For Leigh Benrahou, like so many other working mothers, preparing for her second pregnancy took planning. And not just washing and folding tiny onesies, figuring out where to put the crib, or mentally bracing herself to parent two young kids.
The 32-year-old mother had recently started a new position as a registrar at a nearby college. Her planning began by figuring out when she would be at her job long enough to qualify for the Family and Medical Leave Act and the 12 weeks of unpaid leave workers caring for newborns or sick relatives are entitled to.
She also started counting months, planning to time the birth so that when her leave ran out she could rely on her mother, who had summers off, for childcare. Then Benrahou took out disability insurance, paying $40 a month so that she could collect 60% of her paycheck for up to six weeks into her leave and receive $1,000 toward her hospital stay after giving birth. Finally, after months of trying to plan for every detail, she went off her birth control and soon became pregnant.
Benrahou is just one of the women profiled in a new investigative report, by Sharon Lerner for In These Times, detailing the often absurd juggling act that working parents find themselves performing in order to stay home with their children without losing months of income.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, fewer than 15% of workers in the United States have access to any kind of paid family leave. And, as the report notes, higher-income workers are more likely to have it than people earning low wages: one in five of the top 10% of earners get paid leave, whereas just one in 20 workers in the bottom quartile can take time off and still collect a paycheck.
The lack of options has created an untenable situation for many working parents like Benrahou. Filling in the gaps left by a lack of federal policy requires planning, but the extent of which remains largely absent from the national conversation happening right now about work-life balance.
But Benrahou's story is a reminder of more than just how the United States is among the only wealthy nations in the world without a paid leave policy in place, it's also an illustration of how related that conversation is to the gradual chipping away of access to birth control—from Republican proposals to strip funding from Planned Parenthood and federal family planning programs to last year's Hobby Lobby decision allowing closely held corporations to refuse to cover contraception. The lack of paid leave in the United States and targeting of family planning clinics are parallel crises that force working parents into impossible situations: planning on a pregnancy without adequate resources to do so.
Like many of my peers in their 20s and early 30s, my use of birth control is very much about pregnancy avoidance. The "planned" in the idea of planned parenthood means something abstract—maybe later, but definitely not now. But as more of my friends become parents, and as the national conversation about the United States' lack of paid leave plays out against a backdrop of eroding access to birth control, the element of planning has come into sharper focus.
Increasingly, it isn't about some far off future. It's about stopping the pill or having an IUD removed to coincide with a slow period at work, with a summer off from teaching, for a moment when, like Benrahou, making ends meet may be less of a struggle.
As millions of working parents, or working people planning on becoming parents, struggle to survive on small salaries, the element of time—when to have baby, often planned down to the month—becomes increasingly crucial.
Benrahou's planning seemed airtight, but she still couldn't control for the early arrival of her son, who was born at 26 weeks, weighing a little more than two pounds. As careful as she was to time her pregnancy, her planning still wasn't enough, as Lerner reported:
Knowing that 20 percent of babies born at his gestational age don’t survive, Leigh spent the first hours after the delivery singularly focused on her tiny son’s survival. He needed oxygen, since his lungs weren’t fully developed. And, when he was whisked away for medical attention, Benrahou had to attend to another crisis: She was the mother of a very sick baby, and her carefully constructed paid maternity leave had disintegrated. So, freshly stitched up and still groggy from anesthesia, she spread out her medical fact sheets, insurance policy papers and lists of phone numbers on her hospital bed and began to grapple with her new reality. Though her college was on winter break, which put off her return by about a week, Benrahou realized she’d have to go back to work when classes resumed on January 6, less than two weeks after giving birth.
“I remember walking really slow and wearing stretch pants and just making it happen,” Benrahou, who had undergone a C-section, said of returning to work so soon after her son's birth.
Paid leave is having an unprecedented political moment, but is still a ways off in terms of actual policy. Earlier this year, Democrats reintroduced paid leave legislation modeled after programs in California and New Jersey, but Congress remains deadlocked on the issue. And while it's receiving a lot of attention from Democratic presidential candidates, the GOP field has rejected the idea as bad for business.
These same candidates have also called for the defunding of Planned Parenthood, an organization that provides birth control and other family planning services to millions of women—including many low-income women—who, like Benrahou, are not using birth control to avoid pregnancy altogether but to time it (often down to the month) to try to manage an impossible situation. And it's a situation that promises to become more difficult as paid leave stalls in Congress while bills to defund national family planning clinics speed ahead.