I lay on the examining room table in a maternal-fetal specialist’s office with one of those ridiculous pink paper sheets draped over my belly and my husband sitting stoically by my side. I was 18 weeks pregnant, and the day before, my obstetrician had told me my baby could fall out at any moment. I was a hot mess. To make matters worse, our high-deductible insurance wouldn’t cover this visit, and I could see what little savings we had go kaput. That didn’t matter—I’d sacrifice every penny I had (and many I didn’t) to ensure my child’s safe arrival.
Pretty quickly it started to look like I would have to. I had three monster fibroids, one of which was pressing on my cervix, causing early effacement, and I was sentenced to five months in bed—the remainder of my pregnancy. The very same day we came home from the specialist, my husband closed on a power equipment dealership, putting us nearly a million dollars in debt. We had been counting on my income as a freelance editor along with my ability to help with the accounting and day-to-day organization at the shop. Forget making our ends meet. Now I couldn’t so much as make myself a sandwich.
Research suggests that nearly 20 percent of pregnant women are prescribed bed rest each year, for diagnoses ranging from preeclampsia and preterm labor to simply being pregnant with multiples. CDC data say that almost 4 million babies were born in 2016 (the most recent year these numbers are available). That would mean approximately 800,000 women forced to walk away from their jobs during what is already an incredibly stressful (and expensive!) time. And there’s no telling whether that job would wait for their safe return.
Since an editing gig seemed like one of the few occupations a person could do while supine, I intended to continue working. But the pressure from the fibroids felt like a stack of bricks bearing down on my cervix, and to alleviate the pain, I was told to lie with my hips elevated. I attempted to work in 10-minute intervals, but couldn’t figure out the logistics of balancing a laptop on my huge belly. It was impossible to read or type. Plus, every ounce of my energy was going toward keeping the baby inside my body, as if I could will him to stay there. I had no time to focus on work; I was literally trying to save a life. I had to tell my publisher I was going on hiatus.
As a freelancer, I could not get fired for this pause in productivity, but it also meant there were no laws to help me keep my job. If I gave up my clients, they were under no obligation to rehire me when I was healthy enough to work again, but I wouldn’t have been much better off if I had a full-time salaried position.
Currently only five states and the District of Columbia offer paid family leave protection for their workers, including extended medical leave. If you are forced to go on medical leave, according to Julie Beck, founder of the It’s Working Project, an organization that helps the private sector bring new parents back to work, “You can lose your job—and there is a cavernous gap between what is mandated and what workplace culture supports. It is a very privileged few that can afford to do what the doctor tells us to do. Many people have nothing to fall back on.”
“It’s a very privileged few that can afford to do what the doctor tells us to do.”
The all-encompassing anxiety of losing my baby only compounded the situation, and I soon found myself on the slippery slope of depression. My husband was barely holding it all together, running the new business, trying to keep up with the bills, and catering to a convalescing wife. He had taken on the responsibilities of both the house and the business that were supposed to fall to me, and was working late into the evenings, trying to make up for the time he was spending chauffeuring me to endless ob-gyn appointments. Often he would come home and head straight to the bathroom to vomit, physically ill from the stress and exhaustion. It wasn’t long before we felt the strain on our marriage, and a palpable distance grew between us. A chasm, I would later find out, that hid our financial reality.
It was only when I indulged in a little online retail therapy and my credit cards were declined that I realize we were having money issues. I hadn’t seen it coming. Before I was on bed rest, though we had little cushion, we were financially just fine.
That night, when I approached my husband, he confessed he had been borrowing money from family members to pay the mortgage and apologized for keeping our financial hardship a secret. He had been sinking every penny we had into paying employees because without them, our brand-new business would never generate a profit. When I asked him to show me our bills, he came back with a huge storage container and dumped them on my bed. There had to be close to a hundred envelopes. As I rifled through them, I could see some hadn’t even been opened and others were filled with those dreaded pink forms threatening to terminate utilities. I promised to try to come up with a budget to pay them. That or I’d just throw them in the trash; what were the chances they’d toss a bed-resting woman in the clink?
Taking an active role in the finances provided me with a sense of control when the rest of my life was falling apart. I tackled the most pressing debts first, setting up payment plans even when it meant adding on sky-high interest. We tapped into our meager savings and maxed out our home equity loan. And a couple of times, my mother stocked our fridge. As my belly expanded, I continued to tighten the proverbial belt. The days of online shopping sprees were over. I couldn’t even think about how we would afford all the baby gear for a newborn.
I was amazed that one health challenge could plunge our family into dire straits, but many people are struggling with this very same issue. Hinda Hochman, a behavioral specialist who was on bed rest for two months due to preterm labor says, “Our finances suffered, especially because my husband was between jobs. He was afraid to leave me to go on interviews. Plus he had to take care of our two other children. It was hard on both of us, and I worried all the time.”
For many the repercussions of bed rest are far-reaching, and they don’t magically disappear once the child is born. After the healthy arrival of our son, when the daily agony of trying to make sure he didn’t slip out too soon was a not-so-distant memory, our financial woes were more acute than ever. Turns out, babies are pretty expensive. And so I went back to work just two weeks later, fitting in snippets of time between bleary-eyed feedings and hormonal hot flashes, to face the compounding costs of food, diapers, exorbitant insurance premiums, and, eventually, child care. Unfortunately, I had lost my main client, and it was difficult to build new relationships while managing a colicky baby who slept only 15 minutes at a time and liked to party between the hours of 2:00 and 5:00 A.M.
With the commitments of caring for a newborn and readjusting to the upright world, along with the never-ending struggle to stay financially afloat, it would be a lie to say that my marriage bounced back stronger than ever at the outset. Anyone who’s had a child under any circumstances knows it can be a challenge to your relationship even when everything’s going right. We went through years of financial instability, making only the minimum payments on our credit cards and loans; I struggled with postpartum depression; and our business grew at a snail’s pace. But, over the years, we got there. Now my son is an athletic 11-year-old, and my writing career is healthy enough that I’m working on a book about all of this. The business is thriving, and my husband and I have even managed to keep the creditors at bay.