I was so fortunate to be able to take four full months of maternity leave after my daughter, Malia Jo was born– but let’s be clear– over the past 4 months I was paid $0.00. In other words, I receive zero days of paid maternity* leave from my school district.
You heard me, zero days of paid maternity leave.
My district leaders will tell you otherwise. They will tell you that they “redistributed my paycheck so I never went into an unpaid status,” which is great and all, but ultimately I’m losing 4 months of my salary, so really, what’s the difference? Redistributing a paycheck is not paid leave.
They will tell you that they “allow” me to take as many sick days as I have saved up, when in fact I am actually required to take all of my sick days until my balance reaches zero. This means that when I return to work and my infant daughter who is starting day care inevitably gets sick that I will have no paid time off because I had to take all of my sick days when she was born. So now if (when) I have to stay home, I will be required to take more unpaid days off. On top of that, I spent the two years that I have worked in my district saving every hour of sick leave that I could, working through illnesses, rescheduling appointments, and not taking my personal days so that I would have those paid days when I did give birth.
But just to clarify-- being "allowed" to take sick days does not equate to paid family leave.
They will tell you that certain employees qualify for short-term disability through the Virginia Retirement System (VRS). What they won’t tell you is that VRS only compensates you for 6 weeks following a birth event, and for the days when you are not being paid (i.e. using your sick leave or holidays) That means if a person has 6 weeks of sick leave they will not receive any short-term disability compensation. I qualify for this benefit and received a grand total of 3 days of short-term disability, paying me $593.80. Of course I am thankful for this compensation, but it seems like a meager amount for six weeks, especially when my district touts it as a “benefit.”
They will tell you that no leave is used on non-contract days, (i.e. winter break or scheduled holidays) which seems obvious to me. Of course I am not going to be charged a sick day when that wasn’t even a contracted work day to begin with. But they list this as a “benefit” that they offer to employees to justify the fact that they do not offer paid family leave. Curious.
They will tell you that they offer 12 weeks Family Medical Leave of Absence (FMLA) which gurantees my job for 12 weeks. However, this is a legal requirement mandated by the State of Virginia– not a benefit exclusive to my district. And it's unpaid.
They will tell you that none of the other districts in the area offer paid family leave and that they are the only one that allows employees to take leave beyond the 12 weeks of FMLA. While this is a benefit that I took advantage of, I still was not paid during my leave extension. On top of that, all of my district benefits expired after my 12 weeks of FMLA.
The reality is that none of these supposed “benefits” (though I would hardly call them that) make up for the fact that we do not receive a single day of paid family/maternity leave for the birth or adoption of a child.
Let me interject and say that this isn’t a monologue that is meant to speak negatively of my district. I love my workplace. I love my students, colleagues, district leaders, general working conditions– you name it, I am sure that I love it. Barring my family has to move, I plan to retire here. The problem is that the excuses my district makes for not offering paid family leave are the excuses that just about every school district around the country makes.
The cycle goes like this: school employees say they want paid family leave, district leaders make excuses, school employees lose steam in their battle, and it’s forgotten about. Wash, rinse, repeat, not only here, in my district, but all around the country. (Minus the very few states that have stepped into the 21st century and offer paid time off for teachers.)
None of this is new though. The system we have in place in the United States for birth events is archaic and unhealthy both mentally and physically. My liberal, affluent, progressive school district is no different. In fact, when presented with the option to introduce the idea of paid family leave, my district leaders said they didn’t think it was “the right time” and there were more “pressing issues.” School Board members even inquired about the district’s policy to which they received the responses that I wrote about above.
Now, onto my experience:
The entire month of December is a blur. If I wasn’t waking in the middle of the night to feed her, I was waking up from a night sweat that spiraled me into an uncontrollable shiver. I inadvertently had an unmedicated delivery and pushed so hard that blood literally came out of my ear. We had breastfeeding struggles early on that led to severe pain on my end. I cried a lot– sometimes for a good reason, and sometimes for no reason at all. My milk was coming in, which was extremely uncomfortable for a number of reasons. Meanwhile, my husband and I were navigating our “new normal” (which is anything but normal) with our lives, routines, and schedules, forever changed, and it wasn’t particularly easy for anyone.
I wish I could say things improved in January, but they really didn’t. Malia spent most of her nights either grunting, eating, or crying. All of which, kept us awake. Sleep deprivation continues. We later figured out that the grunting was a result of gas, but as first time parents we had no clue that was even a thing. Then came Malia’s evening meltdowns. When I say meltdown I mean hours of screaming endlessly while we tried everything in our power to calm her down. Eventually (after many disastrous evenings) we figured out that one thing did seem to calm her– bottle feeding.
Enter: The Pump.
I wasn’t against using it, per say. I would have to pump when I went back to work anyways, but Malia was only 7 weeks old– why wouldn’t she just breastfeed like we planned? I wanted to be able to nurse her and have her take a bottle. So for four weeks I attempted to continue breastfeeding her. And every time she screamed and screamed and screamed as if it were pure torture. I would break down in tears, pull out my pump with her still screaming, pump some milk and then feed her via a bottle. My husband encouraged me to be an exclusive pumper, but I was unwilling to accept that.
More tears. More breakdowns.
