I had a plan. When I sat down last Summer with my maternity leave form in front of me, I was very clear in my mind as to what my plan would be:
1. Have my baby.
2. Take a year’s maternity leave.
3. After a year, return to work so I could financially support both of my children.
I didn’t think for a single moment that my plan would change. You don’t, do you? You don’t fill out a maternity leave form and make a plan B just in case your baby dies. You never expect to not bring your baby home from the hospital or to spend your maternity leave at home surrounded by baby items she’ll never get to use.
Having to say Goodbye to our baby was never part of my plan and the past ten months I have found myself a little lost, trying to adjust to a new normal whilst making decisions I never thought I would have to consider. I found myself having to go over my maternity leave form and jump to the section about miscarriage and stillbirth. Maybe it is the same for many work places, but I was surprised to find that the section I had thought would help me with my choice regarding my employment was actually only one line long. It read:
“In the unfortunate event of a stillbirth during or after the 25th week of pregnancy all the maternity rights apply in the same way as with a live birth.”
Just a single line.
It made me contemplate whether employers really care when someone is grieving after loss. I have been so blessed that the department which I work for within my organisation has been nothing but supportive. I have amazing colleagues and a line manager who have been there for me since the day we lost Evalyn. But the past few months have highlighted to me the lack of sympathy my organisation has towards baby loss.
Now I have a new plan – not to return to work.
It isn’t a decision I ever thought I would make. It is not a decision I ever wanted to make. But it is a decision that I feel is the best one for me at this time. I work on reception in a busy training school and my job is very customer service based. Everyone knows what happened in my life and the thought of sitting back behind the desk, accepting condolences from those who know and explaining my situation to those who don’t, is almost too much for me to deal with at this present time.
But my decision has brought up new problems. My maternity policy states that I am liable to repay my occupational maternity pay “if you intended to return to work following your maternity leave and then decide not to.” And I do understand this policy. I understand why it is in place otherwise every mother would take advantage of being at home with their baby whilst having the luxury of leaving after nine months without repayment.
But I did intend to return to my post this November. I just didn’t intend for my baby to die. I didn’t intend to spend my maternity leave trying to cope with grief. I didn’t intend to spend the past months attending counselling sessions aimed at loss parents and I didn’t intend to start suffering from anxiety that at times can be crippling.
Yes, a policy is black and white. But stillbirth isn’t. I feel that in the past ten months I have lost alot. I lost my baby. I lost myself. The fact that I am now faced with losing money for making a decision that, quite frankly, is for reasons that have been completely out of my control is upsetting. But more than that, it is about the principle.
Employers cannot put the words “stillbirth” and “live birth” into the same sentence of a maternity policy and expect them to be treated equally. Stillbirth, or rather the death of your baby, has implications that expand far further than the initial months afterwards and I feel that should a grieving parent to a stillborn baby decide not to return to their post, they shouldn’t have their maternity contract thrown back in their face. They should be listened to as an individual case. They should be listened to as a grieving parent, not a statistic who signed a piece of paper twelve months ago.
I appealed my repayment. I wrote a letter to the head of my HR department and pleaded my case as to why, should I decide not to return to work, my circumstances should be considered different to those of a mother who got to walk out of the hospital with their baby. I explained that being on maternity leave without my baby has been one of the hardest things I have ever had to do.
I explained that it was always my intention to return to work, that I have been an employee in my role for nine years and take pride in my job. But grief doesn’t heal in a day, nor a week nor a month. Grief takes time. And unfortuantely, I have found myself at a place where my maternity leave is coming to an end but my grief and mental wellbeing is still very much being tested on a daily basis. I feel that should I return to my role, I would not be able to fufill it to the best of my abilites.
Because what if I have a bad day or a bad week? Should I just ring in sick and let my team down who then have to cover me? In customer service, you are constantly dealing with the unknown. What if someone unintentionally reminds me of my loss and I break down? What if the stress of having to perform at 100% is too much to take on my lowest days?
I know that I have made the right decision. But I never expected to not be supported by my organisation. I never expected to feel punished for making a decision based on something that was out of my control in the first place. . . .
HR didn’t understand my loss. HR didn’t understand my appeal. In fact, I was told that should I want to return to work but don’t feel able to at this time, HR “recommends you visit your GP and obtain a sick note. You will be deemed to have returned to work but will move from maternity leave to sickness abscence on full pay.” Ironic, really, that the amount I am asking not to pay back equates to just over one month’s wages, yet their suggestion of putting myself on sick leave would mean them continuing to not only pay me my full wage but also leave my team one staff member down.
But most importantly of all, I am not sick. . . .
I am grieving.
Who knows what my future employment will be. But for now, I will hand in my notice, pay back money I never thought I would have to and to be honest, put myself back into my overdraft. I will most probably remain slightly bitter at the organisation I work for for their lack of support at a very testing time in my life.
But something needs to be done for loss parents who are faced with the same decision as myself. It is so easy for an employer or company to write a sentence in their maternity policy that they think covers them should their employee suffer a stillbirth. But it doesn’t always come down to the money. It comes down to understanding that the needs of a parent who suffers a stillbirth and the needs of a parent who is able to enjoy their maternity leave are very different.
Each situation is completely individual and should be treated as such. It is about the principle of realising that your employee is suffering and amongst this suffering, they are having to possibly make decisions about work that they never thought they would have to contemplate. It is about realising that life changing circumstances lead to life changing decisions. It is about realising that making a loss parent repay money they never got to spend on their baby in the first place is just adding to the stresses that already dictate their daily lives.
To the person who sat behind your desk and read my letter but didn’t see between the lines. To the person who never picked up the telephone to discuss my queries and hear my voice as it cracks with the mention of Evalyn’s name. To the person who never called me in for a meeting to discuss my letter face to face and look into the eyes of a grieving mother to see the pain behind her words. To the person who said ‘no’ by email because that is the easiest and more cowardly thing to do.
To this person – Thank you.
Thank you for making my decision to leave easier. At a time when I have been back and forth in my own mind about whether I had made the right one, your words make me realise that the lack of support you provide is perhaps not the right work environment for me anyway. I want to work in a place where the big guys in suits at the top of the chain support employees like myself.
And to my own department – this time, a heartfelt Thank You. You have been amazing the past ten months. You have shown me and my family support and love and you have made me laugh at times when I felt sad. I will miss working with you all. I will miss the laughter, the tears and our random chats. You have truly been one of the best teams I have worked with.
And you most probably always will be.