More than a decade ago, I became pregnant and landed my dream job around the same time. I showed up on my first day of work filled with equal parts excitement and apprehension — it had taken years for me to get this job, and I would have to break the news to my new boss that I was pregnant.
Then the bleeding started, at work.
I told myself it was spotting — a normal part of pregnancy — but something didn’t seem right. The bleeding continued. The next day, I drove to the doctor’s office after work. I was lying on the table when I heard two words that told me everything I needed to know: “I’m sorry.”
I turned away, unable to look at the image on the ultrasound. All I could do was sob and wonder what I had done to cause this. Fetuses don’t just die in bellies. Except they do.
Miscarriage is defined as the spontaneous loss of a pregnancy before the 20th week of gestation, and it’s the way that approximately 10 to 20 percent of known pregnancies end. I didn’t know this when I was at the doctor’s office, feeling alone and to blame and trying to process the reality that yesterday I was going to be a mother and today I wasn’t.
I was shattered. I needed time to grieve and to heal. But what did I do? I returned to work because I had accumulated zero sick time.
The days that followed my miscarriage were far more physically and emotionally painful than I could have imagined. The doctor said that the tissue inside me would expel naturally. I wore black pants to work. I bled profusely. The cramps were excruciating.
In the bathroom at my new workplace, the mass inside my uterus passed and landed in a clump in a toilet. I cried quietly in the middle stall as I cleaned up, tried to compose myself, and flushed away the remnants.
Miscarrying is devastating. Miscarrying and then having to return to work compounds the devastation. It doesn’t have to be this way. Paid time off after pregnancy loss would be a game-changer for those who miscarry in this country.
Last summer, Representative Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois introduced H.R. 4576, the Support Through Loss Act, which would provide employees with at least three days of paid sick leave following a miscarriage. The bill calls for funds for research into the causes of miscarriage as well as stigma-reducing public awareness campaigns. If made into law, H.R. 4576 would also ensure paid time off after stillbirths, failed infertility treatments, and abrogated adoption or surrogacy agreements.
Other countries have taken the lead in acknowledging the devastating effects of pregnancy loss on hopeful parents. Since 1961, India has granted six weeks of paid leave to those who suffer a miscarriage. Last March, New Zealand’s parliament unanimously approved legislation to provide three days of paid leave for both the person who miscarries and their partner. The Philippines, South Africa, and Mauritius have similar laws.
So will Congress act? It seems unlikely. According to GovTrack, a website that provides information on congressional legislation, the Support Through Loss Act has a 1 percent chance of being enacted.
As a country, our collective message to those who experience pregnancy loss is to get over it and get back to work.
The federal Family and Medical Leave Act allows workers up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave only after an employee has been on the job for a full year. The law does not apply to companies with fewer than than 50 employees. In Massachusetts, the state version of FMLA allows employees unpaid medical leave once they have been on the payroll for three consecutive months, but the law comes with a catch: It requires two weeks’ advance notice of the leave, which is wholly unrealistic in the case of miscarriage, which is spontaneous.
A miscarriage is a tragic loss. For those who suffer one while employed, paid time off can abet the grieving and healing process.
Jennifer A. Serafyn is a lawyer, teacher, and mother in Dorchester.