Despite my job at a college and my husband’s job at a grocery store, neither of us would get paid parental leave. So we made a difficult choice
In the summer of 2018, I was 34 years old. I lived with my husband-to-be in a one room apartment in rural New England. After spending almost a year underemployed, I was ecstatic to be offered a full-time job with benefits at a liberal arts college. I began working there a month before our wedding, a small ceremony we had carefully designed for months. A week after we were married, I found out I was pregnant.
The pregnancy was unplanned; I was four weeks in. This new reality was disorienting. Looking at our wedding photos, I realized there were not just two lives present but three. I was cognizant of my age and wondered, what if this is my only chance? I am someone who takes comfort in color-coded to-do lists and calendars – an approach that often clashes with that of my more spontaneous husband. Was having the baby with extremely limited funds, in a small apartment, actually a romantic way to start a family?
Charlotte Sullivan. Photograph: Oliver Parini/The Guardian
Being pregnant made me feel powerful and horrible. I have never been more tired in my life. The fatigue was like the weight of a thousand bricks pressing on me from every possible angle. I would come home from work and immediately get into bed, relieved to finally fully surrender to gravity. I also became anxious. Once asleep, I could not stay asleep, and this was beginning to wreak havoc on my productivity at work, a job I could not risk losing.
At the time, my husband was earning less than a living wage at a grocery store. His job was stable, but like 83% of all civilian workers in America, he did not have paid family leave. Not only did my employer provide health benefits we both relied on, my position paid slightly higher than his and had a six-week paid parental leave policy. I soon learned, however, that in keeping with federal mandates, this was only available to staff who had been employed for one year. Due to my employment of just 33 days at the moment I learned of my pregnancy, I was ineligible.
As well as being stressed and tired, I was angry. The policy discriminated in favor of planned pregnancy, which is not possible for everyone, even if you’re married. It also seemed biased in favor of non-pregnant women and their spouses. What if a woman was pregnant when she was hired? Perhaps she would decline the job offer, knowing that she could not afford to take time off without being compensated during her leave. My anger grew as I considered the millions of women in the United States without any paid leave at all.
The US is the only one of the world’s 41 richest countries to offer no national paid family leave.
We didn’t go on a honeymoon. Instead, for two blurry weeks, the first of our marriage, we processed the decision of whether to have a baby. We would both work a full day, carpool home, and use this transit time to discuss our feelings, since as soon as we got back I went straight to bed.
“On a scale of one to 10, 10 being let’s have the baby, where are you?” we would ask each other.
Our numbers fluctuated. My husband’s averaged around seven. Mine hovered at three, mainly due to my physical distress and anxiety about how financially risky the pregnancy seemed.
For days I went back and forth with the idea of sharing my news with HR to see if they could grant an exception to the official policy. Revealing to them that my decision to stay pregnant partly depended on their willingness to waive the rules felt daunting. Perhaps if I had been brave enough to communicate what I wanted, they would have relented. I’ll never know. But proving a need for this benefit should not be the responsibility of a pregnant woman to fight for in real time, particularly if her pregnancy was unplanned.
The female health bible Our Bodies, Ourselves talks about the importance of fostering a “climate of confidence” around childbirth to ensure a woman is fully respected and comfortable throughout this natural process. After scrutinizing our finances, my husband and I decided that our situation did not embody the climate of confidence we agreed was necessary for us to be parents. And so we made the hardest decision of my life: to end the pregnancy.
The opposite of a climate of confidence is a climate of doubt – an environment that fosters worry and fear. Unpaid family leave policies contribute to a climate of doubt. The US is the only one of the world’s 41 richest countries to offer no national paid family leave. (By comparison, Estonia offers 80 weeks.) A few states and some individual companies provide these benefits, but the corporate policies are largely available to higher-income workers.
I experienced abrupt relief after ending the pregnancy, a solemn sense of calm following weeks of unexpected turbulence. The decision unburdened me, as being in a state of uncertainty was overwhelming. I felt proud that I had made such a difficult choice in a short amount of time. Physically, I was grateful to feel my body return to the hormonal balance I was used to. I had granted myself time to consider parenting in a way that felt stable and intentional. In a logistical sense, my choice felt right.
Yet the mystery of this life lost still unsettled me. There were so many unanswerable questions: what if this decision meant my parents would never become grandparents? What if this was my chance to experience having a daughter and if pregnant again, I would have a son? And my anger remained. Our inability to afford the pregnancy was not only due to an absence of paid family leave, it also hinged on the absence of many other foundational support systems currently lacking for most Americans, including universal childcare and healthcare and a living minimum wage.
Up until my pregnancy, I defined the origin of family as love, a force that I had never considered synonymous with money. Processing this newfound disillusionment required research and reflection. I felt grateful to know I was biologically capable of becoming a parent. But the realization that motherhood, in America, is not really a right but a privilege triggered a tectonic shift in my perspective that I am still struggling to understand.
(Source: The Guardian)