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The Privilege of Maternity Leave: What the NICU Taught Me

The United States is one of the only countries in the world that does not guarantee the right to paid family leave, which forces many new parents to make the heart wrenching decision to go back to work earlier than they want to -- often while their babies remain in the hospital if they were born prematurely.
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Feet of new born baby under ultraviolet lamp in the incubator
Feet of new born baby under ultraviolet lamp in the incubator

I've always been a planner -- building spreadsheets and crossing items off my to-do list. So when I became pregnant, I naturally sought to plan every last detail so that I would be fully prepared by the time the baby arrived. I gathered lists of friends' product recommendations, bought every parenting book, and signed up for birthing classes for a month before my due date.

I thought I was perfectly prepared. And then my water broke at 33 weeks, and my whole life changed.

My daughter spent the first four weeks of her life in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York. For me, this time was marked by a blur of meetings with doctors, pumping incessantly to increase my milk supply, and delicately holding my daughter for brief moments when the nurses said it was alright. I quickly became versed in the vocabulary of prematurity: words like DSATS and Brady's rolled off my tongue and I could tell you my daughter's oxygen level and heart rate at any given moment. Overnight, those "normal" first moments of motherhood became so foreign to me -- I'll never forget being turned away from the post-partum breastfeeding lesson since I didn't have a baby with me, or singing Happy Birthday with my husband through tears when the nurses brought us the 0th Birthday Cake while our daughter slept alone in an incubator many floors below us.

One of the hardest days of my life was the day that my husband and I checked out of the hospital and had to leave our baby behind. I couldn't face the questions from neighbors who meant well, but didn't understand where my baby was, or answer my friends' congratulatory calls, because what had transpired didn't feel like cause for celebration. As someone who lives to plan every moment of every day, I had messed up the plan on the most important day of all.

I took comfort in the people I met in the NICU and the community of mothers and fathers who were sharing my experience. We spent hours in the pumping room together, learned to breastfeed on top of each other, and had difficult conversations with our families only inches apart. Privacy didn't exist during those four weeks, and we learned to navigate parenthood in the most exposed and vulnerable way possible. We all shared in the joy when our daughters would go 24 hours DSAT-free, or when one of them drank a whole bottle without having a BRADY, and would comfort each other when another one's graduation date got pushed back yet again.

As difficult as this time was, from the beginning I knew that I was very lucky.

As I spent hour after hour watching my daughter's every breath in the NICU, I thought about the babies whose families couldn't visit. The first baby next to us never had a visitor until, late one night, I saw her mom arrive, fresh off her shift as a bus driver, coming to check in on her baby after a long day of driving around New York City. Or the twins down the row who had been in the hospital for more than two months, whose mom had gone back to work so that she could take her maternity leave after they came home. She commuted from her home in Staten Island to her job in Brooklyn to the hospital in Manhattan as much as she could, but too often she just couldn't make it in time.

That's when I realized that my privilege didn't start with my short commute to the hospital or our incredible pediatrician and family members who visited my daughter daily. It started with having paid maternity leave and working for a company where I never once thought that being in the hospital with my daughter would threaten my job security. Where my paycheck still came every week, even if I had to leave early for a doctor's appointment or work from home because I wasn't feeling well.

Unfortunately, my ability to spend time with my daughter during those first crucial weeks is something that remains out of reach for many new parents. The United States is one of the only countries in the world that does not guarantee the right to paid family leave, which forces many new parents to make the heart wrenching decision to go back to work earlier than they want to -- often while their babies remain in the hospital if they were born prematurely.

Fortunately New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, recently announced the new Family Leave Plan, which will provide up to 12 weeks of paid family leave. This should serve as a model for the rest of the country so that more mothers and fathers can spend those first few weeks at home bonding and caring for their babies.

When people hear the story of my daughter's birth, they remark about how difficult those early days must have been -- and they certainly were. It was rare if a day didn't start and end with tears. But I knew the whole time I was so, so lucky. I had the best nurses caring for my daughter, world-class doctors, and an incredible support system. But I also was able to spend every minute of the day with my daughter in the hospital, and nothing could replace that.

I hope that the New York Paid Family Leave Plan only begins the conversation about family leave and that we as a country can continue to find ways to support our mothers and fathers, particularly those with babies that need a little extra TLC.