““The family unit is something that’s so important to America, but yet we’re not taken care of when it comes down to the tooth and nail.””
That was Rebecca Shumard, 26, a new mother from Pennsylvania, speaking on MSNBC on Monday.
The medical assistant has gone viral ever since sharing a TikTok video last month that illustrates some of the costs of not having paid parental leave.
Shumard had to return to work less than two weeks after giving birth to her premature daughter, Eden — who was still in the newborn intensive care unit, or NICU — because she needed to save up her maternity leave for when the baby came home, she explained on TikTok. She gets six weeks of paid leave, and six weeks of unpaid leave, she said.
“You have to return to work 12 days after having a premature baby at 27 weeks, so that when she is eventually discharged from the NICU you can spend what little maternity leave you have with her,” the TikTok video explains in onscreen captions.
The clip shows Shumard dressed in her scrubs and sorting paperwork while wiping away tears.
“How can anyone afford to stay home during a NICU stay?” the TikTok captions continue. “How can anyone handle the guilt when you have to work and can’t be with your baby?” The video also describes the struggle to pump breast milk at work.
It concludes, “This. Is. America.”
The video struck a chord with viewers — perhaps because the U.S. is the only highly developed country in the world without a national paid family leave policy.
The federal Family and Medical Leave Act lets eligible workers take 12 unpaid workweeks of leave during a 12-month period for events like the birth of a child — but again; that’s unpaid leave. How many people can afford to miss a paycheck for a week, let alone three whole months?
Nine states and Washington, D.C. offer some version of paid parental leave, the Washington Post notes. In comparison, U.K. parents get 39 weeks of paid leave; parents in Sweden get 68 weeks; parents in Japan get a year or more; and parents in Estonia get 82 weeks or more.
So Shumard’s video has drawn almost 3 million viewers since it was posted in early December. And it also led to an outpouring of donations, allowing Shumard to eventually take some extra time off with Eden, who has left the NICU and is growing stronger by the day, the proud mama told MSNBC on Monday.
But as much as Shumard appreciates the help — calling TikTok “a wonderful platform” — she added that it shouldn’t be the responsibility of generous viewers to fund her parental leave.
“This isn’t something that should be a case-by-case basis like this,” Shumard said on MSNBC. “We should be able to, as Americans, get some kind of leave, some kind of parental leave, that we can depend on.”
And she added that this will be an important issue for her when she votes in the upcoming midterm elections; and as a Pennsylvania voter, there’s an open Senate seat up for grabs. “Absolutely,” she said. “I’m definitely going to be looking at who is supporting that parental leave bill, who is going to be really here for the American people and the American family unit.”
Parents and paid leave advocates were crushed when paid family leave was cut from President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better Act last fall. Currently, the revised “rescue plan” for coronavirus relief includes $40 billion for child care providers, as well as tax breaks for families with children. But it appears that U.S. parents will have to keep waiting for a national maternity and paternity leave plan.
What’s more, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg was criticized by some for taking paternity leave after adopting infant twins with his husband last year.
But at least Shumard’s story has a happy ending, for now. She revealed that Eden’s doctors can’t believe how much weight she’s gaining. And Eden has been able to come home, and Shumard is home with her — thanks to the kindness of strangers.
“TikTok … because of you, I will not be forced to choose between being with my daughter in NICU or paying the bills,” she wrote in a followup video. “I am eternally grateful.”