As he did most mornings of the 117 days of his life, the first thing Karl did that Monday morning in July was to give me a smile like sunlight. He lay in the bed for a while, between his dad and me, looking from one of us to the other, working himself up with gurgles of delight. That morning, which started the same as all his others, would be a little different, however: it was his mommy’s first day back at work.
In comparison with the other new mothers I knew, I felt lucky to have three months’ paid maternity leave after Karl was born. Most of the parents in my community had only weeks before they had to leave their babies to go back to work. But nonetheless, even with three months under our belts and Karl’s neck strong enough to hold himself up, I was uncomfortable with the idea of leaving him. I wanted to be his caregiver longer, until he was a bit bigger. I could see how our time together in this early infancy was of so much value, how being with me every day made him more and more comfortable navigating his new environment. I noticed how he looked to me to learn things and make sense of his world. I could tell how safe and secure he felt. Though it was a hard and tiring time, every minute with Karl felt like an investment in his current and future well-being. Not to mention I was hopelessly tickled with him.
As the end of my leave drew near, I asked my company for more time off, without pay. I was told by the HR department that there was no system in place that allowed for extending maternity leaves. I went higher up the chain. Just two more months? There was nothing that could be done. The only option would be to quit.
I contemplated it. By the time I paid for child care in New York City, I was barely making much take-home pay anyway. But what compounded the financial concern was that if I quit, I would lose our health insurance. Lee, my partner, works freelance and Karl was covered under my work insurance.
We are luckier than many: We sat down and did the math and maybe Lee’s wages could cover rent and food for a few months, but certainly not that as well as the cost of health insurance for a family of three, not to mention the portion we would be on the hook for in the case of a medical emergency. On top of that, I was very concerned about losing my job. I don’t have a degree, and though I’ve managed to carve out a position at a publishing company, the memory of the year I spent unemployed, trying unsuccessfully to get my résumé past the algorithms of online applications, loomed large. If I did it again, it would be with a little child in tow.
Lee’s quitting was out of the question. There was no way we could pay all our bills on my salary, which is lower than his.
So we did the best, most responsible-seeming thing we could think of. After a long search, many waiting lists, interviews and a great deal of angst, we settled on a day care near my workplace. With this day care, I could still go over at lunch and breastfeed Karl, and have a visit with him, so we would never be apart more than a few hours. And the day care was recommended by many moms I knew who had similar circumstances to mine. It felt like a loving, safe space for Karl.
I justified it a million ways, as one justifies when one has run out of alternatives. He is an only child and maybe he would like to play with these other children. There are other babies who have been there since they were 6 weeks old, and Karl is 15 weeks. He is strong and has never been sick a day in his life!. It’s not like he’s going to die!
But no matter how I tried to make myself feel better, it felt bad.
That Monday morning, Lee entertained Karl while I rushed to shower and get his things ready. I put Karl in his baby carrier and his dad and I headed into the city on the subway. I felt propelled down the street, swept into the train, carried along by a system that gave me no choice but to submit to the inevitability of any working mother of an infant in America. For Karl’s part, he was curious and unconcerned, looking around, smiling. In the subway car, someone offered me a seat, and I loosened the straps of the carrier, struggling to get my curious baby to focus on nursing. With this extra bit of subway feeding time, he could arrive with a full stomach. And this extra few minutes of nursing each day would help keep my milk supply up, now that I would be pumping my milk to fill bottles. I pulled up a baby blanket to block the man next to me from seeing my exposed breast on his morning commute.
We arrived at the day care by 9:30. The day-care assistant came to Karl with arms outstretched and said, “Hola!” Karl studied her face and flashed a big smile. The day-care owner told a joke that was probably told to all new parents dropping their babies off on the first day: The worst thing that could happen was he would get hit by a fire truck — since once a toddler had hit a baby with a toy truck on his first day. I felt reassured. This was what everyone did, how everyone felt.
I returned to the day care at 12:15 to nurse Karl. I was so excited to see him, I ran the two blocks there from the office. As I took the stairs by twos to the second floor, I noticed that the door to the day care was propped open. It seemed odd to me — that they would leave the door open, with so many toddlers inside. I walked around the corner, expecting to pick up my son, feel his chubby rolls, see his face light up at the sight of his mommy.
Instead, I saw my son unconscious, splayed out on a soft changing table. His lips and the area around his mouth were blue, and the day-care owner was performing CPR on him, incorrectly.
Our sweet son died two and a half hours after the first time I had left him.
Would Karl have died if he had been with me that morning? The medical examiner finished her report last week and the conclusion is: undetermined.
What is determined is that at 11:50 a.m. the day-care assistant saw my baby kicking his legs and brought it to the attention of the day-care owner. The day-care owner dismissed the assistant, telling her not to go over to check him. “Babies kick their legs in their sleep all the time,” she said. Twenty minutes later, my baby was dead. If the day-care assistant had gone over and picked him up, checked on him, would Karl be alive? I don’t know. The day-care owner had also put Karl down to sleep on his side, which is a known unsafe sleep position. Had he been put down on his back to sleep, would he be alive? I don’t know.
I will have to live with questioning this for the rest of my life.
What I do know is that had I been with my 3-month-old son, I would have gone over and checked on him at that moment. What I also know is that my son would have been safely on his back to sleep, if not sleeping on me, as he loved to do on all our days home together.
Regardless of the answers I will never have, the question I now ask is: Should parents have to play this roulette with their weeks-old infant? To do all they can possibly do to ensure that their baby is safe, only to be relying on a child-care worker’s competence or attentiveness or mood that day?
This article isn’t about day-care safety. This isn’t an indictment of the company I work for; I had one of the better parental leave policies of anyone I know. What this article is about is that my infant died in the care of a stranger, when he should have been with me. Our culture demanded it.
A mother should never have no choice but to leave her infant with a stranger at 3 months old if that decision doesn’t feel right to her. Or at 6 weeks old. Or 3 weeks old. I would have stayed home with Karl longer, but there just didn’t seem to be a way. And I knew well enough that a million other mothers in America before me had faced the same choice and had done the same, even earlier than I had, though it tortured them emotionally, or physically, to do so.
Of course, had I conceived in my wildest nightmare that leaving Karl might mean losing him, I would have sacrificed anything. I would have quit my job. I would have carried him around on my back collecting recycling cans and bottles. Endured any economic hardship. List all the wildest alternatives, you’re not coming up with anything that isn’t on my list of “if onlies.” But the sad truth is, even though I am possibly one of the world’s most imaginatively anxious mothers, I never thought of the possibility that my baby would die that morning. And no wonder, because unexplained infant death is rare, and parental leave in the vast majority of cases is not an issue of life and death. But I am now asking: Why, why does a parent in this country have to sacrifice her job, her ability to provide her child with proper health care —- or for many worse off than me, enough food to eat — to buy just a few more months to nurture a child past the point of vulnerability?
I wasn’t just up against the end of my parental leave. I was up against an entire culture that places very little value on caring for infants and small children. Parental leave reduces infant death, gives us healthier, more well-adjusted adults and helps women stay in the workforce. If we truly valued the 47 percent of the work force who are women, and the value of our families, things would look different. Mothers could go back to work after taking time off to recover physically from birth and bond with their young children. Health care could be available to bridge that return to work so that our children could get their wellness checkups and vaccinations.
Yes, it’s possible that even in a different system, Karl still might not have lived a day longer, but had he had been with me, where I wanted him, I wouldn’t be sitting here, living with the nearly incapacitating anguish of a question that has no answer.
There are plenty of good examples of how to create a national parental leave system that works. Our children can’t afford lobbyists. It’s up to us parents to demand more.
Amber Scorah is an editorial producer at Scholastic. She recently launched www.forkarl.com, where visitors can contact their government representatives and presidential candidates to voice their opinion on family leave.