How a lack of paid maternity leave hurts workers

When Kim Donoghue, 35, and her husband moved to New Mexico, she knew she needed to find a new job as soon as possible. Her husband was in a PhD program, so he was only earning a stipend at the time, and also, they were expecting their first child. After months and months of job hunting, Donoghue finally got hired into a marketing role for a government agency in New Mexico.

“The thing that surprised me is, I’m fairly well-established in my field, and I have a lot of marketable skills,” she says. “But when I moved to New Mexico, I had a really hard time finding a job. I think that’s because for a lot of the positions, they’re looking for people from New Mexico.”

Donoghue and her husband also couldn’t have foreseen how little her employer would do to support her pregnancy—or how the pandemic would distort their plans. As a new employee, she struggled to get clarity on how much leave she could take after giving birth; eventually, she tried calling the hotline for the nonprofit advocacy group A Better Balance (and she has since become a community advocate for the organization). Here, she shares what it was like to become a new parent during the pandemic and deal with the financial strain of taking care of a sick baby without any paid leave. This interview has been edited for clarity and space.

“I didn’t hear back until I was sitting there, nine months pregnant”

I was having trouble finding answers as to what I would be allowed to take in terms of leave, paid or unpaid, with my pregnancy. I had asked my supervisor when I first started, and then I asked the HR department. No one was giving me an answer. I was trying to find out: What are my rights? What am I entitled to as a pregnant person in the United States? Since I hadn’t been there for a full year, I wouldn’t be getting FMLA. So I sort of fell into this grey area: It was up to my employer to decide what I would be allowed to take. I could apply for unpaid emergency medical leave, but it had to be approved, so I wasn’t even entitled to that.

I moved to New Mexico for my husband’s job, and we don’t have any family here. I was trying to plan: If I get approved for 30 days [of leave], what do I do with my kid at four weeks? Because daycares don’t accept children until six weeks. I was going into daycare centers asking, “Would you take a four-week-old?” And they’re sort of giving me these looks like I’m the most terrible person in the world for wanting to put my four-week-old in daycare and saying, “No, they’re too young to be separated from their mother at that age.” And I’m like, “Well, I’m not being given a choice here. I don’t have any other options.”

I actually didn’t hear back until I was sitting there, nine months pregnant, three or four days before my due date. HR finally called me and said my unpaid leave was approved. It was very casual. I ended up having a C-section, and I had asked for four weeks to work from home if I had a C-section, because I was traveling from Albuquerque to Santa Fe, and that’s an hour-long commute each way. My doctor wrote me a note, so they said you can work from home for four weeks, as well. But my daughter was born April 2020, which was a month after the shelter-in-place order, so everything shifted online. Everyone was working virtually anyway, so it was kind of a moot point. I ended up working from home until I finished at that job.

“I couldn’t do my job while taking care of her”

We couldn’t find anywhere that would take [our daughter at four weeks]. The pandemic exacerbated our situation because my mom was going to come out for a few weeks to help us during that time, but she couldn’t travel during COVID-19. My husband’s a clinical psychologist, so we would just switch off between meetings, taking care of the baby. I remember we both had a big meeting, and we were like, “Who’s going to take the baby?” She started screaming during my meeting, so he came and got her. And then I heard her scream, so I closed up my meeting early to get her. [He] was doing therapy, and it’s a little more awkward to have a screaming baby during therapy than it was for me in a group meeting.

We looked into a nanny, but we couldn’t afford one. We didn’t really have any other options. At least with daycares, we knew they would be wearing face masks and implementing protocols. We felt like it was the best alternative. Because [our daughter] has been in daycare, we’ve had COVID-19 two or three times now. But I couldn’t do my job while taking care of her. I know some people are able to. I hear stories of people having to take care of a kid and work at the same time, [but] I did that for a little while, and it made my brain want to explode.

[My daughter] also had chronic reflux, and we had trouble seeing doctors. She had a tongue tie and a lip tie; she was having feeding issues and losing weight really rapidly. So we were trying to juggle not only having a newborn, but also trying to get her help in a pandemic situation, where people didn’t want to see you in person. Our only options were to go to an ER or wait on this really long list to see a primary care physician. She was crying for hours and hours and hours because she was in distress. I was just . . . going on breastfeeding support groups and talking to everyone who would listen to me virtually—describing her symptoms and chasing down leads.

Fortunately, the daycare director’s son had had chronic reflex as well. I ended up setting up a system with the daycare where I said, “If [my daughter] doesn’t stop crying within this amount of time, or if she doesn’t eat this much food, I have to come get her.” So there would be days where I would drop her off at 8 a.m. and then go pick her up at 10 a.m. because she just wasn’t having a good enough day to be in daycare.

We finally got her diagnosed and figured out what was actually wrong around six months. But it was a really intense six months dealing with all that and working and trying to keep a job. I was surviving on two to three hours of sleep. “Traumatized” may be too big of a word for how I feel when I reflect on that period of time, but something close to it—always feeling panicked, stressed, exhausted, and like a failure because I couldn’t give my daughter the time and attention she desperately needed.

“I needed to continue working to pay my mortgage and my medical bills”

I think people who aren’t getting paid leave are the ones who need it the most. This other woman at my job was afforded paid leave. She was more senior to me and in a better socioeconomic situation; she could afford a nanny. She could have taken that leave without pay, no problem. I needed to continue working to pay my mortgage and my medical bills.

A nanny would have been the ideal for us, especially with the medical care and the pandemic. If we could have paid all our bills and made it work, we would have done it. It was $900 a month for a daycare with a 1:3 teacher-infant ratio. The bare minimum that you’d be paying for a nanny is $15 an hour, and that’s not accounting for taxes or medical insurance. That would be $2,400 a month. If you get a better nanny, they’re more in the $20 to $25 range. My husband was only earning a stipend; he wasn’t getting a full-time employee salary. So we were really getting it on both ends. We didn’t have paid time off, and we didn’t have the salary to sort of make everything easier.

We qualified for stimulus payments, and they were really helpful. They covered her tuition for daycare. It gives you a little breathing room when you’re going paycheck to paycheck.

“Paid leave is the first step to putting our money where our mouth is”

I was sort of shocked by not only the protections that weren’t in place for parental leave at my job, but also their flippancy about it. Their attitude about it made me feel like I wasn’t a valued member of their team. I didn’t get the support when I needed it, so I started looking for a job as soon as I could get around to it. The pandemic really opened up the job market for me, so I’ve been able to find remote work now that I wasn’t able to find before. Before I accepted a new job, I found their parental leave policy. I started talking to a few people about the manager and how they deal with parents, and I got good feedback from them.

If we value these family relationships, paid leave is the first step to putting our money where our mouth is. In the pregnancy and newborn stage, you don’t know what you’re gonna get. You’re so vulnerable. Even if you have the most perfect baby in the world who sleeps regularly and doesn’t have any health issues, that’s great, but it’s still hard for parents. And you have to think about the other end of the spectrum—when you have a kid who has tons of health issues, and you can’t afford to take the time off, and you need to go to doctors. How are we supporting those parents?