When it comes to taking time off for a new baby, the best-laid plans often go awry. Sonya Underwood had worked at a hospital in Atlanta, Georgia, for eleven years before getting pregnant with her third son. As a single mother, she prepared to cover the income she would lose during her unpaid leave, hoarding paid time off and taking out disability insurance. And then real life intervened. Doctors told Underwood that she had an incompetent cervix and put her on bed rest three weeks ahead of schedule. Then her son arrived at twenty-six weeks. The twelve weeks of leave she is guaranteed by the Family and Medical Leave Act soon ran out, as did the insurance, even though her son remained in the NICU. “I didn’t have any money left,” Underwood said. So she went back to work and visited him at the hospital every day.
But once her son came home, Underwood’s situation quickly became untenable. Daycare centers wouldn’t take a medically fragile baby. Her human resources department informed her that her only choice was more unpaid leave. “It didn’t help out my situation because I still had rent due, my car note due, utilities, everything else,” she said. After she exhausted that leave, she was let go from her job, lost her car and couldn’t qualify for unemployment insurance because of her role as her son’s caretaker. The only places left to turn were Temporary Assistance to Needy Families and a loan she already knew would be difficult to pay back. “I’m a victim of FMLA because it didn’t help my family,” she concluded.
Many new mothers in this country are like Underwood: working women who give birth without guaranteed time to recuperate and care for their babies. Those who take unpaid leave often resort to drastic measures, such as going deep into debt, to make ends meet. Only three federal laws have ever been passed that offer protections for workers with new children. The best known is the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which requires that employers of a certain size allow new parents up to twelve weeks of unpaid leave. No federal law requires employers to provide paid leave to new parents, and eighteen states offer nothing  beyond the FMLA. Unsurprisingly, the Census Bureau has found  that over 40 percent of new mothers take unpaid leave.
But many workers aren’t even guaranteed that. Less than half of the country’s private-sector workers are covered by FMLA, which may explain why over a quarter of all workers—in situations similar to Underwood’s—either quit or are let go of their jobs when they need to take leave.
Of course, employers are free to be more generous with paid leave, but a recent report from the National Partnership for Women & Families found that many employers cut back over the past decade. Almost 30 percent of employers offered paid leave for new mothers in 1998; only 16 percent did in 2008.
For families who either get no pay or a fraction of their salaries for months at a time, the solution seems to be to make ends meet however they can. Debt appears to be a common way for new mothers to plug the hole left by lost income, even though it can lead to financial disaster later in life. A recent survey  in the United Kingdom found that almost a third of mothers end up in debt due to maternity leave—and paid maternity leave is mandatory there for employers. While there aren’t comparable studies here in the United States, other related reports, combined with the individual stories of women who’ve gone into debt after having children, suggest that parents are taking on debt just to scrape by. A quarter of all “poverty spells”—falling into poverty for two months or more at a time—begin with  the birth of a child. “Given that nearly half of parents have not a dime [in paid leave], of course there must be maternal debt,” says Ellen Bravo, director of Family Values @ Work.
Last year, Human Rights Watch, seeking to understand the impact of parental leave policies, interviewed sixty-four parents , many of whom had gone on unpaid leave, and found that just over a third had taken on debt. The respondents turned to credit cards or private loans or simply defaulted on payments. Janet Walsh, deputy director of the women’s rights division at HRW and one of the people who interviewed the families, told me that they resorted to a variety of options, from postponing necessary healthcare, cutting back on food or heating their homes or taking on extra jobs. “It was a very stressful time” for most families, she said.
Tina Villalobos was a schoolteacher working on Long Island when she became pregnant with her second child. Her school gave her five months of leave, but two of those were unpaid. During those months, she also had to pay for COBRA health insurance. Her husband was working part time, and the bills started to pile up. Taking time off “cost me about ten or twelve thousand dollars, not including what I didn’t get paid,” she said, which added up to about $18,000. “That went right on my line of credit. I haven’t been able to put a dent in it.” Now she fears she’s going to max it out and use all $32,000. “It’s scary,” she said, “because if I max out and I need some more I’m not sure where I’ll get it.”
