Once upon a time, when I believed it was possible to get pregnant, carry a child to term, and give birth to an infant, I was looking forward to Maternity Leave.
Maternity Leave, for my employer, is 6 paid weeks (8 if you have a C-section) following the birth of your child. Some of it, I'm sure, is for physical recovery from a vaginal birth (the extra two weeks for the C-section confirms that). But much of it is for the exhausting but joyous first weeks with your newborn. It is a time of transition. It is a time of sleep deprivation. It is a time when your precious angel has no clue when day or night actually shift, and so you live in a zombielike state. Or so I am told. It is a vital time for secure attachment bonding. Your infant needs to establish who his/hercaregivers are, that someone will attend to him/her when he/she cries, that all is right with the world, and that there are these wonderful people called Parents who will love and take care of him/her. It's a precious time. So precious that licensed day care centers will not accept infants under 6 weeks.
When I thought I was going to be enjoying blissful, zombied Maternity Leave, I knew that I had to hang on to as many sick days as possible -- a challenge when going through a zillion IVF cycles and emergency surgery due to the ectopic and bed rest during an ill-fated pregnancy (although that happened in the summer, so I didn't have to use up any valuable sick time). But I did it, and I had enough sick days to cover the six weeks. Because before you can access the Temporary Disability Insurance (TDI) offered by NY, you must exhaust your sick time. Which is actually a benefit, considering that TDI is a portion of your salary, while accrued sick time gives you full pay.
I was ready.
And then my infertility stole pregnancy and childbirth away from me, and very nearly stole my sense of self-worth and overall wellness as well. At the time that we decided to pull the plug, we were beating our heads against a bloodied wall and continuing to pursue pregnancy even though doing so would likely cost us parenthood, and I was in a very, very dark place. With good reason. I had put my body through hell for something that is supposed to be pleasurable and free, and I was left with nothing. And then I was REALLY left with nothing in that regard. But, we had already been making peace with finding a new path to parenthood. And by the time I was left holding nothing, my estrogen dropped through the floor and my ability to make it to embryo transfer completely destroyed, I WELCOMED that shift. I embraced adoption, fully and completely and with a whole lot of joy. The grief still surfaced and will continue to surface in the future, but my joy in pursuing adoption is all-encompassing.
I knew that my maternity leave had been compromised by the march of time -- when we first started trying to get pregnant I would have been able to take a whole year off, unpaid after the 6-8 weeks and without insurance benefits after 12, but Bryce had the same insurance and it seemed doable. Now Bryce works for a small company after leaving the old one (a company that gutted its previously excellent benefits package), and I hold the insurance. Which means that after 12 weeks we have to pay COBRA to keep insurance coverage, which for me is over $1200/month. And I wouldn't be paid at that point. But I thought I still had the six weeks covered by sick time.
I thought wrong.
My school district has an Adoption Leave policy -- a policy I was informed was quite generous as most other districts offer fewer paid days if any at all. Yes, DAYS, not weeks -- my generous Adoption Leave policy gives me a maternity leave of FIVE paid DAYS. ONE WEEK. Not six. Not even close.
I was shocked. Couldn't I use my sick days? NO. Because that's for MATERNITY leave, which is under TDI, and pregnancy/childbirth is considered a disability. No childbirth, no disability, no pay. Except for that very generous five days. Eight, actually, if I can manage to hold on to my three personal days throughout the complicated adoption process, as I can tack those on to constitute over a week of paid leave.
I don't mean to be so sarcastic. Compared to other districts, who don't offer any days or offer three, five to eight is actually legitimately generous. Especially since NY State law does not mandate that there be any paid days for adoptive parents. NY, for as liberal as it is in many regards, is hideous for paid parental leave. Ask Representative Kirsten Gillibrand (D), who has cosponsored legislation for a Federal FAMILY Act that would provide paid leave, at a portion of a salary of 66% of monthly wages up to a capped amount adjusted for inflation, per her website. The leave would be for caring for a new child, not birthing a child. There is no distinction, as there shouldn't be. However, this legislation hasn't gotten traction yet...even though it is self-funded through a payroll tax that would cost employees the equivalent of a cup of coffee per week and cost employers NOTHING. Alas, this may not be likely to go into effect by the time we get our call. Although a girl can dream.
I want more. I want to have the same paid leave as any other parent. But, because I am not bringing a child into my family through the medical disability of pregnancy and birth, I am not entitled to that paid leave. Even though it is my physical disability of infertility that rendered me unable to become and stay pregnant that left me in this position. Even though adoption is the only way I can become a parent. It just seems wrong.
I do get FMLA (Family Medical Leave Act), which provides me with 12 weeks of unpaid leave that guarantees me my job and continues my health insurance at the rate that I pay now. I am again lucky to work in my district, as you can be out up to two years for unpaid parenthood leave (one year where it's likely you can return to your same job, two years where you can return to a job within your tenure area in the district but your own job is not guaranteed to you, and your own job is actually only guaranteed at all if there aren't budget cuts or anything like that that would endanger it). That's offered to any parent who is the primary caregiver. And FMLA is very helpful, since my district pays 90% of the premium and I pay only 10%, so I will only have to pay a couple hundred dollars per month for those 12 weeks. Which is helpful. And, when I met with Human Resources to talk about this whole Adoption Leave thing and why I can't use my sick days, if indeed they are an accrued benefit that is paid out at retirement and so then should be usable for such a purpose, that part didn't go so well (although she was a terrific listener) but she did let me know that the best case scenario for me is to be placed right after school lets out in June. In that case, my health insurance is covered for July and August since I pay into it throughout the school year, and my FMLA clock wouldn't start until September, so I wouldn't have to pay COBRA expenses for healthcare until the end of November/early December. Giving me more months bang for my parental leave buck. Possibly making it so I can be out longer than the six months we hope for. Of course I have ZERO control over when placement occurs, so this is kind of pie-in-the-sky thinking. It also doesn't take into account the fact that if we don't get placed until the end of June, it's possible we'd have to pay more to update our homestudy, which has a date of June 25th. So that's an extra expense that offsets some of the gain. It's a nice thought, though.
