Stop Making New Parents Choose Between Their Job and Their Premature Baby
During my 33rd week of pregnancy, I knew something was wrong, when my baby hadn't moved in nearly 24 hours.
Against the advice of an on-call doctor, my husband and I went to the hospital. There, shortly after arriving, I went into labor. When my daughter was born, the doctors realized that her umbilical cord had failed. She had been starving in utero and was a mere 3 pounds, 6 ounces.
She was premature. And as a result, she would spend the first 18 days of her life in the hospital's neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), separated from me and her father. Unfortunately, that’s a painful outcome many new parents experience. According to the March of Dimes, one in 10 babies in the United States are born premature.
Since I work for myself, I was able to take time off and drive to the hospital to spend each day with my daughter. But a lot of parents aren’t so lucky. That's why employers need to step up.
In honor of World Prematurity Day this week, on November 17, take the time to understand what these parents are going through. Here are four ways to support them:
Walk in the parents' shoes.
Even if a company offers generous parental leave, the parents of a child in the NICU may still be unable to properly bond with their new child from the comfort of home.
The problem: Not every hospital is equipped to deal with premature babies -- or, the infant may be in a NICU far away from the parents' home. In my case, we drove 90 minutes to two hours -- each way -- every day to see our daughter. The hospital had no accommodations for parents to stay the night.
To say the experience was exhausting is an understatement -- and I had just been through an emergency C-section.
Premature infants are also more likely to have health complications. This can lead to more appointments with specialists once the baby does come home, and those specialists, most likely, also aren't located nearby. For parents who have already returned to work, this means taking off an entire day for each appointment.
So, be understanding. Let employees know that it’s all right for them to take off days for their child -- or even their own well-being.
Bend over backwards for them.
No one plans for a baby to come prematurely. But when they do, try to be flexible.
When Amanda Santoro, now co-founder of Little Giraffe Foundation, a nonprofit supporting premature babies in Chicago, gave birth prematurely, her company’s flexibility meant a lot to her. “When an employee has a child in the NICU, there may be procedures they need to be present for and decisions that need to be made," Santoro told me by email. "So good companies will offer flexibility in hours, a liberal work from home policy and an understanding that even at work, that parent may need to take emergency phone calls from the hospital.”
Remember: Iif a parent of a NICU baby is out of the office, there’s a legitimate reason why. Communicate with the employee. Get everyone on the same page about what’s getting done and when.
Rally the troops.
Whenever an employee is in and out of the office for a long period of time, the rest of the team must pick up the slack. This works only if the organization has a strong, supportive culture.
Have a discussion with the parent. Respect this individual's privacy, but let him or her know that everyone is happy to help out. This will reduce stress from obstacles like impending project deadlines.
Take the story of Tyler Sickmeyer, the CEO of San Diego-based marketing firm Fidelitas Development. When his son was born early, Sickmeyer spent a week running back and forth between the office and the hospital. Luckily, his team had his back.
“The old golden rule is certainly in effect at Fidelitas,” Sickmeyer said in an email. "As a former NICU parent, I can relate to the plight a new parent would face. We don't just want to give our teammates time off in a stressful moment. It's our intent to rally around each other, whether that means bringing meals over, pitching in with their responsibilities or just offering words of encouragement.”
Quell their fears.
When a parent has a child in the NICU, the majority of his or her attention is on the baby. Yet some part may also be concerned about a potential job loss or the lack of a full salary.
Supna Shah actually drafted the parental leave policy for her former employer. But when her triplets were born early and two of them needed time in the NICU, she was at a loss about what to do. Now the founder of WeGo Kids, an online children’s clothing retailer in Tampa, Shah wrote that what was key for her -- and others facing the same crisis -- is "a NICU leave policy that allows parents the flexibility to be with their child when they need to be, without worrying about being fired or financially penalized."
Don’t forget about the fathers.
Finally, don't assume that a father won't want to spend as much time with his baby as the mother will. Unfortunately, many organizations don’t offer equal parental leave for fathers.
In my own husband's case, he had to return to work immediately after we brought our daughter home. Similarly, Shah’s husband had to decide whether to use his paternity leave while his children were in NICU or llater, when they'd be brought home.
This wasn't a fair choice to ask of this man, or any new dad. So, revisit your company's parental leave policy and consider whether or not it's giving fathers the support they need.