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I Didn't Get Paid Maternity Leave Because I Gave Birth to a Preemie

I was a 28-year-old mom and cosmetologist for a nationally recognized salon. I had a 5-year-old daughter, and recently suffered two miscarriages while trying for my second child. Then, I found out I was pregnant with a boy.

I was very excited about my growing family, and I loved my job. I had great colleagues and clients, plus a boss who would be flexible with my hours once my baby was born—more than most people can hope for. Balancing work, numerous follow-up appointments and family life was a daunting task, but I thought everything was going smoothly. Eventually I learned I was at risk for preterm birth, but I had no signs that my son would arrive as early as he did.

As a cosmetologist, I had to stand for eight to 12 hours a day. My doctor advised me to work part-time or cut back as much as I could. When I was 14 weeks along, I started talking more about my pregnancy with my employer. When I told my boss I was dealing with some complications, she allowed me to scale down my workload a bit. If I had to take a 15-minute break, she would let me take one without question.

At my 24-week follow-up, I was told I needed to be examined weekly by a perinatologist, an obstetrics subspecialist concerned with the care of the fetus during high-risk pregnancies. That would require me to frequently take days off from work. That afternoon I called my boss to let her know and that it was unclear what was going to happen from that point on. Again, she was very understanding and became concerned about my pregnancy.

The next day my water broke.

Elijah was born weighing only 1 pound, 12 ounces. He needed to be intubated and was given a 40% survival rate. Because I went into labor so early, I missed applying for maternity leave and didn’t receive any benefits. Due to my loss of income, my husband, who was in the Navy Reserves, had to work multiple jobs so that I was able to stay home with our newborn and take him to all of the many office visits and therapies that premature babies require. I was feeling so overwhelmed thinking about our financial situation, my baby and trying to take care of the rest of my family all at once.

Once I was allowed to take Elijah home, the thought of going back to work made me feel guilty. Since the nurses and physicians had taken care of Elijah for the first three months of his life in the NICU, I felt strongly about being with him as much as possible now that we were able to be together. I had lost so much time with him.

I definitely struggled with the decision of not returning to my job. I had enjoyed being a working mom, but I stayed home with Elijah until his medical team had established that he was doing well physically. I would constantly second-guess if I had made the right choice.

A few years passed by, and although Elijah was meeting his developmental goals, I felt that I had lost myself. I was so consumed with being a helicopter parent to my son, because in my mind he was still so fragile, that I lost my purpose outside of motherhood.

When Elijah turned 4, I decided to go back to work, and it was liberating in so many ways. I felt like I had regained my identity. Knowing that he was finally OK was the impetus for me to return, but again, I wasn't sure if this was the right choice. There’s an ongoing sense of guilt as a mom of a premature baby.

During this journey, I learned the importance of keeping friends, family and employers up to date on what’s going on throughout a pregnancy. Communicating with your HR department is crucial to learn about what your employer offers in terms of maternity leave, personal and sick time and other benefits. I put off these conversations, thinking I have months until my due date. I can look into this later. I also learned the importance of taking an active role in self-care during pregnancy.

Being able to identify myself as at-risk for preterm birth earlier would have allowed for faster administration of possible interventions. I recently found out about a new blood test, PreTRM, which your doctor can administer to predict your individual risk for preterm birth. Early prediction can allow you and your healthcare providers to better plan individualized treatment during your pregnancy. Also, connecting with organizations for support is extremely helpful—Miracle Babies, a nonprofit organization in San Diego founded to support Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) families, was my go-to.

Elijah is 5-years-old now and in kindergarten, and Sarah is 10 and in fifth grade. It took more than four years, but I have returned to the workforce, and my husband is back to working one job. We are all thankful that our story had a happy ending.

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