The Mamafesto: Real maternity leave horror stories show moms need better

When I put out the call for folks to share their maternity and paternity stories, I wasn’t sure what I would get in response. To be honest, it’s been heartbreaking. In between the very rare, encouraging story about decent, paid leave are many, many stories from parents who had to cobble together leave — sometimes paid, other times not — and still found it woefully inadequate.

Last week I asked Raging Feminists what maternity leave should look like in the U.S. Today’s Mamafesto column shares stories from parents that explain just why we need to change the way we treat new parents in the workforce.

When I had my daughter, I was a full-time employee with an office job. I had 12 weeks of leave, two of which were paid (solely out of generosity on my employer’s part). We blew through our savings pretty quickly just paying the bills. I went back to work after three months, exhausted and distracted. When my daughter was 4 months old, I got pregnant again in a remarkably unlikely accident. I knew I’d be fired, and since my company was small, pregnancy discrimination laws wouldn’t protect me. I had an abortion. I wanted the pregnancy at the time, but I had no choice. Now I’m glad I did it. My abortion enabled me to get out of that job and begin a much more fulfilling freelance career, but I wish I’d had real choices.” — Sarah Grey

“I delayed my leave because I had a preemie who was in the NICU, and I knew I’d need time when she came home. When she was coming home, my director said that I couldn’t have [time] off because she had granted other people time off. (It was a week before my estimated due date. What if I went into labor that day? ‘Deliver and return the next day.’)” — R

There was that time when I was working in an attorney’s office, as an attorney, and the boss asked me if we could fire our receptionist for being pregnant because ‘her doctor’s appointments are inconvenient for my schedule.’ We weren’t even talking about what would happen after she gave birth. He wanted to fire her already. No, you awful person, you cannot fire her for being pregnant… Actually, he probably could have. We didn’t have enough employees in the office at the time to be subject to most employment laws. — Rowan Beckett Grigsby

More: Moms and babies would be better off if maternity leave looked like this

The worst thing that happened when I took maternity leave is that the day care we selected for our daughter did not open on time. The last few weeks of my leave were spent calling elected officials to try to get the day care its needed permits to open. We ended up cobbling together, me extending my time, my mother-in-law and my dad each taking a week off, using a sister child care center for a week, plus paying babysitters. If we had paid leave, this wouldn’t have had been a big deal. But every day I spent out was another day I had to use a vacation or sick day… which, if you’ve had a baby, you know they are precious due to all the doctor appointments you have to take them to.” — Veronica Arreola

In response to the passage of the Affordable Care Act, my school cut my hours to avoid giving me health care. So I had no health coverage through my job going into my pregnancy. (Fortunately my husband’s insurance was available to me, but many are not that lucky.) Secondly, there’s no such thing as ‘maternity leave’ as an adjunct; you’re expected to either time your pregnancy to avoid school time or just take the semester off — obviously without pay. After two years of infertility struggle, I had already suffered a miscarriage (and a day afterwards, I was expected to go back to work and grade papers!), and so getting pregnant at all was lucky. But unfortunately my pregnancy fell during the semester, and I knew I’d have to have a C-section. I asked my OB-GYN what the least amount of time I have to take off work before I can go back, and he said two weeks, so that’s exactly how much I took. I couldn’t afford to give up my job, and if I wanted to keep my job, I had to work, so I went back in two weeks after a C-section. They let me use a storage closet to pump in, and I just walked very slowly and had my husband drive me one day when I didn’t feel particularly confident that driving would be safe. I cried pretty much every day, but what could I do? We couldn’t afford for me to lose my job just after having a baby. I had to tough it out.” — Laura S.

As a professor, I feel like I did most of the things I was supposed to do before having a baby. I had tenure, I had a contract for a two-book deal with one of the books already out. I had four years’ worth of accrued sick leave so I could get 100 percent pay (as opposed to 60 percent pay). I ended up having my baby via emergency C-section on the first day of an Arts Festival I was supposed to be co-chairing. This meant that I didn’t get to attend the festival at all, and I ended up being the butt of the joke in the college newsletter that I had my baby to ‘get out of work.’ Another female professor jokingly asked if I was going to ‘get pregnant every year’ since I had tenure. No. I’m actually pretty accepting of the you’re-lucky-to-have -one-child-if-you’re-an-academic school of thought.” — Shaindel Beers

More: Marissa Mayer’s super-short maternity leave plan sends a dangerous message

I left work for my 39-week appointment and was sent mostly straight to the hospital for a C-section. I went back to work at 11 weeks postpartum. [Because of] weird NJ rules at the time, I think I had to use two weeks of ‘sick time’ (which is one big pot of sick/vacation/personal) before state disability kicked in, which paid 50 percent, and then my company paid the difference to get me to 75 percent. I was fielding calls at home on leave for at least the last four weeks.” — Christine L

I had my third son at 35 weeks due to severe preeclampsia. I had 12 weeks of leave. Six were ‘paid’ even though what that really meant was 60 percent of four weeks pay. It made no sense. Technically it was short-term disability, which also meant that you receive no health care benefits during your leave. I had to navigate the entire process myself, it was extremely confusing, and I didn’t receive any of the pay until about three weeks before I returned to work. In the eight months since I have been back, it has been a nightmare. My employer has very odd rules for paid time off; they have no space for pumping, so I get to do a humiliating plea twice a day to find a space; and when that takes too long, it becomes a problem. And this is for a nonprofit! This is in the U.S., in a city that has fairly good maternity leave practices.” — Liz Crossen

More: How U.S. maternity leave policies compare to other countries’ (INFOGRAPH)

This is only a drop in the bucket of experiences that are out there when it comes to family leave. I received more responses than I could include, so I’ve re-opened a Tumblr where people can submit their stories of maternity and paternity leave — and can do so anonymously. There is definitely a trend of employees being too afraid to speak about their personal experiences when it comes to leave, which is very telling and troubling in itself.