“We’d like to offer you the job.”
I held my breath.
“And because I’m sure you’re wondering, I want to say now that we are also going to offer you paid leave time after the baby is born.”
I let the air out in a whoosh of relief and excitedly accepted, agreeing to a future call to hash out the details. I hung up the phone and rested my hands on top of my seven-months-pregnant mound of a belly, dumbstruck at how lucky I was.
I had been trying to break into the reproductive rights field for nearly three years, doing freelance writing about reproductive rights issues and freelance research about reproductive rights laws and the legal landscape, as well as going through the daily grind of job searching, cover letter writing, resume tweaking, interviewing (rinse and repeat). But with a master’s degree in education and five years of teaching high school English on my resume, it was hard to prove exactly why I’d be a good fit.
The job search, already difficult, became exceptionally harder when I got pregnant. Though my husband and I had planned the pregnancy, I still felt bitterness at my situation. I had a vague understanding of the laws regarding pregnancy discrimination and maternity leave and knew that switching jobs would disqualify me from any potential time to recover from birth or bond with my newborn. That fact, combined with the experience of being ghosted by a potential employer after disclosing that I was four months pregnant during the final interview, made me reluctantly press pause on the job search.
That is, until a nonprofit for which I’d done some freelance work contacted me to interview for a full-time position and subsequently offered me the job. They were fully aware of my pregnancy and upfront about giving me 10 weeks of paid and unpaid leave for recovery and bonding, even though I would clock barely three months at work before giving birth.
My daughter is now a year and a half old, and I still think of her early weeks with a combination of reverence and terror. Before bringing home a newborn, I knew parental leave was important, but it felt important in a kind of abstract way. I’d never truly understood, until we were slogging through those first weeks ourselves — the fractured (often nonexistent) sleep, the feeding struggles, the witching hour crying meltdowns that lasted hours every single evening, my bleeding that still felt like too much, too long even though everyone had warned me about it — just how vital that time is for parents.
It was time spent nursing my broken body as it mended itself after labor and birth. It was time spent dealing with the sudden and overwhelming presence of postpartum depression and anxiety that settled in my chest after she arrived, guilt and panic and sadness dominating my days and nights. It was time learning and loving this new being, figuring out the puzzle of keeping this wailing creature not just fed, clean and healthy, but somehow also happy.
Before bringing home a newborn, I knew parental leave was important, but it felt important in a kind of abstract way. I’d never truly understood, until we were slogging through those first weeks ourselves, just how vital that time is for parents.
Those weeks were not a vacation. They were not a perk. They were a gauntlet of motherhood, a crucible that every new parent must go through — yet one our society has decided is unnecessary. The U.S. is the only industrialized nation that does not guarantee paid parental leave through federal law. What do we have? The Family Medical Leave Act, which gives 12 weeks of unpaid leave to employees for specified family and medical reasons (including birth) and is, as I realized, more difficult to benefit from than one might imagine.
It doesn’t make the headlines and is rarely discussed in the press coverage praising companies for their “progressive” family leave policies, but FMLA has a list of criteria that employees and employers must meet before its benefits become available. There are so many restrictions, in fact, that a full 40% of all workers in the United States have no job-protected leave at all. Though we continue to heap praise on various companies offering leave, there is little conversation about what I experienced: the realization that, if not for the generosity and understanding of my new employer, I would have been unable to leave my current job for my dream job because it would have put me below the mandated 12 months and 1,250 hours required to qualify for leave.
Parental leave is the only benefit that isn’t available upon hire or soon afterward. Though it is essential not just for the health of new moms and babies, but for the greater benefit of helping close the gender pay gap and chipping away at the unpaid emotional/domestic labor disparity, it is the only benefit for which you must first prove something to your workplace: your worth, your value, your loyalty.
And I’m far from alone in my experience with this frustration. Recent polling has shown that millennials, on average, will change jobs four times in their first decade after college, compared to two times for Gen Xers. A recent Gallup poll revealed that 21% of millennials have changed jobs in the last year and 60% say they are open to new positions.
Combine this with the fact that women are waiting longer to become pregnant (in 2016, the average age for mothers at the time of their first birth rose to 26.3 years, increasing to about 30 for those who are married and/or have a college degree), plus the generally accepted average of six months of regular “trying” to conceive (if a person is lucky and experiences no fertility issues), and it’s not difficult to see how the time-based requirements of FMLA freeze women in their careers when they decide to start a family.
There may be light at the end of this tunnel. The majority of Americans are finally in agreement about paid parental leave, and it has become a major talking point in the presidential race. In fact, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s FAMILY Act proposal eliminates the time-based requirement, allowing people to switch jobs and take the benefit with them.
Even so, that only brings us closer to catching up to international standards. So, as my baby careens into toddlerhood and conversations begin about the possibility of a second child, I think back to those first few weeks — not just the seemingly impossible challenge they were, but how lucky I am to be in a position that affords me the opportunity to take the time to do them all over again without worrying about finances, antiquated workplace attitudes about leave or stunting my career.
And I think about all the women trapped in positions similar to the one I was in just two years ago, paralyzed by the impossible choice of fulfilling their professional goals or starting their families.