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Teacher Denied Maternity Leave After Experiencing a Pregnancy Loss

“I am not asking for any more than what I am owed as a woman who has delivered a child. 8 weeks postpartum recovery should be covered as paid family leave whether or not your child enters this world with a breath.”
ByNehal Aggarwal
Associate Editor
Published
Mar 2021
Open hands with the words I love you written on them in script.
Image: Catherine Douma

Trigger Warning: This story contains details of stillbirth and pregnancy loss.

Elizabeth O’Donnell, 30, had been expecting a baby girl due at the end of January. But, at seven months pregnant, towards the end of November 2020, she noticed her baby had stopped moving. She learned the devastating news hours later that her daughter would be born still and on December 1 had to have an emergency induction to deliver the baby.

O’Donnell, who’s worked at the Watkins Elementary School in the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) for the past seven years, had been offered eight weeks of paid family leave. She planned to use the leave, as well as holiday time, vacation days and sick days to have maternity leave through June. However, days after suffering a stillbirth, her employer denied her leave, as she was “only caring for herself” and asked that she produce a birth certificate to get the time off.

O’Donnell opened up about the heartbreaking experience on her social media on January 8. “On December 1, 2020 at 5:30am I delivered my daughter, Aaliyah Denise, still,” she wrote in the caption. “DC government policy denies me paid family leave (8 weeks for postpartum recovery) because I cannot provide a birth certificate for my daughter. Unfortunately, I can provide her cremation papers though, but that makes no difference in their decision.”

She continued to say that often society keeps these issues private and quiet because of how traumatic they can be for the woman who experienced them and because it makes others feel uncomfortable. But O’Donnell is getting her message across because she wants what she’s owed as a woman who just gave birth: the time for her body to heal.

“Well, allow me to be very blunt in getting this message across. I vaginally delivered my daughter at around 5:30am on December 1, 2020 after being in labor for 48 hours. I then needed surgery afterwards where I lost almost a liter & a half of blood. I had an epidural that aggravated scar tissue from a previous injury and I am now in constant pain every day as a result until it heals. My daughter living or dying should not determine whether or not I receive 8-week paid family leave to HEAL MY BODY after delivering a baby,” she continued. “Please, reread that to understand how gravely insensitive and hurtful a statement like that is to a mother who delivered a sleeping baby. DC government policy is essentially punishing me for not walking out of GW Hospital with my daughter, Aaliyah. DCPS has no respect for the fact that my body is still healing from having a child and that my body is still functioning as if there is a child to feed.”

“I am not asking for any more than what I am owed as a woman who has delivered a child. 8 weeks postpartum recovery should be covered as paid family leave whether or not your child enters this world with a breath. No woman should have to relive this trauma all over again the way I am. It’s absolutely disgusting,” she wrote. “So, I share this picture of my daughter Aaliyah and I so that everyone knows, I am still a mother. My body’s postpartum recovery path does not change because Aaliyah did not enter this world with a breath. I will fight for what I, and all women who experience a stillbirth deserve and I won’t stop until a change is made in this policy.”

According to Yahoo! Life, after the traumatic experience, O’Donnell had initially asked DCPS for only her eight weeks of paid family leave for postpartum recovery, without any of the additional time. “The response I received from DCPS was that I was no longer eligible for the PFL because I was only caring for ‘myself,’” O’Donnell told the outlet. She added that they told her to apply for the unpaid Family and Medical Act (FMLA) or use any sick or vacation time she had left. “I explained that I did ‘birth a child,’ which is one of the qualifications for the eight-week PFL…I was again denied and told it no longer applied to me,” she told Yahoo! Life, adding that she asked DCPS to explain how they defined “the birth of a child,” but received no response.

Since sharing her story, O’Donnell has received an outpouring of support. “I’m so angry for you and this is unfortunately what many of us Angel Mamas had to experience. I am calling out the advocates for maternity leave to rally around you and for other moms. I am so sorry that the systems and resources that are given to moms who walk away with a little one aren’t equally available to us mothers! You are still a mother!" one mom wrote.

Another person wrote, “This is unimaginable. It really shouldn’t be a thought what they NEED to do. I hope they give you time, what is rightfully yours. Sending you love and healing.”

A third person commented, “Liz, I’m not quite sure what to say other than you are an incredible example of how strong mothers are. I’m so sorry you have to fight this fight but know that there are so many of us cheering you on. Please let us know if we can support you."

O’Donnell’s story has now gone viral and eventually came across the desk of DC Mayor Muriel Bowser, who immediately signed an action that would allow certificates for stillbirths upon request. On March 2, a bill was passed to offer district government employees who lose a child under the age of 21, including stillbirths, two weeks of leave.

O’Donnell has yet to settle on the issue of her leave with DCPS, and she is currently using her sick leave, Yahoo! Life reports. “I keep thinking of the woman who experiences a stillbirth, is denied PFL and may not have so much leave saved up," she told the outlet. "Would she take unpaid FMLA and add finance concerns to the list of trauma she’s experiencing? Or, would she immediately go back to work and not give her body (or mind) the time it needs to heal? … This is why I’m being so loud about this issue.”

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