The Impossible Choice I Had to Make During Maternity Leave

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.

maternity leave
Illustration by Heather Bradley

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.

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.

“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."

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?

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