When Rebecca Shumard posted a TikTok about going back to work 12 days after giving birth, she was feeling frustrated, fearful, guilty and spent.
While those feelings can happen to any mom, and do, Shumard’s case wasn’t exactly typical. The 26-year-old medical assistant/exercise physiologist had recorded herself sitting at her desk at work, crying because not only was she not with her baby, her daughter was being treated in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) after being born at 27 weeks — a mere three weeks past viability.
“POV, you have to return to work 12 days after having a premature baby at 27 weeks, so that when she is eventually discharged from the NICU you can spend what little maternity leave you have with her,” Shumard, aka @edensmomma10_12, wrote as on-screen text.
“You try to pump at work every three hours, but they’re understaffed. Your milk supply is diminishing at eight weeks postpartum. Will you even have milk available when she gets home?” she continued.
“What do other NICU parents do? How can anyone afford to stay home during a NICU stay? How can anyone handle the guilt when you have to work and can’t be with your baby?”
“This. Is. America.”
While Shumard was fortunate to have access to paid maternity leave, she hadn’t planned for this.
“My expectations of maternity leave were, this is the time to spend with your baby, and it’s going to be obviously a learning curve,” Shumard tells In The Know. “You spend those short six weeks with them, if that’s what it is that you get, and during that time you are creating a schedule that works for the baby that changes daily, hourly.”
Not only that, but the birth parent is also healing from a major procedure as well as going to multiple doctor appointments for them and their newborn — and that goes for babies who aren’t in the NICU, too.
“So those six weeks turn into minutes real quick,” she adds.
Maternity leave in the U.S.
Maternity leave in the United States is complicated, to put it mildly. Unlike other large, wealthy countries (or even smaller, less wealthy ones), the U.S. does not federally mandate paid maternity, paternity or family leave for its citizens.
In fact, the six weeks that Shumard refers to is the amount of at least partially paid time allotted to women and people who have given birth vaginally in the United States as part of some businesses’ short-term disability insurance (SDI) plans. Those allotted weeks get bumped up to eight if you give birth via C-section. It’s not exactly maternity, paternity or family leave per se, but working parents’ salaries are protected under this plan for a certain amount of weeks.
But not all businesses carry this insurance, and not all states require it. Also, payment percentages and time allotted may vary. In fact, only 42% of private-sector workers had access to it in 2020. So, what often happens is that paid maternity leave is cobbled together from a combination of sick days, unused vacation time and personal days — along with short-term disability, if that’s an option.
Rebecca’s partner was able to take time off, but only two weeks. Basically, it’s a juggling act for parents who are hoping to stay afloat financially.
What is federally protected is unpaid family leave under the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), in which legal parents can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid family leave for the birth, adoption or foster care of a child. That is, if they work at a company of 50 or more employees.
“I think expectant and new parents are really caught between a rock and a hard place in the United States, because this country does not prioritize paid family leave — we rank dead last with zero weeks of government-mandated paid parental leave,” Dr. Jennifer Lincoln, OB-GYN and medical advisor for The Body Agency, tells In The Know.
And with paid family leave benefiting both the mother and baby, the lack of a national mandate has strong effects on maternal and infant health.
“It is no secret that a huge maternal morbidity and mortality gap exists in the United States, with BIPOC and economically disadvantaged birthing people being hit hardest,” Dr. Lincoln adds. “These are also the same groups that often lack paid leave and would be the ones to most benefit from it.”
Not only that, but as in Shumard’s case, what if something happens?
“Having limited to no paid leave is a terrible thing to worry about when you are welcoming a new baby to your family, not to mention if you’ve had any unexpected complications along the way,” Dr. Lincoln says.
“Unexpected complications” is exactly what Shumard got. At 27 weeks pregnant in the fall of 2021, the Philadelphia mom started feeling a pressure in her lower body that she hadn’t felt before. At first, she dismissed it as Braxton Hicks contractions, the typically painless contractions that prepare the body for birth. But when she started feeling actual pain — and every 5 minutes at that — she knew something was wrong.
After she arrived at the emergency room, medical staff worked to help slow the birth process, but nothing worked, Shumard says. “At that point, they looked at me and said, ‘We don’t think that we’re going to be able to slow this down any further, and it looks like you’re probably going to have a baby here within the next couple of hours.'”
Shumard started wrapping her mind around the fact that she was about to give birth to a baby girl.
“I can still see the doctor’s face telling me that, because she could see just a fear in my eyes. I was so unsure what was going to happen.”
Her daughter, Eden, was born in October, weighing 2 pounds and 1.9 ounces and measuring 13.5 inches long. Not only that, but Eden was born with patent ductus arteriosus (PDA), a condition that has left the infant with a hole in her artery, something that typically closes before a full-term birth.
“They intubated her and they transported her to another hospital that could facilitate premature babies of her gestation,” Shumard says, “but I didn’t hold her for 72 hours after her birth.”
