I am laid off and knocked up. To be fair, my advertising agency did not know I was pregnant. I learned pretty early in my career that generally being a woman was something I should avoid pointing out and only highlight with high heels and tight dresses. When I got my first job in the industry at 25, it was between me and another woman, and rumor has it my boss said, “Let’s hire Rachel. The other woman has one kid and you know she’s going to want another.”
At 34, I still avoided talking about ever wanting kids even as I was secretly ecstatic about a positive pregnancy test that showed up in July. My agency had lost client after client through the year, and I should’ve been more nervous. But I knew we could survive if we could keep our one client that had more money than God. God, as expected, can keep the lights on pretty nicely.
One morning in August, I was downing my ginger tea incognito in my coffee mug when my boss asked me into his office. Our HR rep was also there — never a good sign. We had lost God. This directly affected my position. I was being laid off.
Where does a pregnant lady go after being laid off? I had been in the agency world long enough to watch many friends and colleagues go through this, and we always went to the bar. Even when our Mormon art director was laid off, we went to the bar. I told this baby it better not bail on me later, because if I don’t get to drink on the day I was laid off, I swear to Microsoft …
Fall was filled with countless chocolate chip cookies and more phone hours logged with the Washington state unemployment office. My most heartbreaking time came during a phone call with a male customer-support representative.
“I am pregnant and due in March. Is there anything in the way of maternity leave when you’re on unemployment?”
“No. You have to be able to work to file for unemployment, so you can’t claim benefits if you’re not able to work in March.”
“I definitely won’t be able to work, because I’ll have just given birth. Is there any assistance for new mothers on unemployment?”
“No, I think you only get that through disability insurance.”
“Yeah, you can only get that through your employer … and I am not employed.”
“Well then, no. You have to be willing and able to work to file —”
I hung up. I wanted nothing more than to find this man’s mother to confirm that he — in fact — had been born.
My baby bump started to show in earnest come winter, and I realized there was no way I was going to find a job before this baby came. I paced my living room, dreading dialing another government entity.
This time I rang the state’s Paid Family and Medical Leave department. The department is brand-new as we — Washington state — just voted it into law to begin in 2020. To my surprise and delight, the woman who I talked to was kind and insanely helpful.
After I told her my situation, she paused and said, “Well, first off, congratulations!”
I immediately started crying. This was the first time anyone connected to my current job status had met my news with excitement. “Congratulations!” is all I wanted. Well, that’s a lie: I also want the family leave money.
I gave the family leave woman my pay-stub information, and she crunched the numbers to tell me how much I would qualify for in support.
“Really?” I said, “That’s more than I get on unemployment. I should be telling everyone on unemployment that they should go get pregnant.”
We laughed together at my obvious joke. “No, that is not our intent,” she said.
“Yeah, I’m just kidding. I do not recommend this to anyone.”
Before this phone call with the leave office, I was hopeless and did not know how I would plan and provide for my new child. I can now exhale in relief because under this state benefit, my husband and I will both receive 12 weeks of Paid Family Leave to bond with our baby. Beyond that, I will get an additional four weeks of medical leave for giving birth.
Washington state is the fifth state in the nation to offer paid family and medical leave benefits to workers. I raise a glass (of seltzer) to toast these benefits that will help me focus on truly caring for my growing family instead of panicking about financial stress. It warms my heart knowing that other mothers, fathers, caregivers and families of all kinds across Washington now have access to this same relief.