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  • Writer's pictureThe Eagle

Planning Parenthood: FMLA Leaves New Parents with Hard Choices

By Gianna Gregory--Eagle Staff Writer

Rylee Buzzeo with her husband and new addition to the family. (Courtesy photo)

For many, children are a blessing, and starting a family is a major milestone on the road to happiness. However, starting a family and raising kids can be challenging and requires lots of time, especially in the beginning. Unfortunately, time is in short supply for most new parents because of policies that only grant limited family leave. For teachers and staff at FCPS, this is the case; staff at FCPS are guaranteed just 6-weeks of unpaid maternity/family leave under Virginia law. Additional unpaid leave (up to 1 year) can be requested, but paid leave is only available through accrued paid time off.

Maternity leave for new mothers can be taxing. Many say the 6-week period given to prepare and recover can feel inadequate. FCHS teacher and new mom Rylee Buzzeo understands this all too well. “It’s very hard. The first couple of months with a new baby are pretty challenging. By the time I felt like I had gotten into a good routine and things were getting easier, it was time to return to work.” 

Leaving a newborn is only part of the issue. Parents who work are more likely to miss crucial moments and milestones in their babies' lives. “My son is starting to move through his milestones pretty quickly so I hate the thought of missing anything while I’m at work,” Buzzeo shared.

It is possible to accrue additional time to stay home with the new baby, but it means banking sick and personal time for years. Buzzeo explained that she prepared to become a mother while working at FCPS far in advance. “I was fortunate enough to have saved up enough sick days to cover 12 weeks of leave. Knowing that I wanted to have a baby, I took very few sick and personal days throughout the past four years that I’ve been employed with FCPS.” 

Family leave for teaching staff also means having to prepare far ahead in other ways. Buzzeo had to ensure all of her lesson plans were complete for the 12-week period she was out. “I had to have plans made for each day that I would be out. I started working on my lesson plans last summer and worked with my co-teacher to make sure things would go smoothly while I was out. Any working parent deals with the stress of taking off work for a birth/adoption, but I feel like teachers have additional stressors because we’re responsible for what goes out while we are out of work."

It is not only new mothers who struggle with maternity/family leave though. Fathers have their own sets of difficulties when it comes to family leave. One FCHS teacher and father who is currently expecting his third child described the toll taken by competing demands. "It is very taxing mentally leaving your newborn child at home. I have two other children who are 4 and 2 years old, so my focus will shift to full-time dad with those two while my wife will be building a connection with our newborn baby girl. It is a helpless feeling for myself knowing that I am leaving my wife and child at home, but we have to pay the bills and go to work.” 

The financial impact of unpaid leave was particularly hard to manage, he said. “There are pros and cons to maternity leave. I do not believe you should have to suffer 6 weeks without pay. I feel that is a little much because [area] teachers are paid $12,000-$15,000 already under the national average. You put 6 weeks without pay on top of that, it really can stress a family and [make a parent] question their future as a teacher.”

Baby Buzzeo at 3 months (Courtesy photo)

Buzzeo also described the toll short family leave takes on the budding relationship between parents and newborns. “Bonding with your baby is one of the most important things to focus on during the first months. Not only does it help the baby’s development, but it is crucial to the mother as well. Without the proper time to bond, parents are susceptible to increased irritability and mental health issues as they navigate parenting in the early months. Babies need love and affection, something that is strengthened when they spend time with their parents.” 

Family leave is short for lots of people, not just FCPS employees. In the state of Virginia, employers are required to give a minimum of 6 weeks of unpaid family leave to new parents. Some offer additional leave without pay while others offer limited pay during family leave. The FCPS policy meets the minimum required by state law.

Buzzeo feels more is needed. “I would like to see a minimum of 6 weeks of paid leave for mothers. Not only does this benefit maternal and infant health, but mothers would perform better at work if they were able to return after at least 6 weeks. Mothers would also be encouraged to stay in the workforce after having a baby.”

Family leave is a struggle for many. It is clear that juggling work and parenthood can present challenges to new parents. With the current family leave policies, it seems unlikely new parents will get relief anytime soon.

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