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23 Stories About Parental Leave In The United States

"I wore Depends and cried in the bathroom at work because I still had stitches."

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The United States is one of a handful of countries that does not mandate any paid parental leave.

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Under a federal law called the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), employers over a certain size have to offer 12 weeks of unpaid job-protected leave — though not all workers are eligible. New Jersey, California, and Rhode Island provide paid leave. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 13% of US workers in private industries get paid family leave benefits from their employers.

We asked parents in the BuzzFeed community to tell us about their experiences with leave after welcoming a child.

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1. "I wore Depends and cried in the bathroom at work because I still had stitches."

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I took 11 days off work after giving birth (eight weekdays). The company I worked for did not have enough employees to qualify me for leave. Also, it wasn't fiscally possible given unforeseen circumstances with my husband being laid off.

I was forced to return to work while still bleeding. I wore Depends and cried in the bathroom at work because I still had stitches. It was absolutely terrible. My body wasn't ready, and it made things difficult for our daughter, as she was not old enough to go to day care yet.

I hate the argument that women should only have children if they can afford it. We went from making $120,000 a year to $25,000 combined after state budget cuts.

—Kristin, 27, office clerk

2. "I felt amazingly lucky, but even 16 weeks felt far too short because I had tremendous postpartum anxiety and depression."

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I took 16 weeks fully paid by my employer (it was short-term disability that ran concurrently with FMLA). My husband took eight weeks unpaid. It made a world of difference having him around, whereas with our first child he got only a few days.

I felt amazingly lucky, but even 16 weeks felt far too short because I had tremendous postpartum anxiety and depression that I was still dealing with when I returned to work. I would have liked to remain home for a few more weeks until my postpartum anxiety and depression were more under control. It made my first few months back a complete nightmare. Flat out — it sucked. I cried every day for the first couple weeks.

I'm one of the lucky ones, and I still had a huge amount of guilt, anxiety, and sadness returning to work.

—Katie, 32, works in finance

3. "I hated spending time with my husband alone because I didn't want to miss any more time away from our son."

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I took six weeks. Only about two weeks was paid and I had to build up the time (PTO). My husband was given one week off to be with the baby. I was very grateful that he was allowed to take that time.

Financially I had to go back, and every day I cried and stressed going to work. It felt like my heart was ripped out of my chest every time I had to leave my baby. My transition back to work was horrible for several years. I hated spending time with my husband alone because I didn't want to miss any more time away from our son.

Mothers need more time off to spend with their new babies. I think if I would have had 4-6 months to be with my newborn, emotionally things would have been better, and perhaps I would be willing to have another child. But it was just too hard, so we have chosen to only have the one child.

—Ashley, 33, executive assistant

4. "I thought I would be sad leaving my baby at day care, but it was a relief."

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I took four months: six weeks of disability and the rest unpaid. We couldn't have afforded for me to take more.

I went into labor on Wednesday, gave birth on Thursday, and went home on Friday. I had my husband those three days plus the weekend. When he left it was a nightmare. I was crying most of the day. (I was later diagnosed with postpartum depression.) It was terrifying to do it alone.

When my leave ended I thought I would be sad leaving my baby at day care, but it was a relief. I also jumped right back into the mix at work. Honestly, I have a harder time leaving him at day care now that he is a toddler (2.5 years old) than I did when he was a young baby.

—Alexandra, 32, lawyer

5. "I feel very lucky that I got to ease back in and maintain my career growth."

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I took 20 weeks, paid. It was a great amount, but if I had the option for more, I would have taken more.

My husband wasn't allowed any leave, not even unpaid FMLA. We made a family decision that it didn't work for us. So when I returned to work, he quit his job to stay home with the baby, at least until our little one is a year old.

My manager did a fantastic job of allowing an easy transition back. I also had the option of taking my previous role back or a new opportunity. After about three months back I ended up getting to take on a much bigger role, with a larger team. I feel very lucky that I got to ease back in and maintain my career growth.

—Layla, manager in the software industry

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6. "My boss thought a mom's place was at home."

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I took three months leave, all of it unpaid. My husband, who is also in the military, took 10 days. It helped tons!

I felt pressure to stay out. My boss thought a mom's place was at home. I tried to go back and it didn't work out, so I went to IRR (inactive ready reserve). I wish there was more support for moms in the military.

—Randi, 28, Air Force Reserves

7. "I was able to help around the house while my partner recovered from giving birth."

