Money changes everything

There’s a picture of me in the early days with my daughter Lydia, clutching my baby and a checkbook with a supremely irritated look on my face. 

One of the things I remember most from the postpartum period — aside from the endless wails of my colicky baby and the sensation that my insides were constantly about to burst forth from my C-section incision — was the feeling of persistent financial-related stress.  

“What should be a joyous occasion for families frequently becomes a trigger for falling into poverty,” said Ellen Bravo, executive director at Family Values at Work, a national network of coalitions that advocates for family-friendly workplaces, speaking of the baby-related financial challenges that plague families in the U.S. 

Giving birth (to a credit card balance) 

Let’s talk about the expense of giving birth. According to an article in the New York Times from June last year, charges for delivery in the U.S. have tripled since 1996, coming in at approximately $30,000 for vaginal delivery and $50,000 for a C-section. Women with insurance pay an average of $3,400 out of pocket. 

Even the average seems a little low to me. What about the parents who have inadequate insurance or who encounter unforeseen complications and expenses? 

“In all my research and planning for starting a family, it never occurred to me what a catastrophic pregnancy could do to our finances,” said Rachel, a mother of one who lives in Northeast Minneapolis. 

Rachel developed complications in her pregnancy and gave birth to her daughter at 25 weeks gestation. Her daughter spent close to five months in the NICU. 

“My hospitalization and emergency C-section ran nearly $70,000, and my daughter’s first year of medical expenses topped out at over $1.2 million,” Rachel said. 

Luckily, her insurance plan covered enough of these expenses so that her family didn’t have to sell their house or declare bankruptcy, but she shudders to think of what could’ve been if her family had chosen a less-comprehensive health plan. (By the way, her daughter’s doing great now.)      

Maternity leave?

For many women, maternity leave is a concept, not a reality. And no wonder: Although new parents have the right to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act, the law applies only to employees who have worked at least 12 months at a company with at least 50 employees. In other words, many women don’t meet the criteria — and many of the ones who do can’t afford to take time off without pay. 

It’s difficult to look at the facts and conclude that the United States’ approach to maternity (not to mention paternity) leave is anything but abysmal. According to a survey released earlier this year by the United Nations’ labor agency, ILO, all but three countries (for which they had data) provide cash benefits to women during maternity leave. 

The exceptions to the rule? Oman, Papua New Guinea and the United States. 

What you can do

If you have the energy and inspiration to rise up and take action, please do! If you organize it, I’ll join you. However, if you just need practical suggestions for addressing the financial implications of parenthood, here are a couple: 

Negotiate with your insurance company or individual billers. 

I’m currently paying off the delivery, the fancy breast pump people and an emergency room bill for my daughter in monthly, interest-free installments. 

Ask for what you want. If you want to work from home the last week before your due date, ask if you can. 

If you want to spend more time with your baby and possibly reduce childcare expenses, ask about a compressed work week or a job share. 

At heart I’m an extremely non-confrontational person, but so far I’ve found parenting to be like one long course in assertiveness training. 

When it comes time to have a baby, take advantage of the opportunity to stand up for yourself — whether it’s negotiating the cost of your epidural or the terms of your return to work. 

Believe me, it will help you prepare for the challenges to come.