Grieving Mother's Essay Highlights Pitiful U.S. Maternity Leave Policies

A mother in New York is turning her grief into advocacy after her 3-month-old son died during his first morning at day care.

Amber Scorah recently wrote an essay for the New York Times describing the loss of her son, Karl, in July and asking others to join in the fight for paid parental leave in the United States.

Baby Karl died just a few hours after Scorah left him for the first time at SoHo Child Care. When Scorah returned to nurse her son around noon, she found Karl unconscious on a changing table with day care staff performing CPR on him incorrectly. The medical examiner said the cause of his death is unknown.

Scorah writes in her essay that she wasn’t ready to leave Karl after just three months of maternity leave. She asked her company for more time off – unpaid – but they refused. She didn’t think her family could go without her income and even if they could, she had been unemployed in the past and it didn’t seem safe to leave her job.

“So we did the best, most responsible-seeming thing we could think of. After a long search, many waiting lists, interviews and a great deal of angst, we settled on a day care near my workplace,” Scorah writes.

She would still be able to nurse Karl on her lunch break and the day care came highly recommended by other moms. “It felt like a loving, safe space for Karl,” she wrote.

But it still didn’t feel right to leave her baby at such a young age. Now she wishes she didn’t have to make that choice and wants others to join her in advocating for a national parental leave system.

“A mother should never have no choice but to leave her infant with a stranger at 3 months old if that decision doesn’t feel right to her. Or at 6 weeks old. Or 3 weeks old,” Scorah wrote. “I would have stayed home with Karl longer, but there just didn’t seem to be a way.”

She and her partner, Lee Towndow, recently launched forkarl.com, which offers a simple way for people to find and write their local representatives to ask for paid parental leave.

As Scorah points out, her company had a relatively generous maternity leave policy by offering three months of paid leave. Many moms are offered no paid time at all and find themselves back to work after just a few mere weeks.

While leaving a baby at day care isn’t usually a life or death situation, Scorah is right that parents shouldn’t be forced to leave their young infants in the hands of a caregiver if it seems too soon – especially when they’re at the age of highest risk for sudden infant death syndrome.

As Scorah asks, “Why, why does a parent in this country have to sacrifice her job, her ability to provide her child with proper health care – or for many worse off than me, enough food to eat – to buy just a few more months to nurture a child past the point of vulnerability?”

But some people reading Scorah’s heartbreaking story seem to miss the point, focusing on the fact that SoHo Child Care was an unlicensed facility or that they didn’t perform CPR correctly on the baby. Comments on her New York Times essay range from supportive to insulting, with some placing blame on the mother for her day care choice or for not quitting her job and others saying she simply didn’t “sacrifice” or “plan” enough for her baby. Others criticize Scorah for “politicizing” the issue.

How could anyone reading her story not see the problem here? We’re the only industrialized nation in the world without guaranteed paid maternity leave. Mothers – and fathers – should have the option to stay home with their infants without bringing financial ruin to their families.

Parental leave has proven benefits, including lower infant and child mortality, higher rates of breastfeeding, increases in child immunizations and well visits and lower rates of maternal depression.

Parents are often encouraged to trust their instincts, to go with their gut. But that wasn’t possible in Scorah’s case and for so many other parents who return to work when they aren’t ready physically or emotionally.

Even if baby Karl would have died in the arms of his mother if he had been at home that day – and it’s not clear whether that would have been the case – he would have at least been where his parents felt was best for him. Mothers and fathers shouldn’t be forced to abandon their instincts to keep up with a culture that places work over all else. Isn’t it time for a change?

What are your thoughts on the situation? Comment and tell us!

Photo courtesy The New York Times, Lee Towndrow

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