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I took four weeks. I wasn't able to take more because only those four weeks were paid. It was great that I was able to help around the house while my partner recovered from giving birth.

Having coworkers who understand about parental leave was helpful, and having a culture at work to ensure I was left alone made the time off with my new son enjoyable.

—Allan, 29, attorney

8. "Having a child as a lesbian and being treated just like any other mother at work was a touching and life-changing experience."

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I took 12 weeks, paid. My transition back to work was great. I got so much love and support from my co-workers. Having a child as a lesbian and being treated just like any other mother at work was a touching and life-changing experience for me.

Here's the real story: My wife asked for leave from her employer and was told "no" because the child wasn't hers. This was the second child to be born into our family. My wife wasn't working when our first child was born, and she adopted our first child within a year of her birth. So, obviously, the birth of a second child wasn't just an excuse to get out of work.

—Sarah, 46, works in a corporate job

9. "My postpartum depression made it hard for me to get out of bed, let alone go back to a customer service job."

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I took 12 weeks: six weeks paid at 40% of my salary, then six weeks unpaid under FMLA.

I was then fired because I was out of time and my postpartum depression made it hard for me to get out of bed, let alone go back to a customer service job. I was 100% on my own, with no co-parent.

I later found a job with a different company once my savings were exhausted. I needed medical insurance to keep receiving mental health care so I could be there for my son. I still wasn't ready to go back to work, but I had to. Postpartum depression should be recognized and shouldn't be a reason to fire someone.

—Ashley, 27, works in customer service

10. "People were judging me for not taking more time."

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I took four weeks, unpaid. My daughter was in the NICU for the first two weeks, and by the time we got back home we found out my husband had lost his job because he had to take time off. I needed him by my side for emotional and physical reasons, but it sucked because he lost his job. So I opted to go back early to be able to afford the baby's essentials.

Going back was the worst thing ever. I cried like a baby, with awful mom guilt. People were judging me for not taking more time. It sent me into postpartum depression.

—Tiffany, 24, call center representative

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11. "While I was on maternity leave, my credit went down 100 points because I couldn't pay my bills."

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I took eight weeks. I had to use my stored PTO, and when it ran out I wasn't paid anything. My baby and I had to stay in the hospital for five days because he came a month premature. My partner was fired for not showing up to work after three days, even though his boss knew the situation.

Financial strain on top of the stress of a new baby is hell. While I was on maternity leave, my credit went down 100 points because I couldn't pay my bills. I tried to get government assistance, but I made too much money before maternity leave, so I didn't qualify. I had to scrounge and not pay car payments in order to be able to afford formula and food.

I enjoy work. Going back made me less stressed and helped lift the financial burden. I miss my baby a lot though. I wish I got to see him more and work less. Paid maternity leave needs to be a law everywhere. Bills don't stop coming because you had a baby.

—Maddison, 22, hospital pharmacy technician

12. "I was too nervous to ask for pump breaks at my new job for fear of sounding needy."

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I took six weeks, totally unpaid. We saved before the baby was born. I worked until the day before I went into labor.

My boss was shocked that I asked for six weeks. She expected more like two weeks. I wasn't pressured to come back sooner, but I never felt like my job was secure after I left (they did not fit the criteria for FMLA requirements). I ended up getting a termination email four weeks into my maternity leave due to "reorganization of the company."

I started at a new job six weeks postpartum. I was nervous and emotional leaving my newborn, especially since we had just gotten the hang of breastfeeding. I was too nervous to ask for pump breaks at my new job for fear of sounding needy. I only took 10-minute pump breaks (they should be 15-20 minutes) and cried the whole time from the anxiety of being away from the baby.

It was even more stressful that I had pump in an unlocked office where I was walked in on several times before finally retreating to a supply closet because it had a lock on the door. I ended up getting mastitis from not pumping enough.

—Alex, 25, legal secretary

13. "My boss called me daily while I was out, and I actually went and met with customers 10 days after giving birth."

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I took 26 days, paid by my company (I used PTO). I could have taken up to 12 weeks, but would have received 40% of my salary and no commissions. Being in sales, the vast majority of my income is commission-based. My husband also took leave, and it was wonderful to have the help.

My boss called me daily while I was out, and I actually went and met with customers 10 days after giving birth.

Moms need more fully paid time off to care for their newborns. My husband and I have no family nearby (they live 12+ hours away), so we were on our own when we brought our daughter home.

—Stephanie, 30, works in technology sales

14. "I returned to keep [our health insurance]."

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I took 12 weeks of leave. I had accrued almost 5 weeks of PTO; the other 7 were unpaid. My husband was covering expenses.

I just went back three days ago. The transition went very smoothly. The first day was very hard though, emotional. I wanted to take off longer, even if it meant getting a new job once I returned to the workforce. My kids and I, however, have health insurance through my employer. I returned to keep it and because I feared an accumulation of premium costs.

My husband took four weeks of unpaid leave. It was so much better than when he didn't take any time off with our first. It kept the baby blues away.

—Miriam, 29, does admin/office work in a health care environment

15. "After [two months] they start to be more aware and want to interact and bond. Just as that begins, you're supposed to leave them for a large chunk of the day."

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I took 18 weeks, paid by a combination of insurance, the state of California, employer coverage, and using vacation days. I would have liked to take another month or two, but I don't have the vacation days to do so.

My husband's work gave him two weeks, which to me is a crock. It's so important for fathers to bond with their children too.

The conversation about returning to work was such a big deal. How long will you be gone? Will you take extra time? How quickly will you resume all duties when back? It's a hard enough transition in life that you can't fully know where you'll be and what you will need to do until that time arrives. I fully thought that at 18 weeks I'd be ready to go back to work and I wasn't — not at all.

I'm lucky by most standards that I had 18 weeks, and in my opinion it wasn't nearly enough. The first two months you're just trying to do things to meet the baby's needs (feed, change, put them to sleep). After that they start to be more aware and want to interact and bond. Just as that begins, you're supposed to leave them for a large chunk of the day.

I want to shape their personality, be their constant, and it's unfortunate that our policies don't reflect how important it is for a parent to do that. The hardest part of being away from my child all day is entrusting someone else to make all the decisions. It still is painful to be away and made it really hard to focus at work.

—Ashley, works in education

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16. "Against my doctor's advice, I went back to work after four weeks post-C-section."

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I took 10 weeks of leave, with about half of it paid (accrued sick time and PTO). My employer only follows 12 weeks for FMLA. Anything longer and my job would have been at risk.

My daughter was born 12 weeks early. I had to have an emergency C-section, and she was in the NICU for three months. I wanted to be able to use my time off when my daughter would be able to come home, so against my doctor's advice, I went back to work after four weeks post-C-section.

I then knew I'd have eight weeks left of FMLA. When she was finally able to come home, I took six weeks off and left the remaining two weeks because the doctors told me it is not uncommon for preemies end up back in the hospital, since they're more prone to illnesses and complications. I wanted to make sure that if she were to end up in the hospital again, I would have time left to take off of work if needed. It was a crappy situation all around.

—Crystal, works in home care

17. "I came back and this sleazy guy had usurped a lot of my role/authority."

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I took 12 weeks: two weeks fully paid, four weeks at 60% of my paycheck, and six weeks with no pay.

I was eager to get back to work. I'm extremely extroverted and was nervous about being alone for a long time. But I probably should have only taken 10 weeks. I came back and this sleazy guy had usurped a lot of my role/authority. It was horrible, and I ended up changing jobs a few months later.

I feel like if I have another child I won't feel comfortable taking even 10 weeks off.

—Amy, 35, works in tech marketing

18. "Those first few weeks are so important to establish breastfeeding, and I felt like that was stolen from me."

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I had six weeks unpaid time off from work because my son couldn't start day care until six weeks old.

My fiancé had to go back to school and work the day we came back from the hospital, because we were living off his little bit of pay. Neither of us were ready. When we were finally home, I would just hold my baby and cry. I think all of this is why nursing wasn't successful for us, which also made me very sad. Those first few weeks are so important to establish breastfeeding, and I felt like that was stolen from me.

If I could afford to, I would have waited until he was a little older to go back. Not the entire first year, but not as early as we did. We need to make better laws so that families can get better established and not have to worry about a cut in finances.

—Felicia, 23, student and part-time day care worker

19. "I struggled worrying about my six-week-old being in a day care."

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I took six weeks. The only pay I received was short-term disability. I could have taken 12 weeks of unpaid leave under FMLA, but I knew that to keep the house running, we needed me to be back at work collecting the paycheck.

My partner was only given 10 days. Thankfully, we had family come in to help while he worked. But during the last couple of weeks when it was just me, it was difficult.

My boss was very supportive, but the college I was working at didn't have a very family-friendly parental leave policy. I burned a lot of my leave hours between obstetrician appointments and getting sick during my pregnancy. What little leave I had left couldn't be added on top of the six weeks — rather, it was folded into that amount.

Going back to work was harder than expected. I was dealing with postpartum depression, so I wasn't focused and I found it difficult to stay motivated. I've since received help, but I struggled worrying about my six-week-old being in a day care.

—Karina, 28, works in academic advising

20. "My child was hospitalized his entire, short life and passed away at 22 months ... the lack of paid leave added increased stress to an already stressful time."

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My child was extremely premature. He was hospitalized his entire, short life and passed away at 22 months.

I think I took seven weeks of leave. I went back to work as soon as the doctors cleared me after my C-section. It was all unpaid. I had some short-term disability, but it amounted to almost nothing.

I would have gone back sooner had I known that the company we outsourced our benefits to decided to term my health insurance after I was away from work for an entire calendar month. I didn't find this out until my son was being transferred from the NICU of the hospital he was born in to a more advanced NICU. On the way to the hospital for the transfer, I received a call from the new hospital telling me I had no medical insurance. If I had just gone back to work on New Year's Eve this wouldn't have even been an issue. Of course, that would have been just over four weeks after my crash C-section.

The head of HR tried to fight the benefits company on my behalf, but my insurance was terminated for a month. We were struggling on one salary to keep the lights on and a roof over our head, especially since I make more money than my husband. He was only able to take a week off after our son was born. (His company had no parental leave policy.)

I work with understanding people, thankfully. My bosses never gave me a hard time about leaving work early or showing up late to deal with my son's health issues. All they cared about was me doing my job correctly.

I understand that even in America, my experience wasn't typical, but the lack of paid leave added increased stress to an already stressful time in my life.

—Lyssa, 40, bookkeeper

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21. "I'm not sure how we would have managed through the post-birth period if I did not have the flexibility that I did."

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I have taken eight of 12 weeks so far. It's 100% paid, covered by my employer. My last company had maybe a week or two for expecting fathers.

My work now was very flexible and accommodating, especially given our circumstances (baby in the NICU). There was that feeling of missing something important at work, but otherwise all my focus was on my baby. I returned briefly for two weeks and it was great. Everyone knew I would be leaving again, so there was no pressure to take over anything major.

My leave is actually better than my wife's, so I'm glad I am able to support her and the baby. We had an emergency situation with our child's birth, so having the amount of parental leave that I have is a godsend. I'm not sure how we would have managed through the post-birth period if I did not have the flexibility that I did.

—Luis, 30, works in tech

22. "If we cannot separate puppies and kittens from their mother until they are eight weeks old, then why in the world do we expect a woman to part with her infant so soon after birth?"

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I took six weeks and one day after my C-section. It was all unpaid, though I did have a short-term disability policy through Aflac. My husband only took one week after my son was born.

My time was limited by my employer. I was not medically released to return to work when I did. The transition was incredibly difficult because nearly every single part of my work simply sat on my desk waiting for me.

If we cannot separate puppies and kittens from their mother until they are eight weeks old, then why in the world do we expect a woman to part with her infant so soon after birth? Also, a better maternity leave situation may have swayed me to stay in my current job. I am leaving in a few months to pursue other opportunities.

—Amanda, 30, accounts administrator/paralegal for a small law firm

23. "We live in a country that doesn't make it easy for households to only have one income. But at the same time, our employers don't allow for the realities of parenthood."

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Being put on bed rest for six weeks right before I gave birth meant that I had to go back to work when my baby was only six weeks old. It was all unpaid, except for the vacation hours I used up in order to keep some money coming in.

My husband was able to work from home for the first week after our son was born. That was it. It was very helpful, but I know it would've been even better for my mental health if he could've stayed longer.

It was almost unbearable to leave my six-week-old baby. It was like every morning I had to saw off my arm and leave it behind while I went to work. Thankfully, my mother was our child care provider. If it had been a day care, I don't think I could've done it.

We live in a country that doesn't make it easy for households to only have one income. But at the same time, our employers don't allow for the realities of parenthood. It's maddening.

—Ashley, 32, worked in health care/insurance

Submissions were self-reported and have been edited for length and clarity.

For some perspective, here's a roundup of experiences from parents around the world.

UPDATE

A line in this post has been updated to clarify the US's approach toward paid parental leave.

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