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I had a fairly straightforward, predictable pregnancy. The hardest thing about it was the 45-minute commute to work with a growing baby sitting on my bladder. I was a state employee, a senior editor at UC Berkeley, underpaid but generously outfitted with benefits.
Our human resources manager explained how to cobble together my maternity leave, using all my accrued sick days and, after a mandatory waiting period, disability to cover part of my salary for up to eight weeks of leave. Luckily, I qualified for Family and Medical Leave as well. That granted me an additional four weeks of unpaid leave, and I had enough vacation hours saved to cover most of the unpaid leave.
Read More: 6 Successful Women on Their Maternity Leave
It was hard to fathom getting only two weeks before the birth and 10 weeks of bonding time with my baby afterward, but that’s what was available to me. I figured we’d make it work.
The unremarkable nature of my pregnancy did nothing to prepare me for the labor I ended up having. My entire body trembled, my teeth chattering too much to speak. A nurse took my temperature: I had a fever of 104 and climbing. I’d developed an infection, and the baby started showing signs of distress.
My daughter was pulled from me, silent and blue tinged. Agonizing seconds ticked by as the NICU team worked on her. When we heard a sputtering mew of a cry, the whole room relaxed. I had a brief moment to nuzzle the sweet swirls of my baby’s dark hair to my cheek before she was taken back to the NICU.
My daughter had pneumonia and a pneumothorax (a hole in her lung), and I’d suffered a fourth-degree tear, which — without getting overly graphic — is as bad as it gets, not to mention the infection I’d developed mid-delivery. This was not how motherhood was supposed to begin. We both ended up with extended hospital stays, staring at a long, hard road to recovery that filled most of my maternity leave.
The time off went fast, a blur of follow-up doctor visits, sleepless nights, and days spent watching my new baby breathe and willing her little body to heal itself. At the end of my leave I was more exhausted than ever.
How was I supposed to hand a stranger my still-healing baby, who still refused a bottle, and head back to work?
I would be returning to work with zero sick and vacation hours. What if she got sick? Since I had no time off available, who would care for her if she couldn’t go to day care? My husband traveled for work and was often out of the country for weeks at a time. There weren’t any provisions for extra days off if I needed them. The system was decidedly against me. Against us.
Read More: Ask a Lawyer: What Are My Rights Under FMLA?
I couldn’t do it.
I couldn’t stand the thought of her in a germ-laden day care when she was just getting back her full strength. Or using most of my salary to have someone else care for my child.
Quitting my job meant swapping guilt about leaving my daughter for guilt about leaving my job, not to mention tighter financial constraints. There was no winning hand, no provision for a weary mother with a sick child she hadn’t had enough time to bond with.
The more my husband and I discussed it, the more the practical issues, stressful as they were, paled in comparison to the emotional ones. The thought of heading back to work wrenched my heart open.
We shouldn’t have to choose between the job security we require to raise our newly expanded families and the basic needs of our newborns. We deserve a system that honors both.
It would have made such a difference to feel I had more than these two extreme options, to feel like there was some middle ground between choosing my child and choosing my career. I hope, for my daughter’s sake, that someday there will be.