A 2000 study of workers who used FMLA  (the most recent comprehensive study) found that over half of workers who took leave with less than full pay reported that they had trouble making ends meet, and over a quarter of them borrowed money. Almost 40 percent put off paying bills. And many families can’t afford to take leave at all. The same study found that 3.5 million people needed leave but didn’t take it. Nearly 90 percent said they would have taken it if they had been able to receive some pay.
A difficult pregnancy used up all of Anna’s (a pseudonym) paid sick time from her job as a nurse in Oregon. Her husband was in grad school, so she took only four weeks off after her baby’s birth. “They give you twelve weeks of FMLA, but as the sole income earner I can’t take a few months off,” she said. She and her husband turned to credit cards to cover expenses, and six years later “we’re just starting to get back on our feet,” she said. If she had had access to paid leave, “I don’t think we’d have as much credit card debt, if any,” she added.
Other indicators hint at the strains faced by families who use unpaid leave. About 9 percent of families who took leave in 2000 also turned to public assistance. Besides taking on lines of credit, Villalobos also enrolled in WIC. “It helped with the food and everything, but I never imagined I would do that,” she said. “Many of the women who wind up on welfare, that is their maternity leave,” Bravo says. “The link with bankruptcy, the link with going on welfare, and the link with poverty spells all tell us that this is a time that families take financial hits.”
Mothers’ financial struggles during unpaid leave can leave an indelible mark on their finances. While there are no studies looking specifically at the connection, the debt taken on during leave could be at least one reason that women have a higher bankruptcy rate. In a study of bankruptcy filers published by Elizabeth Warren and Melissa Jacoby in 2006, 7 percent cited the birth of a child as the cause for bankruptcy. The Center for American Progress reports  that a “not-insignificant” number of bankruptcies happen after a worker misses two or more weeks of work due to illness. Other work by Warren may complete the picture. A 2003 book, The Two-Income Trap, which Warren co-authored with Amelia Tyagi, noted, “Having a child is now the single best predictor that a woman will end up in financial collapse” (emphasis theirs). While it’s unclear how exactly maternity leave fits into these trends, “it is part of multiple factors that make child-bearing very expensive to women specifically,” said Emily Martin, vice president at the National Women’s Law Center.
Families are in better shape in the two states that offer paid leave. Two states, California and New Jersey, offer paid family leave programs, and three others have Temporary Disability Insurance programs that pay workers a portion of their wages when they take leave from work for medical reasons, including pregnancy. California’s policy, which took effect in 2004, offers partial wage replacement through an insurance-type program that virtually all private sector employees can pay into. According to a study by Eileen Appelbaum and Ruth Milkman, over 80 percent of workers in low-quality jobs who used the program received at least half of their normal wages, compared to less than a third of those who didn’t. More than a quarter received their full pay, and the benefits were the starkest for workers in low-quality jobs. This has a big impact on how many families turn to public assistance: only 10 percent of mothers in states that have either paid leave or disability insurance programs reported doing so, compared to about a quarter of women in all other states, according to a recent study by Rutgers .
These state efforts to keep new parents out of the red are getting some attention at the federal level. In his most recent budget proposal, President Obama included a program under the Department of Labor that would provide states with grants to study, plan and implement paid leave programs similar to those in California and New Jersey. Reformers have another plan in the works: Representatives Rosa DeLauro and Pete Stark are developing a program modeled on the Center for American Progress’s Social Security Cares proposal  that would add paid family leave coverage to the disability provisions of the Social Security system. In CAP’s proposal, workers would get partial wage replacement similar to the Social Security disability benefits they’re eligible for. (For example, a 23-year-old woman earning $26,000 a year would get $250 a week.) And CAP has found that it could be implemented at minimal cost to the government. “This isn’t something that we’re under any illusion we’re going to pass tomorrow or next year,” said Vicki Shabo, director of work and family programs at the National Partnership for Women & Families, who is involved with the proposal. But it’s a promising start.
Under our current policies, mothers like Sonya, Tina and Anna are forced to make impossible choices when their children arrive. “All I needed was time,” Sonya says. “I had to choose between my job and taking care of my child.” In putting their health and the health of their newborns first, too many mothers are likely loading up on debt just to get by. And those choices can follow them for the rest of their lives.