While people are growing more comfortable discussing the emotional aftermath of miscarriage and stillbirth, thanks in part to celebrities like Chrissy Teigen and Meghan Markle, we don’t often mention the physical hardships birthing parents experience after a pregnancy loss. One Washington, D.C., teacher who has been denied paid family leave following her daughter’s stillbirth is doing her part to change that.
“On December 1, 2020 at 5:30 a.m., I delivered my daughter, Aaliyah Denise, still,” third-grade teacher Elizabeth O’Donnell wrote on Instagram last week, sharing a photo of herself holding her baby. “D.C. government policy denies me paid family leave (8 weeks for postpartum recovery) because I cannot provide a birth certificate for my daughter. Unfortunately, I can provide her cremation papers though, but that makes no difference in their decision. We as a society often keep these issues private and quiet. One, because it’s so incredibly traumatic for the woman who has experienced it. Two, because it makes others feel uncomfortable.”
O’Donnell, who has been teaching with DC Public Schools for seven years, went on in her post to describe what we don’t usually discuss about pregnancy loss: When a person miscarries or experiences stillbirth (a pregnancy loss after 20 weeks of gestation), they still have to deliver the fetus from their body.
“I vaginally delivered my daughter at around 5:30 a.m. on December 1, 2020 after being in labor for 48 hours. I then needed surgery afterwards, where I lost almost a liter & a half of blood. I had an epidural that aggravated scar tissue from a previous injury, and I am now in constant pain every day as a result until it heals.”
So, like the parents who bring their babies home from the hospital, O’Donnell has a lot of recovery ahead of her — and that’s in addition to the emotional healing she has to do. While she doesn’t have to care for an infant, figuring out sleep schedules or breastfeeding, she can’t just jump back into her old routine right away. But her employer doesn’t see things this way.
“I emailed saying my situation has changed and I would only need eight weeks for postpartum recovery,” she told news station WJLA. “They said I was no longer eligible for the paid family leave. It was shocking and hurtful.”
DCPS, which declined WJLA’s request for comment, reportedly told O’Donnell that she was caring only for herself, not a family. “DC government policy is essentially punishing me for not walking out of GW Hospital with my daughter, Aaliyah,” she wrote on Instagram. “Eight weeks postpartum recovery should be covered as paid family leave whether or not your child enters this world with a breath. No woman should have to relive this trauma all over again the way I am. It’s absolutely disgusting.”
The federal Family and Medical Leave Act includes miscarriage as a serious medical condition and thus qualifying for up to 12 weeks of leave, but that does not mean paid leave. And while many states have begun to implement paid family leave laws, they do not include miscarriage or stillbirth. It may be considered reason for sick leave or disability on a case by case basis, but people are starting to advocate for pregnancy loss to qualify for family leave.
O’Donnell decided to make her story public in the hope that others won’t have to to endure it.
“Moving forward, my goal would be to change the policy to include stillbirth and the definition of birth of a child,” she told WJLA. “One of the qualifying events of paid family leave is the birth of a child and I did that. … It’s understandable that I won’t be granted bonding time. But I should be able to physically recover and that’s not even bringing in the mental health aspect of this.”
These other famous parents have been open about suffering miscarriages.