Parental leave might have saved my infant son's life

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I grew up in a small town in Oklahoma, and I like to say that I grew up living the American Dream. My dad worked, and my mom stayed home with my brother and me - not an unusual arrangement at the time.  That economy doesn’t exist anymore. I graduated from high school and a respected university, and then went on to graduate school and achieved a master’s degree. Happily, I had job offers rolling in even before I graduated. I worked hard.

After Derek and I got married, we had steady and well-paying work, but money was still tight. My first pregnancy was an ectopic, which required surgery with a hospital stay.

Our doctor’s advice was to get pregnant again in the next six months, or we might never be able to have kids. It was tough to save money, pay unexpected hospital bills, and be the primary breadwinner. But I didn’t take any vacation time for over a year, we trimmed our expenses, never ate out, and by the time my first son, Presley, was born, I was able to afford eight weeks off for maternity leave.

I was proud of myself, at first -- until it came time to leave my baby. Leaving Presley with a child care provider when he was so small was like suffering an amputation with a dull blade.

Our life together continued. We so wanted to have a sibling for Presley. Over the course of the next four years, my husband and I suffered three more miscarriages and one more emergency surgery to save my life after a very late miscarriage. This meant another hospital stay, and more bills. We wanted a family so badly, for our son to have a sibling. There was no foreseeing it would be this hard emotionally or financially. Life happens, not for lack of planning.

My pregnancy with Shepard was different and special from the start. He came into this world quickly, and immediately after he was born, he lifted his head off of my chest three times to look right at me. He was big and strong, a living miracle that my family had wanted for four long years. He was here, he was healthy, and I would do whatever I could to make sure he was safe.

Once again, we had planned, saved, and lived in a financially responsible way for years so that I could afford to stay home with Shepard for 12 weeks. I had chosen to work for a company under which I would qualify for unpaid FMLA, but I was informed a month before my due date that I would have to return to work in 30 days, because of an obscure rule that states an employee must work at a location that has 50 employees within a 75 mile radius to qualify. I was 83 miles away.

Thankfully, the vice president of the company went to bat for my family and agreed to give me 11 weeks, unpaid of course. After that, I would have to return to work, or lose my job and health insurance for my boys and myself. For me, going back to work was a necessity, it was our livelihood. Sure, I could have given up my career, sold our home, moved to a less desirable school district, lived below the poverty line, but why is that even a choice that parents should have to make? How is that good for families, or for our economy? Or, for our children?

When I took Shepard to daycare on my sixth day back at work, he had a runny nose. Four hours later, I got the phone call that tore my family apart. Shepard wasn’t breathing. When I arrived at the ER, the medical team was valiantly performing CPR on Shepard, but he was already dead. The police wouldn’t even let me hold my child one last time, as he was considered “evidence”. All I wanted to do was crawl onto that gurney and die myself.

Before that horrible day, I didn’t know that babies are seven times more likely to die at an in-home daycare. I didn’t know that Oklahoma daycare owners were not required to have training in safe sleep approved by the American Academy of Pediatrics. I didn’t know that the incidence of infant death skyrockets between two and three months of life. I had no idea that I had unknowingly walked into my worst nightmare.

In time, once my grief lessened, I realized that what had happened to my family could happen to anyone. That’s when my life started over.

That’s when I realized that paid family leave was not a liberal or conservative idea, but a necessity to save infants from preventable deaths. Three to four thousand infants die in the United States every year. Recent studies show that we could decrease that number by 13% with every additional month a parent stays home with paid leave.

Four in ten American households have a woman as their sole or primary breadwinner. This figure has quadrupled since 1960 and shows no signs of slowing down.

We need a national paid family leave policy. No matter whether you are a single parent or double-income household, whether a mother has finished high school or completed a master’s degree, if a business has 15 or 1500 employees, if you live in a red state or a blue state - in this country, unless you are one of the wealthy and privileged, motherhood is a disadvantage.

It is time that we as Americans step up for our families and create an environment where family can not only survive, but truly thrive. We are not the same nation we were back when our moms could stay home with us. We have to move away from the idea that the answer is as simple as having families plan better, cut back, or have a mother stay home. It’s no longer that simple for most of us.

As a nation we need to stop asking ourselves “Why should I have to contribute to paid family leave?” and instead start asking “Why wouldn’t I protect these children’s lives and American families?” After all, as we learned, it could happen to any of us.