In summary

California leads the country with its comprehensive paid family leave laws, but parents with children born prematurely need more support.

Guest Commentary written by

Cassie Lawrence

Cassie Lawrence

Cassie Lawrence is the senior director of public relations at JSA+Partners. She is a mother of two and a San Diego resident.

On a Friday in February, I wished my team a great weekend, only I didn’t return. It was the Irish goodbye I never intended.

After a complicated pregnancy, I was lucky and relieved to welcome our second son, Hudson, at 34 weeks. He was immediately whisked off to the neonatal intensive care unit where he spent the next 29 days learning to breathe, drink from a bottle and maintain his temperature. 

There are very few words to describe the NICU experience. It’s a paradox of emotions, each encompassing every fiber of your being. You feel the highest of highs and the lowest of lows: from isolated to grateful, frustrated to hopeful, and disheartened to excited all at once. Not to mention the all-consuming guilt when your baby isn’t by your side.

In California, 9.1% of babies are born preterm, or before 37 weeks. A March of Dimes report estimates that infants admitted to a special care unit had an average length of stay of 13 days, ranging from five days for full-term infants to 46 days among those born before 32 weeks.

The time in the NICU is stressful on its own. Coupled with navigating how to take leave for this unexpected time, it’s overwhelming.

Thanks to laws like Senate Bill 951, which was signed last year to help boost paid family leave, California is already leading the country. But NICU parents remain largely unsupported.

They should be added to Assembly Bill 575, with the creation of a separate paid leave that provides parents with the ability to focus on their newborn’s development and use their regular parental leave when their baby gets home. This was critical for our family and I know it would help others.

Throughout Hudson’s time in the NICU, my husband continued to work to maximize his leave, often trading billing hours for visiting his son. While doctors could give us a general timeline, only Hudson could tell us when he was ready to come home. We weren’t sure if he would be on the quicker side for his gestational age or if we’d be in for an eight-week stay. 

Even with California’s eight weeks of paid family leave, NICU dads and partners are left with a difficult choice: spend their leave at their infant’s bedside or wait until their baby hopefully makes it home. Since the birthing parent is on disability, there isn’t a question of whether or not they will return to work upon their baby’s admittance. However, putting the added weight of daily hospital visits on the recovering mother isn’t fair. And it gets even more complicated for long-term stays. 

When Hudson came home, I had two weeks of disability left followed by paid family leave. Even though he was 1 month old and looked like a normal baby, he was still supposed to be developing in utero. We had to start from scratch: sleepless nights, feeding around the clock, counting wet and dirty diapers, and managing reflux. 

With four weeks of precious bonding time lost to the NICU, I had already planned on taking an extended leave and it ended up being necessary to help Hudson flourish. But we took a financial hit to our family’s income by making this decision.

This needs to change. California’s legislators should add NICU parents to AB 575.

Parents shouldn’t have to decide between conference calls and caring for their warrior infants. As California thinks about comprehensive paid family leave, it’s critical to create a separate paid leave so our smallest yet mightiest are supported on their journey home. 

Editor’s note: A previous version of the commentary’s summary misstated the benefits available for NICU parents under AB 575.

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