“Workers’ Voices” is a series on A Better Balance’s blog highlighting the firsthand experiences of workers from across the country. For some workers we are in touch with, they are covered by federal, state, or local workplace protections that make a world of difference in their ability to care for themselves and their loved ones. For others, their experiences highlight the glaring gaps that remain in our laws.
The below is a story from Kathryn, a Community Advocate with A Better Balance.
Tennessee teachers work incredibly hard to teach and take care of the children of our great state. It is time for Tennessee to start taking care of its teachers by providing dedicated paid parental leave.
I have been blessed to serve as a Tennessee elementary teacher for the last seventeen years and in the Fall of 2021 my husband, a proud Air Force combat veteran, and I welcomed our first child, a son we named Wyn. He was our greatest win after a decade of failed infertility treatments and a beautiful surprise after relinquishing our dreams of ever becoming parents.
What should have been the happiest time was soon disrupted because after teaching through a pandemic and years using my sick and personal days, I was left with just three weeks of paid sick leave to spend with my son once he was born.
Throughout my high-risk pregnancy, I tried desperately to not take a single sick day, knowing that if I did, that would be another day that I would not have to spend with my son. Taking unpaid days would also affect my years of service as a Tennessee teacher, and push back my retirement date. Anxiously, I taught during the day, stayed to teach an after-school program, and then worked late nights and weekends managing a car wash while I was pregnant, so that I could save money for the possibility of having to take unpaid leave. I worked this demanding schedule until 72 hours before going into labor.
I was lucky, Wyn arrived perfect after an uncomplicated labor and delivery. I loved the early days of motherhood but knew my time at home was fleeting.
I returned to work before my body even had time to heal. I dove head first into teaching and working the after-school program, only seeing my newborn in the daylight on the weekends. It was a struggle, trying to recover, adjust to being a working mother, and find breaks to pump and send home breastmilk to feed my child. I carry a lot of guilt about that time. I was unable to be there for feedings, naptimes, doctors’ appointments, and tragically missed so many of our child’s development milestones.
When our son was just nine months old, we fell pregnant for a second time. We were so excited by this miraculous opportunity to grow our family again. That summer was a time of true happiness. We also knew that I had exhausted all of my paid leave the previous school year and I would only have twelve days of remaining paid leave to cover all my prenatal doctor appointments and a brief maternity leave.
As the end of summer approached, I was consumed with worry about the economic impact on my family if I had to take unpaid leave.
Hours into the first day of this school year, I could feel something was wrong. I stayed in my classroom greeting excited students and smiling at parents. As soon as the school day was over, I rushed to my doctor’s office. My baby’s heartbeat, that we had cried when we first heard a few weeks ago, was now barely detectable. Unable to save my child, I was sent home to let things progress naturally. In our grief, my husband and I vowed to try again and I knew that I had to continue to preserve my paid sick leave. I returned to school the next day.
“No one should ever be put in that situation, but there I was, trying to preserve paid sick days so I could patch together a future paid maternity leave if I am lucky enough to carry another baby to term.”
The next week was gruesome. I pushed through my pain and continued to teach, even as I could feel the pregnancy slipping away. No one should ever be put in that situation, but there I was, trying to preserve paid sick days so I could patch together a future paid maternity leave if I am lucky enough to carry another baby to term.
I am still teaching, and working a second job, but this experience has changed my relationship to the profession.
Every day we are losing highly qualified Tennessee teachers to other states and other professions that offer paid parental leave. Georgia now offers paid parental leave for its K-12 educators, and major Tennessee companies like FedEx and Dollar General offer it as well. If Tennessee wants to recruit and retain teachers, the state needs to offer paid parental leave, our educators and their families deserve it.