful and depleted our savings. It was nothing like giving birth in New Jersey, where I could focus all my energy on the needs of our newborn.
By the time I was pregnant with my third child, my husband and I knew I couldn’t take that much time off unpaid. There was just no way we could make it work financially. Thankfully, my employer provided me with six weeks of paid leave — which they are not legally obligated to do — and they allowed me to bring my daughter to work with me for three months after my return. I cried tears of relief when I heard the news.
I am lucky. A family should not have to rely on the grace of an employer to be able to afford to care for an infant or a sick family member. In Virginia, 55 percent of working adults are either not eligible for unpaid leave under federal law or cannot take unpaid leave without falling into financial hardship.
I know women who have had to return to work bleeding from the stitches of a Caesarean section because they needed to keep a roof over their children’s heads more than they needed to bond with baby. They had no other option.
The United States is one of only five countries in the world — and the only developed country — that does not have some form of federally mandated paid maternity leave. Being taken away from your child when they are still in the first weeks of life has many repercussions, both for the health of the baby and the health of the mother. Without paid leave available to everyone, the system is working against families.
Nobody should be forced to choose between caring for their newborn or a family member facing a health crisis and being able to pay the bills. That’s why this week when Virginia holds statewide elections, I’m encouraging my friends and family to support candidates who will work to make paid family and medical leave a reality for all Virginians. It is vital that we elect candidates who will work to build a Virginia that truly values and supports families.
Rebekah Hastey lives in Norfolk, Va., with her husband and three children. She is a supporter of the Virginia Campaign for a Family Friendly Economy, a grassroots effort fighting for smart policies that invest in our families and make communities stronger.