New Zealand’s parliament will soon be asked to give cross-party support to a bill legislating three days’ paid bereavement leave for women and their partners after a miscarriage.
If the bill succeeds, it could provide much-needed time off for individual women and their families, as well as momentum to broaden the conversation in New Zealand (where, like most of the world, miscarriage has been described by MP Ginny Andersen as a “taboo” subject) and beyond.
The loss of a pregnancy, suffering a miscarriage, the death of a baby – and the many other words women use to describe this intimate and difficult experience – will feel different to every woman. Physically different depending on how advanced the pregnancy is and how it is managed medically. Emotionally distinct for every person going through it for a wide range of experiential, historical, social, cultural and relationship reasons.
It is also unpredictable. A very early miscarriage might be devastating for some, while others feel able to move beyond a later miscarriage more swiftly than imagined. Thankfully, New Zealand proposes offering this leave for any confirmed pregnancy that ends in loss – no matter how far along. If the bill is passed, these three days will also be available to those whose baby is stillborn, in addition to the maternity leave that any eligible woman whose baby dies after 20 weeks in New Zealand remains entitled to.
Of course, not all women will want or need time off to grieve. When I told women’s stories of miscarriage – the first piece I wrote for The Pool three years ago – I was surprised at the great diversity within the experience. Stories poured in (over 70 in one evening) and some of the women reaching out to me would not have taken leave had it been offered to them. Some women don’t experience grief, while others prefer to keep their miscarriage away from their employer’s gaze. Working can be a comfort or offer an important distraction for others, so it’s key, as with any of the profound moments across our reproductive lives, not to generalise but instead to make space for women to go through it in their own way.
Other women I’ve supported as a doula after miscarriage have needed much, much more time to be emotionally ready to go back to work. Those three days will not be enough for some, but I hope that the simple existence of bereavement leave for miscarriage would make employers more likely to understand the need for flexibility and compassion.
And that is perhaps the most progressive aspect of this plan. Its purpose isn’t physical recovery (for which sick leave is designed) but, as Iain Lees-Galloway, New Zealand’s minister for workplace relations and safety, explains, it has been proposed to allow parents to “grieve and spend time to work through the personal toll of a miscarriage”.
Three days will not be enough for some, but I hope that the simple existence of bereavement leave for miscarriage would make employers more likely to understand the need for flexibility and compassion
The emotional burden of a journey to parenting can be overwhelming even in the least complicated of circumstances. And with openness about maternal mental health and the double-edged sword of joy and pain that often goes alongside becoming a mother only really beginning to be spoken about in a nuanced way, it’s perhaps unsurprising that it is only now that some countries are beginning to legislate to allow families to work and cope at the same time.
Sadly, the UK is not yet one of those countries. As Maternity Action’s invaluable fact sheets explain, there is no requirement for UK employers to offer compassionate leave after a miscarriage (though new legislation provides two weeks bereavement leave to parents after a stillbirth or the death of a child). Women who need time off for physical symptoms should be able to access sick leave by self-certifying or with the support of a GP’s letter. But partners will end up scrabbling around with dependant leave (which many aren’t aware of) and as to the emotional recovery? That’s on your own time.
As Zoe Clark-Coates, CEO of the Mariposa Trust, explains, “people who go through the tragedy of baby loss are often not given the leave they need from work to recover physically or emotionally. This can result in many people having to either leave their employment or returning to work before they are ready, which can have huge consequences for them on their mental wellbeing.”
Like Clark-Coates, I believe that giving parents the time they need away from work would have long-term benefits for families and employers that exceed a short-term financial loss. And, importantly, I feel certain that if the New Zealand bill succeeds and we can persuade the UK to follow suit, our society will be jolted by this decision in to reframing the conversation around baby loss in more open and compassionate way.