When Nancy Fendley Novosel's twin boys were born prematurely, at just 26 weeks, she tried to negotiate the timing of her maternity leave: Could she take her six weeks of paid leave a few months down the line, when the boys were expected to come home from the hospital?
The answer, she learned, was no. At the Chicago real estate company where she was a vice president, maternity leave was funded by short-term disability insurance and could only be used when the mother was physically recovering from childbirth.
"It was shocking - and I had to figure this out postpartum," said Novosel, whose babies were both born dangerously tiny, weighing in at less than 2 pounds each.
"(My husband and I) were focused on, literally, whether my children gained grams. My son coughed up a teaspoon of blood, and we thought he was going to die, and we had the chaplain perform a baptism, and I woke up the next morning contemplating, what are we going to do?"
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At a time when paid maternity leave is an increasingly high profile issue, with a Fortune-Morning Consult poll showing 74 percent of registered voters support paid leave for new parents, public discussion still tends to focus on the extremes: Netflix employees, who can get up to a year of paid leave, and minimum-wage employees, who often get none.
But what about a surprisingly sizable group of women who are caught in the middle?
About 10 percent of working first-time moms use disability insurance to fund their maternity leaves, according to a 2011 U.S. Census Bureau report that's widely considered the best source on the topic. That suggests that of the women who get any kind of paid maternity leave at all, including vacation days, roughly 1 in 5 are using disability insurance.
In a half-dozen interviews with Chicago-area mothers who have taken disability-insurance funded maternity leave, most said they deeply valued the paid time off and that they give their employers high marks for doing more than most. But the mothers also complained of paperwork hassles, Catch-22s, partial pay and inflexible timing. One mother said she had to run out to have medical documents scanned at a time when she was caring for newborn twins, and several said that the pay - often 60 percent of a woman's salary - was too low, or that they had to return to work too soon.
"It was better than nothing, but that's not saying a lot," said Molly Allen, a Chicago-based sales executive who burned through all her sick time and vacation time to supplement six weeks of disability pay at 60 percent of salary. She emerged from a 12-week leave, including three weeks unpaid, with a new baby, a full-time job and zero accumulated days off.
"You have your own doctor's appointments - and the baby's," said Allen, 36, who relied on flexible scheduling as she accumulated new vacation days. "It was brutal."
Cheree Moore, 33, of Oak Park, Ill., said that she felt very fortunate to get paid maternity leave when she worked in the development office at a local university, and her employer was remarkably supportive and accommodating. The problem lay with the insurance company, which required a lot of paperwork at a time when she was caring for newborn twins.
"You got all these letters, and you had to reply by a certain time, and I was like, 'I can barely remember to take a shower, let alone call you at a certain time on a certain day,' " said Moore, who was breast-feeding and had a toddler son. "I know, for a lot of women, that could be very discouraging because you're just like, 'What if I forget? I don't want to owe any money.' It wasn't very straightforward."
Moore said she trusted her employer, but if she hadn't, she would have been reluctant to even use the benefit.
She also points out that men don't get paternity leave under a disability-based system.
"You kind of feel like a single mom," she said of caring for her babies while her husband was at work. Her husband was able to take off maybe two days after the girls were born, she said; that was it.
Some of the Chicago moms' key complaints are addressed by the Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act, which is now before Congress. The bill provides 12 weeks of paid leave for new parents, people caring for seriously ill family members and workers with serious illnesses. Employers and employees would each pay 0.2 percent of wages (or 2 cents for every $10) to fund the program, according to Vicki Shabo, vice president of the National Partnership for Women & Families. The self-employed would pay 0.4 percent.
New parents would get 66 percent of their salaries under the plan, they'd be able to preserve some of their sick time, and leave would not have to be taken immediately after the child's birth, Shabo said. Congress is unlikely to act on the bill this year, she said, but it has more support than ever before.
Novosel, the mom with premature twins, said that she went back to work when her boys were about 6 weeks old. Then, when both boys were home from the hospital after 17 weeks, she simply didn't go to the office.
"I just stopped. I knew I had to take care of my kids," said Novosel, now 48, of Wilmette, Ill.
Novosel's story has a happy ending. She got an extra six weeks or so of time off to care for her twins (now 14 and "miraculously, totally fine"), and she returned to work only when she was ready to do so.
But, in the interim, she says, there was a lot of stress and uncertainty.
"It's a terrible feeling to have no idea _ no idea _ whether you're employed, not employed, have benefits, are getting paid," she said. "There should be some maternity leave. You should have some period of time to take care of the needs of your family."
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