Voices: If we had parental leave, our sons might still be alive today
By Amber Scorah and Ali Dodd
Under ordinary circumstances, two mothers as different as we are would never have met.
One of us is from suburban Oklahoma, was in a sorority, married her college sweetheart, opposes abortion and is a Republican. The other is an unmarried liberal who lives in Brooklyn, works in publishing, has lived in five countries and didn’t start trying to have a child with her partner until her late 30s.
But tragedy brings people together. Last year, we both lost babies, infant sons who died in day care, after we’d left them for the first time.
Neither of us wanted to leave our babies in child care when we did, at mere weeks old. But neither of us had the luxury of choice. Our employers would not grant us any more time for parental leave. Our children were on our health care plans through work, and like the majority of American families, we couldn’t make ends meet on one income.
So, reluctantly, on an April morning in Oklahoma, Shepard was left at day care. A child care worker swaddled him for a nap, placed him in a car seat and didn’t check on him. He slipped down and suffocated, still too little to lift up his own head.
Just as reluctantly, in July, Karl was dropped off for his first day at day care near his mother’s office in Manhattan. When she came back to feed him at noon, Karl’s lips were blue and a child care worker was performing CPR. It could not be determined why this healthy baby died.
We believe that infants need to be with their parents at the beginning of their lives. And we are jointly calling on our parties, Republican and Democrat, to put aside their differences and pass job-protected, paid parental leave, for the sake of all American babies.
We are not alone in enduring such anguish. Just last week it was reported that a 3-month-old girl in Pennsylvania died on her first day of day care – the first time the mother was away from her daughter for more than 90 minutes.
Our instinct that Karl and Shepard would be safer if they stayed with us longer was not wrong.
A study by McGill University and UCLA Fielding School of Public Health found that for each additional month a woman has maternity leave, infant mortality goes down 13%.
America has the highest infant mortality rate of any industrialized nation, according to the CDC. And research has shown that 60% of SIDS deaths occur in child care settings, non-profit First Candle says.
Of course, parental leave is not usually an issue of life and death. It is, however, an issue of our children’s health and well-being. When Norway began offering mothers paid leave, there were dramatic long-range effects: Children had lower high school dropout rates, higher rates of college attendance and higher incomes at age 30.
American babies whose mothers don’t have maternity leave are less likely to be taken to the doctor and less likely to be breastfed. Toddlers of parents without paid leave have more behavioral problems and score lower on cognitive tests, says a report from the National Bureau of Economic Research.
The blueprint for one’s lifelong physical, emotional, social and intellectual capacities develops in infancy. Every American baby would be safer, healthier and have a better start if given time with their parent during the first months of life.
Yet, here we are: One in four American mothers have no choice but to return to work within two weeks of giving birth; 87% of parents have no access to paid leave through their employers, according to a report from The Center for Law and Social Policy, an anti-poverty organization.
This is our country’s reality. The vast majority of hardworking American families cannot survive on one income.
Paid leave is not a red state/blue state issue. It doesn’t matter whether you are opposed to abortion or for abortion rights. It doesn’t matter what size you think government should be.
In the richest country in the world, we should not have sobbing mothers leaving premature babies in the neonatal intensive care unit because they have to return to their jobs. We do not need to tear babies from their mothers’ arms before they can even hold up their own necks.
Through our great loss, we are both reminded every day of what really matters in life.
And that is why we, a mom from Oklahoma and a mom from Brooklyn, are calling upon both parties to pay attention to the families of this country over the lobbyists. Polls show the majority of Americans want paid parental leave. Last week, New York, a state with a Democratic Assembly and a Republican Senate, passed family leave funded by employee contributions of about a dollar a week. This policy need not cost businesses a penny. It does not hurt the economy.
We charge our leaders to set aside political differences and give us laws that protect the right of every American baby to have the loving care of a parent during the fragile first months of their life.
Scorah is a writer and editorial producer who lives in Brooklyn and is co-founder of ForKarl.com. Follow her on Twitter @AmberScorah
Dodd, founder of Shepard’s Watch, is a physical therapist and mother. Follow her on Twitter @ShepardsWatch