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Adoptive moms battle skepticism, hostility over maternity leave

Let's set the record straight: "A mom is a mom is a mom."
/ Source: TODAY

Experts and parents alike say that adoptive parents need leave in the same way that biological parents do.

"A mom is a mom is a mom," said Catherine Birndorf, one of the founders of the Motherhood Center in New York City and a perinatal psychiatrist who deals with emotional and psychiatric issues that arise before, during, and after pregnancy. "I think we need to respect the many, myriad ways in which women become mothers, or people become parents. We have to respect the many ways it happens."

Can adoptive moms regularly get maternity leave?

When it comes to maternity leave, parents in some workplaces are covered under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), and may be eligible for family leave depending on workplace policies. There are no specific laws or requirements to cover adoption.

"I remember (my boss) said something about me taking off a long weekend for the birth. We were adding a newborn to another family, and he expected me back on Tuesday?"

Jenni Levy, a physician in Pennsylvania, said that when she adopted her first child in 2000, her employer only offered short-term disability maternity leave, so new parents had to give birth to be considered eligible. Her other option was to take FMLA's unpaid leave. Her adoption had moved with "lightning speed" and the sped-up process meant that she had little notice to leave work or save money, meaning that the unpaid leave hit her and her husband hard.

"It wasn't like we had time to sock some money away for the time I wasn't going to be working," Levy said. "Babies come with a set of expenses. You don't have to buy all the stuff, but there is a certain irreducible amount of stuff you have to buy."

After taking off eight full weeks, Levy tried to return to work on a part-time basis, doing two or three half-days a week, but when she did so, she lost her health insurance.

"The organization did not permit part-time FMLA," she explained. "There was no middle ground between FMLA, and working 60% of the week [to keep health insurance]."

Meg St.-Espirit, a freelance writer and former counselor, said that when she adopted her first child, she was a full-time employee of the State Civil Service Commission in Pennsylvania. Federal law allowed her to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave and keep her benefits. However, she said that what was "allowed by law" and what was "actually the expectation" were very different.

"When I went to my supervisor and told him that we were possibly having placement in a few weeks, he was excited for me," St.-Espirit said. "Then I remember he said something about me taking off a long weekend for the birth. I stood there in shock. We were adding a newborn to another family, from another city, and he expected me back on Tuesday?"

St.-Espirit and her husband have adopted four children at birth.
St.-Espirit and her husband have adopted four children at birth. Meg St.-Espirit

St.-Espirit took five weeks of full-time FMLA leave, then staggered the remaining seven weeks over a part-time schedule until her son was old enough to enter daycare.

"I worked three days per week, with a full-time caseload," she said, adding that at the time she was doing more than twice the recommended amount of cases for even a full-time employee. "And I had a newborn at home! Who was a terrible sleeper. As a first-time mom. But the consensus from most of my coworkers seemed to be that I hadn't given birth, I wasn't in physical recovery, so I should be fine."

Taking time to adjust to a new baby

Levy said that her leave gave her and her husband time to bond with the new baby, find a daycare, and get through newborn sleep deprivation.

"She really was a champion sleeper, but she still got up every two hours for the first two weeks because that's what babies do," Levy said. "By the time I returned to my job, my daughter was sleeping through the night, so I was actually able to do my job. Sleep-deprived doctors? Bad idea. I was nearly 40. Sleep-deprived middle-aged doctors? Even worse idea!"

Levy said that despite the benefits, people were still "dubious" about her leave.

"Nobody was mean enough to say it to my face, and this was before the days of Internet commenting, thank God," she said. "Adoptive parenting is not seen as equivalent, let alone equal. There are ways in which adoption is fundamentally and deeply different, and in some of those makes it all the more necessary to have the leave."

Levy pointed out that many adoptive children have a "trauma history," which can make time home with a child even more necessary.

"All adoptive children have a trauma history," Levy said. "Not everybody sees it that way, but that's how I see it, that's how my daughter sees it, and that's how the majority of adoptees I've spoken to see it. It's not even up for debate with children from outside the U.S. or from the foster care system. I admit a fair amount of skepticism about bonding in the way it's typically fetishized, but at any rate, the fact is that the one thing that traumatized children need is stability and predictability. They need someone to be present for them in a predictable way."

"I think people don't view [adoption] as an equal path to motherhood," said St.-Espirit, who has adopted four children at birth. "We didn't birth a baby, so we don't need that time off. But the biggest change of our lives has happened. Especially if the child is older, there is tons of research on the need for that time to bond and connect."

Another adoptive mother of four added that it's important to give children time to bond with new siblings.

"I took only six weeks with my first, none with my second, and the full 12 weeks with my third and fourth children," said Liz Cozad, an internal medicine physician in Shawnee, Kansas. She told TODAY that all the time she took off was unpaid. "Bonding is very important, cocooning the new child is helpful with older kids. There are zero reasons why one shouldn't be allowed to take a leave when adopting."

Both Levy and St.-Espirit also highlighted that it's not just adoptive mothers who might need leave — fathers also need the opportunity to bond with a new child.

"When [leave] is framed as maternity leave and tied to short-term disability leave, that's when it becomes problematic," said Levy, who currently works for an organization that allows for parental leave for both adoptive mothers and fathers. "My husband took two weeks off, full-time, and then he went back to work half-time, and it gave us time to become a family. It gave us time to really shift from being a couple to being a family of three."

St.-Espirit said that one of the best ways to change the conversation about adoptive parental leave would be to lobby for more concrete laws and policies, as well as ensuring federal paid leave for all genders, "regardless of how that child comes to them."

Finding support after adoption

"When our first was born, no one set up a meal train for us or anything, like they did for others who had babies," said St.-Espirit. "Now with our twins and our fourth baby, people were amazing and I didn't cook for a month. I think people are beginning to become more knowledgeable and understanding."

Birndorf said adoptive parents need help adjusting to the shift in their lives just like biological parents.

"We don't care how you got the baby," Birndorf said. "People come in for whatever reason, if they are struggling in relation to motherhood or are on their way to becoming a mother or being a mother... The struggle is really around the transition to motherhood and parenthood. It's not just the gestating of a baby."'

Levy established a private practice when her daughter was 1 year old. When she and her partners were setting up the organization, she says she fought hard to make sure that their maternity leave policy would cover adoptive parents, but it was an uphill battle.

"The attorney who was helping us set up the practice thought we were out of our minds," Levy said, "and we could only come to agreement about three weeks. That was as much as we could agree to — and that was all women, and all mothers."

Levy believes that much of the difficulty comes from seeing parenthood as a solely biological process, which invalidates adoptive parents and makes it easier to disregard their need for support like maternity leave.

"To say that we're less entitled to leave is backwards," said Levy. "I don't think we're more entitled, but I think we're equally entitled. To say that we're less entitled is nuts. It's flying in the face of what we know about our kids."