Until that moment, Shumard had planned to use six weeks of paid leave and six more weeks of unpaid leave for a total of 12 weeks altogether. Her plan was to use the time all at once, but when she realized that Eden would be staying in the NICU indefinitely, she wanted to “save” what leave she had left for when her baby was able to come home.
“Before I had delivered her, I was thinking, how is six weeks or eight weeks going to be enough?” Shumard says. “However, you have to work it out; it’s kind of like we all have to do some kind of Sudoku to figure it out.”
“Come to Australia.”
With TikTokers around the globe leaving comments like, “Come to the Australia” or “Come to the U.K.” because their paid family benefits extend over months and even beyond a year, Shumard questioned the very value of family here in the States.
“It’s just incredible that we don’t offer that to the family unit that America’s supposed to hold so close to their heart: Taking care of your family and being there for your loved ones,” she says. “This is what we fight for, this family unit, but we’re not actually being fought for here.”
“It is honestly unfortunate and even disgraceful that we still do not have universal paid parental leave in this country. Moreover, what is offered is so variable and pales in comparison to other similarly developed countries,” the medical director and founder of Nevada Fertility Institute tells In The Know.
“I just broke down.”
Dealing with all of that, plus a diminishing breast milk supply from limited pumping opportunities at work, one day it was all just too much. Frustrated, guilty and emotionally drained, Shumard decided to post on TikTok.
“I was tired because I had only had like four hours of sleep the night before, from having gone from work to the NICU to home to commute to work. So I was at my point of exhaustion and just rushing around, finishing on my lunch break, getting ready for this next patient. And I just broke down,” she said.
Shumard also recognized that she was suffering from postpartum depression.
“Most people would be surprised to learn that postpartum depression is considered one of the most common complications of childbirth,” Dr. Vanessa Houdek, PsyD. PMH-C, tells In The Know.
In fact, she adds, according to Postpartum Support International, one in seven mothers and one in 10 fathers experience postpartum depression and can have symptoms at any point during pregnancy as well as the first year following childbirth.
“Recognizing the signs of postpartum depression in oneself and seeking support are crucial,” Dr. Houdek adds, listing a variety of symptoms that include decreased energy, changes in appetite or sleep difficulties, tearfulness or crying.
And when it comes to pumping at work, board-certified lactation consultant Leigh Anne O’Connor says, “Talk to HR. Instead of asking permission to pump, tell the company that you will be pumping and let them know they need to provide time and a clean place for pumping.”
TikTok to the rescue
Luckily, for Shumard, TikTok users had her back. Since she posted in December, her video has been viewed more than 2.8 million times. She has gotten more than 20,000 comments (mostly helpful, with a few trolls thrown in) and even found a community of fellow NICU parents that helped her navigate the time away from Eden.
“My daughter was in the NICU for three weeks. It’s hard. I tried to be there as much as I could, but trust me, they don’t judge you if you can’t be,” wrote one mom on TikTok.
“[H]onestly it was incredibly difficult. My little man was in NICU, 2 pounds, 33 weeks. My milk dried out because he was feeding off a tube. It destroyed me,” wrote another mom.
“If it makes you feel any better, any and all of your NICU nurses understand you cannot be there 24/7 and are NOT judging you,” wrote one TikToker.
What Shumard didn’t expect was for the donations to come pouring in.
“Please let us help. What’s your Venmo??” wrote one TikToker.
With all of the help from TikTok, Shumard received enough Venmo and PayPal donations from people on the platform to extend her maternity leave until April.
“Without that, I would be going back to work in like two weeks,” Shumard says. “And she’s still a newborn, cognitively and developmentally. She’ll be alive and out of the womb for three months next Wednesday. But really, she is only 39 weeks and two days gestation.”
Just before the holidays, Shumard and her partner received some positive news. Eden was able to be discharged from the NICU after 72 days and arrived home on Dec. 23.
EDEN UPDATE!!!! Currently doing her 1.5 hr carseat test, which requires her to remain buckled and on monitors for 1.5 hrs w/ no desaturations to her oxygen and no drops to her heart rate. SHE’S COMING HOME!!! After 72 days in thr NICU, we are FINALLY here. Thank you everyone, 💚❤️✨🎄#nicu #preemie #prematurebaby #elvie #momtok #babyfever #babytok #christmas #Eden #tiktok #FYP♬ I’ll Be Home for Christmas – Michael Bublé
And while Shumard is still navigating doctor appointments and managing her postpartum depression, she is beyond grateful for all the help and support she and her family have received from people on TikTok — something she says parents shouldn’t have to turn to when their parental leave falls short.
“I don’t know how to really just get across how thankful I am. I have to really share that with everyone on TikTok,” she says. “It’s a platform that I’ve seen do this for people. And, like I said in the other video, it shouldn’t. It shouldn’t have to. That shouldn’t be the job of these people, but they have changed my life.”
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