My experience of having a baby and parental leave in the USA

When my husband and I moved to New York in 2010 we weren’t planning to stay long enough to start a family. A couple of years, maybe, and then home in time for babies. But New York had other ideas, and four years later I was pregnant and we were discussing the pros and cons of bringing our little one home to our fifth floor (con), walk-up (con), studio (con) Nolita (pro) apartment.

We were also preparing to navigate the crazy realities of parental leave in the United States, which had been very visible to me during my four years working at Victoria’s Secret, a company that employs majority women and has a comparatively generous leave policy for the US: 12 weeks with part pay. In my experience, most women took six to eight weeks’ leave, and on four separate occasions I was in meetings with women in the early stages of labour because they didn’t want to ‘waste’ their leave pre-baby. One took a cab to the hospital.

I was lucky. I asked for 18 weeks’ leave and I got it. It helped that my manager was European and understood the sacredness of the early postpartum period and the importance—physically, emotionally and mentally—of taking the time to heal from birth, and bond with baby. What I found surprising was that many of my colleagues appeared confused and/or jealous that I was allowed ‘so much time’. Instead of seeing it as a new precedent that they could perhaps benefit from, they saw it as unfair. The difference for me—and the reason I didn’t think twice about asking for more time—was that I’m Australian and I am used to seeing women take a year off after the birth of their baby. I also knew that there was no way I’d be ready to return full-time just 12 weeks after giving birth. I wasn’t ready at 18 weeks either, but at that point I had no choice: return to work full-time or lose my job.

Upon return, I pumped three times a day for my daughter (the pumping rooms at Victoria’s Secret were lush compared to anything I’ve seen in Australia: five lockable rooms with comfy chairs, heaters, a couple of power outlets for pump and laptop, a phone to call into meetings, televisions and a dedicated fridge for breastmilk!). I also worked long hours, travelled, juggled, experienced epic mum guilt, and eventually became so burnt out that we decided to leave the magic city when our daughter was 15 months old.

Just before we left, my husband, who worked for PwC in the US and still works for them in Australia, was able to take parental leave and looked after our girl for six weeks—a very special time that we’re still both so grateful for.

When we returned home I consulted and freelanced, so I haven’t experienced parental leave in Australia firsthand. Despite this, I know we have a long way to go in this country, but it’s at least nice to know that it’s culturally acceptable to take a year or so off after the birth of your child—a norm that I expect may never become reality in the US.

Written by Gabrielle Nancarrow. Gabrielle is a mum of two little girls, a birth and loss doula, and the founder of GATHER, a space for women to come together, connect and build community. GATHER is located in Seddon, Victoria, and offers workshops, doulas, yoga, meditation and sharing circles.

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