IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Study confirms what most parents know: The cost of unpaid parental leave is devastating

A survey of 1,001 employed women found that 74% wouldn’t have any cash savings left after eight weeks of unpaid maternity leave .

A new study on unpaid financial leave is highlighting what many parents already know to be true: The cost of unpaid leave can be devastating for families.

Hannah Murphy, 34, is a health care writer and mother of two boys, ages 7 and 8, living just outside Nashville, Tennessee. In 2013, after the birth of her first child, she took eight weeks of unpaid leave. In 2015, after she welcomed her second child, she took four weeks of leave, also unpaid.

“Paid leave was not offered by my employer — I was working in an orthopedic clinic and then a hospital,” Murphy told TODAY Parents. “I was allowed my Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) time to protect my job, but it was at my expense.”

Murphy says her husband helped to renovate her grandmother's home, in addition to his full-time job, as a secondary source of income before their first child was born, giving the family enough money to cover expenses for two-thirds of Murphy’s unpaid leave.

Related: ‘Emotional slap in the face’: Moms want stillbirths to be covered by paid family leave

“We had a pretty strict budget for the rest of the time, and I did end up returning to work sooner than planned because of the lost wages,” she added. "I lost about $7,000 in income due to unpaid leave with my first son.”

After the birth of her first child, Murphy’s husband lost his job of more than 10 years. To “keep us afloat,” she says, he took a lower paying job temporarily. Meanwhile, having two kids 15 months apart took a physical toll on Murphy’s body. She realized she had a small crack in her pelvis as a result of childbirth. The pain was excruciating, she says, but she couldn’t afford to take more unpaid time off.

“I returned to work after five weeks of leave so that we could keep our heads above water,” Murphy explains. “We ended up taking out a loan at some point shortly after our second son was born to ease the burden on us. That, of course, took years to pay off.”

 ‘The mental cost of unpaid leave was the hardest part ’

Breeze, a disability and critical illness insurance company, conducted a recent study on unpaid family leave, surveying 1,001 women between the ages of 18 and 44. A reported 54% of those surveyed said they'd "consider a personal loan to cover unpaid maternity leave expenses," while 49% said they'd consider "drawing from their retirement funds."

Most of the women surveyed said taking unpaid family leave would be a "permanent setback" to their finances.

The United States is the only industrialized nation that does not mandate paid family leave. A reported one in four women in the country go back to work two weeks after giving birth, according to the advocacy group Paid Leave US (PL+US).

Related: Adoptive moms battle skepticism, hostility over maternity leave

Elizabeth, who is currently pregnant and who asked that her name be changed in order to protect her privacy, says she was "on track" to take paid family leave after the birth of her second child via her former employer before "reaching a breaking point."

"I was crying all the time; I couldn’t sleep; I wasn’t emotionally keeping up with everything going on around me, and work was the only stressor I had any control over," Elizabeth told TODAY Parents. "So, I switched to a part-time freelance position at the same company and it’s made me a better mother and made me feel more human."

Elizabeth, who works in public relations and lives in New Jersey with her husband and 2-year-old daughter, says she's planning to just rely on her family's savings in order to compensate for taking unpaid leave after giving birth.

"My husband also makes more than I do and we’ve always had family help," she added.

Still, she's planning on cutting costs — like not eating out and being more frugal when purchasing baby items — and says despite the family support and financial cushion she still feels stressed about taking unpaid family leave.

"The stress is coming from me — I sometimes feel dumb for not just pushing through," Elizabeth said. "Women do it every day and I often feel that this choice makes me weak. I wish I was able to just put my head down and work like everyone else, but I just became so overwhelmed."

Related: Yahoo’s new baby leave policy is generous. Yours? Probably not so much

Larisa Courtien, 32, had just two weeks of paid maternity leave after the birth of her first child in 2017. She took two additional weeks off, unpaid.

"The mental cost of unpaid leave was the hardest part," the mother of two told TODAY Parents. "How is it enjoyable to be with your new baby and your partner when bills have to get paid? It’s not. It is tainted by knowing everything might crumble — your body has to get ready to be presentable to get back to life even though you are completely changed physically and emotionally."

One 2017 study published in the International Journal of Population Research found that “financial hardship factors” causes psychological distress among parents, particular when those factors are related to housing and employment security. And a series of studies, cited in upcoming research on the financial stress caused by the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, has found a “link between financial stress and poorer mental health outcomes,” including depression and anxiety.

Courtien says she worked an additional 30 hours a week, on top of her full-time job, when she was pregnant in order to save $10,000 to cover the cost of her unpaid time off. She says it took her family four years to rebuild their finances.

"My husband only had two days of paternity leave," she added. "I had a complicated birth and delivery so we were in the hospital for seven days total. It made everything more difficult because we were not getting paid for that time."

'I would never settle for working for a company that made me feel like I needed to apologize for being a parent again'

Heather Menser, 35, lives in West Virginia and works in childcare and preschool management. She has three children, ages 6, 9 and 14, and is expecting her fourth in October.

In 2008 and 2012, she took unpaid leave — the first time for seven weeks and the second time for three weeks. She took unpaid leave again, earlier this year, after the father of her two older children passed away.

She says that she certainly needed additional time, both after having children and after her children's father passed, but "was not able to afford any."

"I was living paycheck to paycheck in 2008 and 2012," Menser told TODAY Parents. She estimates that she lost $3,000 in wages in 20018 due to unpaid family leave, $2,000 in 2012, and $1,700 after taking leave earlier this year.

Related: What other countries offer workers that the US just doesn’t

"We cut everything that was not absolutely necessary out of our budget, and relied on help from family and church," Menser explained. "I am currently still rebuilding (my finances)."

Now, Menser said paid parental leave is "one of her top priorities" when considering any job opportunity, and that she's "much more verbal with mine and my children's needs and know my worth."

Murphy, who is no longer with the employers who did not offer paid family leave, says she feels the same. She's thankful that now she works for a mother of five who is "supportive of when I need extra time or schedule adjustments."

"I would never settle for working for a company that made me feel like I needed to apologize for being a parent again," she added.

Related video: