We recently celebrated the first birthday of our Isla, the third (and final?) baby, the only one of my children to be born in America! She is our little ray of California sunshine, a joy to us during ups and downs, and rounds out our family of five perfectly.
When I think about my pregnancy and birth with Isla, I am reminded of some of the most marked differences between having kids in Ireland vs. the USA. In both countries I really feel I had wonderful care, for the most part, and am thankful to have three healthy kids to prove it. Having Isla in the States caused me to reflect a lot on what it had been like to have kids in Ireland and it was interesting comparing the pros and cons of both.
I’m not saying anything new when I remind the world that maternity leave in the USA is paltry at best. When I was pregnant with Isla, I knew I would not get the 6 months paid leave with optional additional 6 months unpaid that I had received in Ireland. What I did not realize was that the 12 weeks I thought I was entitled to in the US actually amounted to much less. I found the maternity leave system very confusing, so I went to a “brown bag” session over lunch one day at Stanford. I found, much to my dismay, that 12 weeks’ paid leave was dependent on one having saved an enormous amount of their own personal vacation and sick time to cover it, and even then was limited to 10 weeks’ leave if the birth was “normal” (not a C-section), plus you were required to take one week before the birth, otherwise lose it, so it really went down to 9 weeks. I sat there in the room with all the other parents who had been better planners, because they understood how it worked, and I added up my time. Shaking, I went up to the woman who gave the presentation at the end, just to clarify. She confirmed my fears – I had about 5 1/2 weeks’ leave coming to me.
I waited until I got back to my office and had an all-out melt down in the bathroom. I didn’t even want to have a baby if I had to give him/her to strangers after less than 6 weeks. It seemed cruel, and my heart was broken.
After a time, I got used to the idea. I hated it, but I knew that mothers across America had to bear this pain and I could bear it, too. In the end, Frank and I were able to move a little money around that allowed me to take just under 10 weeks off, which brought us right up to within a couple weeks from Christmas, when Frank took his two weeks’ paternal leave off until we had our holiday break. So it wasn’t as bad as it could have been! But it was still very, very, very difficult.
Returning to work less than three months after having a baby is rough. Your brain is all over the place, you’re awkwardly trying to do your job and take breaks to pump milk without inconveniencing anyone, you’re worried what people think if you’re making mistakes, you’re missing your baby, you’re sleep-deprived, you’re starving, you’re anxious about being perceived both as unprofessional and as non-maternal by returning to work so early. Speaking for myself, it felt like a disaster. We made it through, but it was bumpy, and I was lucky enough to have a supportive boss and a bad ass husband.
Don’t worry, I won’t go into any gruesome detail here, so don’t skip. LOL. But overall, this birth was my easiest and most straightforward. The nurses, midwives and doctors at Kaiser Redwood City were rockstars, and the whole thing went seamlessly. We also had amazing friends, Marc and Ulla, whom I worked with at Stanford, who stayed with our other two kids while Frank and I were in the hospital.
Kaiser was a far cry from Our Lady of Lourdes in Drogheda. The hospital was new and state-of-the-art, with private rooms and bathrooms, mood lighting and interactive TVs with extensive food menus, personalized health plans and more. The nurses checked on me every hour after the birth, and introduced me to the new nurses at every shift change. I remember when I had Shea in OLOL, I shared a room with 5 – 7 other women and their babies, which included a single bathroom and one tiny coin-operated broken TV on the other end of the room. I did not have a smart phone or anything besides books and magazines for entertainment, I was very sick, I couldn’t get anyone’s attention when I needed something (it was Paddy’s Day week and they were short staffed!), my baby was down in the NICU and I pretty much hid behind my curtain in that room for about 8 miserable days. Everyone in OLOL was very kind, and in general the care was very good, but it was a slog.