I have options, and the unpaid options are very generous, more so than most employers.
I am so angry that we do not value the power of parenthood leave in this country.
I am angry that private companies can afford to choose to offer parenthood leave to both women and men, but smaller companies or organizations dependent on federal, state, and tax-based aid aren't so much in the position. As much as I made a really great case to my Superintendent, HR, and the Board's president, I know realistically that until the law changes, I won't see a change in this area. They are already providing more than is required, and that is indeed generous even if it feels paltry to me.
I am angry that if I had gotten pregnant in the first year we did IVF and had stayed that way, that I would have been able to take at least a year maternity leave and we wouldn't have had the insurance beast to deal with. (However, I wasn't as established in my position then, and I was newly tenured, so I wouldn't have had the seniority cushion I enjoy now, so many years later, which makes me feel more secure in taking some of that unpaid leave.)
I am angry that I would have had paid maternity leave if I had been able to manage pregnancy, and now that I physically cannot and have dealt with that loss, that I am dealt another blow in the form of "adoption isn't worthy of as much paid leave." (Not a direct quote.) Which is ridiculous, considering that adoption requires arguably MORE bonding time to establish a bond and secure attachment and you may be dealing with medical conditions due to exposures that you yourself probably wouldn't be contending with had you been the one to be pregnant and give birth. But the law doesn't say that adoption is the same as biological parenting. Current policies can offer less to adoptive parents simply because they didn't create their families through the physical process, even though they are caring for the very same new child with the very same needs, and possibly greater needs due to concerns I listed above.
I have advocated for myself in this arena and probably have made myself a bit of a nuisance, making sure that everyone knows that adoption leave is paltry and that there is legislation out there, that hopefully will pass, that will make this a requirement ANYWAY. But I think it's important to not just stand by and let this policy roll over me, to be silently angry, stewing in my heart, and let it go. I don't want to let it go. I want to be vocal. Politely vocal, but squeaky nonetheless. I want to let everyone know how incredibly discriminatory it is that you don't have to legally offer the same paid leave to adoptive parents because of the medical piece. This is especially discriminatory for same-sex couples who adopt, who physically cannot be pregnant and birth. And for people like me, who physically cannot due to medical diagnoses and mystery happenstance of bodies that don't cooperate reproductively. People need to know that this discrepancy exists.
I saw an article today about how Joe Biden just joined Governor Cuomo of NY in championing 12 weeks of paid parental leave. And I was thrilled that it covers birth AND adoption. I can only hope that this will get more traction as more and more people become aware of it and support what is already working at a grander scale in other nations and is working for corporations such as Facebook, Netflix, and Google. Some of these companies, featured in an article on amazing parental leaves, offer less for adoption leave than for birth (still a discrepancy I don't understand but better than days versus weeks), but many just call it the far more appropriate PARENTAL LEAVE and include all possible ways of becoming a parent. The Dave Thomas Foundation also has a list of companies that are the most Adoption-Friendly Workplaces (although to get on the list you must actively apply for it and send your information in to the Foundation). They have a great website that details why offering adoption benefits and leave is simply good practice. I shared this website with my school leadership, because the more you know, the better off you are. All I can do is share the information.
I know that for me, this policy probably won't change much until the law changes that requires employers to provide equal paid parental leave, regardless of how you became a parent. A school district has so many layers of red tape. But I will know that I tried by best to advocate for adoptive parents and to share as much information as humanly possible to inform any future decisions. I respect the fact that my district offers more than what's required and more than any other school district in our area. I also am very appreciative that all of my efforts to advocate have been met with congratulations on my status as a waiting adoptive parent, support in what is currently offered, and an open ear to consider how the policy could be changed once there is a new contract negotiation (because leaves are covered in the collective bargaining agreement, my efforts were ill-timed since we just negotiated a new three-year contract. Sigh). I am happy to be met with conversation and not a closed door.
I also want to make sure that you, if you are a prospective adoptive parent in NY or other not-so-adoption-leave-friendly-states or a supporter of such a parent, know all of this information, so that you can also advocate for a better circumstance. So that you can be vocal. So that people in power know that adoptive parents should not be given fewer paid parental leave days simply because they did not give birth. That there should be equality in the way that parental leave is determined, regardless of how you became a parent. I have sent a letter to Senator Gillibrand in support of the FAMILY Act, and you can too, electronically. Governor Cuomo's website on Paid Family Leave has a space to share your story, and if you are a New York resident, I encourage you to check it out and share if you are comfortable.
The more you know, the more you can advocate...and the more you can advocate, the more change can take place--whether it is gradual or immediate. Change in a positive direction that helps all families, regardless of how they are formed, is a beautiful thing.