When to return to work?

Returning to my list of decisions I had to make after losing Jane Margaret, one rather important decision was when/how I would return to work. (Before continuing, I should preface this with an acknowledgement of my enormous privilege. I expect this post is where I’ll lose sympathy from many fellow stillbirth moms, not undeservedly.)

Decision 8: When to return to work?

Some background:

I am a chemistry professor at a small Christian university. Privilege #1: This school happens to be in California, the best state in the US when it comes to maternity and paid family leave. Moreover, my college supplements the state-mandated leave (Privilege #2). Since we are on semesters, and my teaching load is 12 “units” per 14-week semester, my school gives us a maternity leave (including disability from the delivery plus paid family leave for the new addition) in the form of a 9-unit course release (10.5-unit for delivery by C-section). So with the birth of C. Samuel, I was fortunate enough to give birth in May, when we were on summer break. This means I got the summer off “for free”, taught only two lab sections (one day per week) in the fall (beginning when C. Samuel was 3 months old), and returned to full time in January, when C. Samuel was 7 months old. The state paid 60% or so of my salary, and my university covered the rest, up to my full salary.

In preparing for Jane’s birth, we decided I would take a small pay cut (corresponding to the 3 units that would bring me to ‘full time’), so that I could take the entire fall semester off from work. The plan was to do some traveling as a family of four; then I would return to work in January (when Jane was 5 1/2 months old). Accordingly, my department offered my usual courseload to part-time and adjunct faculty to teach in my place.

When Jane died, I was faced with an awkward decision. I still qualified for the “disability” half of my leave, but without a baby, I was no longer entitled to the “bonding” half of my paid family leave. In order to remain full-time, I would need to take back courses from the adjunct faculty currently assigned to them (who are presumably counting on that income), and cobble together 9 units of courseload from a combination of an intense half-semester course starting in late August, plus several full-semester laboratory sections. Such a schedule would preclude any travel as a family, and would require that I start back at work full-swing a mere month after Jane’s passing.

I began discussions with the HR folks at my university, exploring what options existed for me to maintain full-time status (and my accompanying generous benefits package, Privilege #3), while retaining some flexibility to grieve and spend time with my family. I learned that I had the option to take a longer leave without pay (an option that we could afford financially, Privilege #4), without forfeiting my benefits, which was good news.

Both the HR director and a representative of the disability office at Kaiser tacked on a strange qualifier in all their discussions about my leave. They said “from when your doctor releases you to return to work.” I ignored it the first couple times they mentioned it. I’d had an uncomplicated vaginal birth. My physical recovery had gone very smoothly – way better than I had expected. Obviously, Dr. R would say I should return to work 6 weeks from my delivery date – right? But the third time I heard “well, see when your obstetrician says you can return,” I decided maybe it was worth asking her.

I emailed Dr. R, filled her in on the background regarding my teaching schedule and the HR director’s statements, asking,

“…I just wanted to check with you to see what you think, so that we can figure out what to do about my leave (whether to take teaching load back from an adjunct, or accept a pay cut commensurate with the additional leave, either of which would be fine).”

Within a few minutes, Dr. R called my cell and told me she would write whatever I wanted, on whatever form I needed her to. I sent her the form and she replied,

“Hi, K! I have completed the form. I have put that your return to work date is 1/1/2017. Please respond if this is appropriate for you. If you decide to return to work prior to that time, we can always amend things. I have found that it is easier to ask for more time off up front than have to keep going back and requesting more time if needed. Please let me know where I can fax the form. 🙂 Dr R”

Later, at my follow-up appointment, Dr. R gave me the heads-up that she listed “postpartum anxiety” in my chart to justify the additional leave.

So I’m also privileged to have the nicest OB in the world (#5, in case you’re still counting).

I’ll return to full-time work in January. In the mean time, I’ve been taking care of myself (getting regular massages and mani-pedis); visiting Jane’s grave; writing (this blog, and a long-overdue manuscript); gearing up to give a couple of talks (a guest lecture at my previous institution, a video clip with my collaborators, and a talk to a local American Chemical Society section); and spending time with my family (potty-training, swim lessons, visits to Legoland and Sea World, etc.) In a few weeks, the three of us will travel to Rome on the trip we had hoped to do with Jane.



Jane’s grave on Friday. Grass is starting to fill in nicely.

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  1. blueroses99

     /  September 18, 2016

    Sounds like you’ve made the right decision for you and it’s great that your doctor was so supportive.

    In the UK, entitlement for maternity leave starts at 24wks, and is for up to 12 months. The firm I work for also tops up the statutory minimum so they offer 6 months full pay, 3 months reduced, 3 month unpaid. However my son Jovan was stillborn at 21wks, and I’m not entitled to any of that (though I’m not convinced that it was any less traumatic than if it had happened 3+ weeks later). So I returned to work 8 weeks after Hovan was born. My doctor, therapist and midwife all thought I was ready, and I managed to convince myself that I was ready too. The first couple of weeks have been tough but I know that it could have been much much worse so I’ll stick with it.

    So good luck for when you do return but make sure you only do once you feel ready xx

    • I’m so sorry for your loss. What a beautiful name for your son!

      What a strange rule that your maternity leave is dictated by number of weeks gestation! What happens with babies that are born at 23 weeks and survive? Their moms don’t get maternity leave? 😔 I hope you get the support you need back at work.

  2. blueroses99

     /  September 18, 2016

    Thank you so much.

    I think technically maternity leave starts at 24 weeks or when there is live birth earlier – but tragically I think there will be few people in that position because babies here will not receive any medical intervention before 24 weeks. I might be wrong but that’s my understanding.

    Jovan also doesn’t have a birth or death certificate as he was not born after 24 weeks or born alive. Officially he never existed 😰 so we have to keep his memory alive ourselves. Legally it was a ‘late miscarriage’ (ugh) rather than a stillborn, but Jovan was still born. The rules are so bizarre. Sorry for the rant xx

    • How painful to have no legal acknowledgement of Jovan’s existence! I hope you have been able to find some nice ways to memorialize him.

  3. I am so glad you are able to take time with your family to grieve and bond. Your employer sounds wonderful as does your OBGYN. Sending love and hugs.

  4. I’m so glad you will be able to take time off to be with your family. I’m so sorry for your loss.

  5. Please don’t feel that you need to apologize for your good fortune. I think your experience is a beautiful example of what *should* be available to every grieving mom, and it’s not your fault that the rest of the world hasn’t caught up. Stillbirth is one of those rare events that seems to fall outside “the system,” and therefore there aren’t any sensible rules and not much of a lobby to make them. I’m very glad that you are able to take the time to spend with your family and to do the traveling you planned to do with Jane, however bittersweet to have to do it without her.

  6. I’m grateful that you have all of this support in place to heal in the peace of your family. Love to you always.

  7. I’m glad your HR department, and especially your OB, are so supportive. I went back to work a week after the twins died, and looking back that was insane. Nobody even mentioned that I might qualify for disability leave (they were born in California, but at 20 weeks already)… perhaps I’ll point this out to the (otherwise very good) perinatal grief team.
    Thinking lots of you and Jane.

    • Thank you.

      I’m so sorry for your loss and sorry to read that you got so little time. After reading blueroses99’s comments, I’ve been wondering about what happens for moms who lose babies at various ages. I had hoped the news would be better…

  1. What happened next | the infertile chemist

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