Pre and Post Natal
As much as everyone complains about American healthcare and the huge insurance costs, I feel I was one of the lucky ones. Our insurance costs were manageable because I was covered through Stanford. I definitely felt we got what we paid for – all the doctors’ visits, nurses’ visits, and even my extra visits and trips to the pharmacy because of my Gestational Diabetes, were completely covered. I had multiple ultrasound scans, right in the same building, often right in the exam room! The entire hospital delivery and stay and post natal checks were covered. I believe we paid less than $200 for the entire pregnancy and birth saga. In Ireland, under socialized healthcare, I had really long wait times for normal appointments, much less anything extra. I had one, maybe two ultrasounds, they were not in my doctor’s office and had to be booked months in advance. I didn’t have to pay for anything. But it was definitely bare bones care.
However – the attitudes toward pregnancy felt different. At its worst, I felt brushed aside by some doctors in Ireland because pregnancy is so common. But at its best, I felt I had friends and cheerleaders wearing stethoscopes. I felt supported and encouraged.
When I first went to the doctor in California to get a positive pregnancy test and make plans, the nurse and doctor both immediately told me they would support whatever decision I was going to make about my pregnancy. While I appreciated the nonjudgmental tone, I was taken aback. I was nervous about having baby #3, but was certainly not there to try and end the problem! I did not feel my healthcare team was the least bit celebratory on my behalf, not until much later. When I did start to show, they put a lot of focus on keeping me fit, exercising, eating healthy, etc. which was appreciated if not a little bit annoying. (Ha ha) Sometimes I felt they found me an oddity because I was having a THIRD baby. When Frank and I took a hospital tour with other expectant parents, the woman leading the group kept talking in general terms about whether this was your first OR your second pregnancy. And everyone in the group WAS in their first or second pregnancy. We were the crazy kids having a “big family.” Ha ha! Also, on the same tour, Frank and I had a little chuckle about all the first-time Silicon Valley parents’ nervous queries about the wi-fi availability and charging stations in every room. Oh my – this was not really our priority, but to each his own!
For me, the most negative part of having a baby in the States actually happened after the childbirth. When my sweet Isla was just one day old, I was lying in the hospital bed, snuggling her sweet little body close to me, watching the sun rise and feeling euphoric. Nurses were coming in and out, I just smiled at everyone and didn’t pay much attention to who I was talking to. Then a woman I had met once, a social worker who had spoken to me at one point during the pregnancy when I was stressed, sat down next to me in the dimly lit room and began to chat. She asked how I was, how things went, then very quickly turned the conversation to asking when I was returning to work, how that made me feel, and what kind of medication changes we could make to help.
Before you think I’m being judgmental, hear me out – I think this woman had totally solid intentions. I know postpartum/postnatal depression is a very serious matter, and I appreciate her desire to help anticipate it. I have struggled with depression my entire life, so I do not judge anyone (especially moms!) for taking medication. I do not judge moms for having to go back to work, as many of us have to do this mere weeks after having our babies!
But this was my first morning with my baby. My first blissful day as her mom. Honestly, probably the first day I’d NOT been even contemplating when I would return to work.
My problem with so much of society, especially in parts of America, is the pervading attitude that WORK = identity. That staying slim, and looking young, and having two kids or less, and using whatever means necessary to get back into the workforce as soon as possible is what LIFE is about.
Not my life. My life is my family. It’s keeping them safe and secure and loved, and it’s being there. This might sound hypocritical as I’ve recently taken a job at University College Dublin and am now away from my family for long hours every week. However, the attitude feels different – the expectation that moms (and dads!) must work all the time to achieve “success” just doesn’t seem as prevalent.
Our circumstances are different now too. Isla is one year old. Her Daddy is able to stay home with her and meet the older kids after school, and do some of the creative work he so longed for when he was earning a king’s wage working at Apple. We are not paying strangers to support our kids. We don’t have to, and we feel really blessed that we’ve been able to make this change.
I’m working hard, Frank is working hard, and money will be tighter for us here (not that we were swimming in it in Cali!). Yet our quality of life, I believe, is already better. We live in the country, we eat good clean food and see friends and family every week. I watch my kids run ahead and laugh and skip when we’re out – like children! Imagine that. I think we were all just too stressed in California to let loose much, and our kids absolutely seemed much more uptight as a result.
We don’t have it all figured out, let me be clear!!! But in my heart, I’m happier, and I think Frank and the kids are, too, because life back in Ireland feels more honest, and definitely more us.