Courtesy of Jacquelynn Kerubo
Jacquelynn Kerubo, a New York City worker, had hyperemesis while pregnant.
She had to agree to return to work for at least six months after her leave was up.
She said this gave her stress during her time away and forced her to consider getting another job.
I was eight months pregnant when I emailed my job’s human-resources liaison to process my maternity-leave paperwork.
I was working for New York City’s health department as a public-affairs specialist. Like many city workers, I worked from home during the pandemic, which saved my job because I would have otherwise had to take unpaid leave or disability when I came down with hyperemesis, a severe form of morning sickness famously suffered by the comedian Amy Schumer and Kate Middleton.
I couldn’t eat or drink anything — not even water — and had to live on IV fluids
I was constantly in pain and puking, terrified I’d lose my baby. Worse, even with limited movement, I started dilating at seven months and was at risk for preterm birth. I just wanted to cradle my newborn in my arms and turn off work for 12 weeks so I could nurture my body to health and focus on motherhood.
The leave I qualified for was paid parental leave (PPL), which was signed into law by Mayor Bill DeBlasio in 2016 to cover managerial and nonmanagerial staff who weren’t represented by unions, like me. It provides six weeks of fully paid leave and up to 12 weeks total when combined with sick and annual leave. For reference, this is two weeks more than the latest offer Democrats came up with for President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better framework and two weeks fewer than the eight weeks California offers at partial pay.
I had eight weeks of combined annual and sick leave, which meant I could take the full 12 weeks off. I felt grateful and lucky.
But when the PPL document arrived and I read the first page, I started shaking uncontrollably
The document asked me to acknowledge that I would return to work for at least six months at the end of my leave or I’d have to “reimburse, in full, the City salary I receive through paid family leave.”
Say what? What kind of cruel policymaker came up with the idea of asking pregnant women to sign such a punitive document at their most vulnerable and, in this case, in the middle of a pandemic?
My pregnancy humbled me, making me anticipate worst-case scenarios: What if I couldn’t find childcare because of the pandemic and had to quit work to stay home with the baby? What if I had complications following delivery?
I couldn’t sign the document. Did I have any options? I wanted to know.
The HR liaison told me I had a choice to reject the PPL. I could take time under the Family and Medical Leave Act (paid leave that used my accrued time off, then unpaid leave to cover the rest of the time I wanted off) instead, which would protect my job but deprive my family of a steady income.
I’d worked for the city for over eight years, so I wasn’t going to let it go that easily. I called one city and state office after another to see what else could be made available for me, the whole time worried that the stress was going to raise my blood pressure. My final call was with an employee who had no further solutions but was so kind to me that I started bawling.
When I talked to some coworkers, I got little empathy, as if there was something wrong with me for wanting more, for expecting more, from a city we tout as progressive
One person, much to my dismay, told me that a lot of children went to day care at six weeks. A few people wondered why I couldn’t just quit and have my husband add me and the baby to his insurance. All of these responses were well-meaning, but underneath them all was the resignation to the way things were and a callous disregard for a woman’s autonomy.
A coworker told me she took six weeks of paid leave and eight weeks of unpaid leave. Her husband added her to his health insurance when hers expired, but eight weeks without pay set them back financially. Another friend who had her babies in Switzerland told me she got 80% of her breast implants paid for by her insurance because breastfeeding ruined her nipples.
Me? I just wanted three months off so I could care for my child while getting a fraction of the income I depended on.
I had no choice but to sign the document.
6 weeks of paid leave isn’t enough for anyone. It certainly wasn’t enough for me.
As a Black woman, I’m sorely aware of the maternal mortality rate — how Black women are three times more likely to die from a pregnancy-related cause than white women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
I’d also read that 40% of those deaths happened within the six weeks after birth. People around me marveled at how quickly I “bounced back.” But I spent those first few weeks after delivering my daughter adjusting to my new body — vaginal stitches, an over 30-pound weight loss, legs that felt like jelly from weeks of not walking, readjusting to eating solid food, my throat constantly hurting.
I bled for three months, and my doctor kept telling me it was normal, that every woman was different. A Google search showed that post-natal bleeding tapered off at six weeks. I advocated for an ultrasound from another doctor. It turned out that I had placenta remains, and while my stomach had shrunk to almost its prepregnancy flatness, my uterus was enlarged, as if I were still pregnant. Had I not self-advocated, I could have gotten an infection or maybe even slowly hemorrhaged to death.
I went in for a dilation and curettage, a procedure to remove the remains from my uterus, and woke up half a day later to stitched-up stomach incisions. I’d had a complication during the procedure, which led to my doctor accidentally puncturing my uterus and causing a hemorrhage.
The whole time I was trying to heal and learn about motherhood, the acknowledgement I’d signed was at the front of my mind
I loved my job because it allowed me to contribute to bettering the lives of my fellow New Yorkers. But that document also made me feel like I’d suddenly discovered an unforgivable flaw in a lover and wanted nothing to do with them. It was what made me sure that I wanted to find something new as soon as my six months back in the office were completed. I’ve since found a new job.
I’m sharing my story to implore policymakers and employers to look into providing reasonable, standardized, and mandated leave benefits to all, not just unionized workers and those lucky to work for organizations that provide generous leave.
The lack of standard maternity leave increases inequity and contributes to poor maternal and child outcomes — and to women leaving the workforce. It also contributes to inhumane policies, such as giving women a timeline and ultimatums regarding what they owe employers for leave taken.
A 12-week maternity-leave policy should be packaged with all other policies directed at saving mothers and babies, such as the “birthing-friendly” hospital designation. It would make the US a more compassionate country for women, and it would help save lives.
Strategy, Nordic, Parental Leave, New York City, Maternity Leave, Leave, Government, Careers, contributor 2022, BI-freelancer, Personal Essay
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