By week 12 of my leave, I was just two weeks away from going back to work. In the previous weeks we had finally decided that I would, in fact, be an exclusive pumper after a doctor ruled out any sort of oral tie that would cause Malia’s breastfeeding difficulty. I was navigating an entirely new world filled with pumping schedules, washing parts and bottles, wondering how many ounces to put in each bottle, and figuring out how to manage that with an infant. All this, while planning a return to work in two weeks. Sounds crazy.
I was very fortunate that a few things happened that worked in our favor financially, allowing me to extend my leave an extra three weeks. There is no way I could have managed a return to work on my original date, 14 weeks post partum. It was also at this point that things finally started to improve with Malia. It turns out she was simply not good at breastfeeding, and it became a battle that wasn’t worth fighting. Everyone’s spirits improved drastically when we made the switch to exclusive pumping. Baby girl was finally getting enough to eat and wasn’t hangry all of the time!
We finally settled into a routine during my last month of leave. I was pumping six times a day (7 AM, 10 AM, 1 PM, 4 PM, 7 PM, 10 PM) and finally able to enter the world with my daughter who wasn't screaming all of the time. We went hiking and out for coffee. We read books and listened to music. We took a road trip to Connecticut and to Pennsylvania. We also washed our pump parts six times a day. Not to mention the countless bottles that came with it. We moved past the idea of nursing on the breast, and forged ahead with exclusively pumped breastmilk.
My four months of leave not only allowed me to figure out life as a first time mom and exclusive pumper, but it afforded me the opportunity to take care of myself both physically and mentally. I was able to go to physical therapy which helped me recover after Malia’s delivery. In the early days of breastfeeding I saw a lactation consultant who helped get us started. As a person who has a history of depression, I was also able to spend some time with a therapist. I returned to the gym. I spent time with my family. I pumped and built up our freezer stash so we can have more freedom and flexibility. And most importantly, I was able to actually bond with daughter and establish our life together, rather than dropping her off at daycare and going back to work immediately. All of these things would have been difficult, if not impossible, had I been required to return back to work at 6, 8, or 12 weeks post partum for financial reasons.
All in all, I loved my maternity leave, but let’s be clear– it was not, by any means, a vacation.
As I return back to work, I am down to five pumps a day. I also have a pretty hefty freezer stash that we can use if necessary. Meanwhile, Malia is knee-deep in her four month sleep regression and whatever semblance of a good night’s sleep we had is out the window. I will just have to suck it up (as most moms do) and deal with the general exhaustion that comes from having an infant along with the added exhaustion of spending my days teaching young children.
Now, I never thought I would be one of those women who has a baby and doesn’t go back to work. (Respect if that is you.) And I still don’t want that for myself. But now I am able to see first-hand how amazingly critical our child’s first year of life is and how important that time together truly is. My daughter is discovering the world around her, and yet, I am forced to go back to work entirely too soon. I am so lucky that my family could afford for me to not receive a paycheck for four whole months, but the reality is that many families cannot afford that. I can’t even fathom going back to work at 6, 8, 10, or 12 weeks post partum for so many reasons, and yet that is what is expected of me from the world in which I live. On top of all of this, I was actively engaged in my teaching duties until I was 39 weeks pregnant, because, again, I needed to save my days off for after Malia’s birth.
As I reflect on my four months of unpaid leave, I have so many emotions. I am thankful for the time that I had, but I wish I had more. I am also thankful for the many benefits my district offers, but shake my head at the fact that they don’t think paid family leave is a pressing issue. I am excited to return to work but also sad to be leaving my daughter at such an amazing stage in her life. I am thankful that my body is able to produce enough milk for Malia, but nervous about having enough time to pump at work and keeping my supply regulated. I have so many conflicting emotions that I, along with so many women, have to go through prematurely.
And I haven’t even mentioned the childcare debacle that we face. Since my husband is in the military, we are fortunate to be able to apply for childcare on base. However, because of Covid, the wait list for this care was and still is absurdly long. We weren’t offered a spot for care until March 21st, when Malia was 16 weeks old at a facility that is 30 minutes from where we live. Had I gone back to work earlier, we literally would not have had a place to take her. We are also lucky that the military offers affordable childcare, the cost of which is determined by your family income. However, because we did not know if Malia would be offered a spot on base, we also enrolled her in a civilian center that would have cost us $1,850 per month. With my adjusted salary, that would be my entire monthly paycheck. Fortunately, for us, we did not have to bring her there, but other families may not be as fortunate.
So for now I will re-enter the workforce at four months post-partum with my adjusted salary and zero sick days as I listen to old white men in government talk about how they don’t think paid family leave is important or necessary as I pay to send my daughter to daycare that requires one hour of driving round trip. I can only hope that one day our country will join the ranks of countries like Bulgaria, Greece, and Chile, among others, and offer any sort of paid family leave. Honestly, at this point, I would even settle for one week. Really, anything would be better than what it is now.
*I will speak of women and maternity leave following the birth of my biological daughter, but I am fully aware that this leave should apply to fathers and for adoption/non-biological child bearing as well.
Hi! I am Nicole Guimaraes. I'm a K-2 music teacher in Falls Church City, VA. I've got an amazing husband and a fabulous dog who keep me busy. If I'm not teaching or walking my dog, you can probably find me at the gym!