I had been at my job for 10 months when my daughter was born, not enough time to qualify for maternity leave. I took six weeks off, paid by the state at a fraction of my salary. Of this amount, which was not enough to cover the rent for our two bedroom apartment, I wrote a check to my employer to cover my insurance premium. “You’re lucky you still have a job,” someone told me when I complained about the lack of parental leave. “Legally, they don’t need to keep it for you.”
I couldn’t afford to take any longer than that, but I was privileged in many ways. The end of my leave coincided with the winter vacation at the university where I teach, so I ended up with over three months at home. My husband had two months of paid family leave and we were not living by the month.
My postpartum hormones had not yet stabilized by the time I returned to work. I dropped my sleeping baby off at daycare and went to the office, where a supportive colleague asked me how I was doing. I started to cry.
The weeks leading up to the pandemic were blurry. At 3 months, my daughter was still waking up several times a night. I would get her up at 5 am to feed her, pack bags for work and daycare, and drive confused eyes on the freeway. My husband, who is a two-hour commute from our New Jersey suburb to the Bronx, would sometimes go whole days without seeing our daughter.
On campus, I spent a good portion of the day running between my office, class, and the lactation room, a transformed pantry without a sink. I washed my breast pump in the kitchen down the hall. I was embarrassed when male colleagues, many of whom I didn’t know, came over to make coffee while I was rinsing the plastic clamps that had just been on my nipples.
When the pandemic hit and classes went online, breastfeeding became much more manageable. So I gave my daughter breast milk for a full year. A friend told me that her milk supply had dried up before the pandemic because she didn’t feel comfortable asking for time at work to pump. Not surprisingly, breastfeeding success rates are higher when mothers have at least 12 weeks of paid leave.
I have spoken to many parents who work with children my daughter’s age. Those lucky enough to work from home tell me how relieved they were to have their babies nearby. “I have the feeling that our children are the ideal age for this,” commented a friend two months after the start of confinement. Our babies were no longer fragile newborns, but still too young to need socialization and home education. We have treasured the time this horrific pandemic unexpectedly gave us.
Like many people in my city, Alex Isayev works in New York. She told me that she was on the verge of a nervous breakdown before the pandemic. Commuting to work meant she was away from her 3-month-old child for 11 hours a day. “I saw her in the morning when it was a mad rush to get her to daycare and get to work on time and then for half an hour in the evening which included driving to the home. house after daycare, feed and bathe her. . I felt like she didn’t even know who I was. That all changed in March 2020. ”
Working from home was difficult, of course. My partner and I cannot afford a nanny and were uncomfortable sending our daughter back to daycare. We take shifts with work and babysitting, which means we never have a break. When she sleeps, we work – at 5 a.m., at 10 p.m., during her naps. Our apartment is too small for an office and our only office is in the living room, where my husband watches our daughter during my shifts. That means I’m teaching from an uncomfortable folding chair in the bedroom, leaning over a bedside table. I stacked books on the dresser behind me to make the background look like a teacher. Off the camera, toys and laundry are strewn over my feet. Yet I am grateful for every moment and know that we are immensely privileged to have full time jobs that are flexible enough to allow for this arrangement.
My daughter is now 15 months old. She sleeps well at night and naps during the day on a regular schedule that is not determined by morning traffic or the first train to New York. Rather than preparing her meals and sending her to daycare, my husband and I introduced her to solid foods at home. We watched her crush the avocado between her fingers and try a banana for the first time. We watched her clap after taking her first wobbly steps. We were there for his first words – in English and Spanish (my husband’s first language). “Guau guau!” she yells if we are by the window and someone is walking past with a dog.
I remember before the pandemic, when his teacher sent me a picture of the daycare. “Your daughter sat down today!” I missed this step.
I sometimes feel guilty about my luck when the pandemic has caused so much loss and loneliness for others. Yet I know many other parents who also feel grateful for the time saved this year. “So much precious and irreplaceable time,” said Amy Nelson, lighting designer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “I am extremely grateful for this ray of hope and hope that enough parents, and non-parents, will stand firm on a cultural change for a better work-life balance.”
This better balance must include reasonable family leave. Parents shouldn’t need a pandemic to have the right to bond with their baby in the first year of life.