The day after my first miscarriage, I sat in a shopping centre Costa with my mum, who urged me to email my boss asking for time off. It was a Sunday and because I hadn’t really known what else to do, we’d come to the shops. The excuse was I needed a new winter coat, as my old one was now stained in an indelible way that had nothing to do with whether it could be dry-cleaned or not. It was soaked with my blood from waiting in A&E, shortly before being told my baby no longer had a heartbeat. In the changing-room mirrors, my face was pale and puffy, my stomach somehow deflated and too large at the same time. I should have been 12 weeks pregnant.
‘You need time,’ my mum had said. I reluctantly agreed. But how much? Was a miscarriage even something you could ask for time off for? Back then, I had no idea.
This is why New Zealand’s soon-to-be-law entitling anyone who loses a baby at any point during pregnancy to three days’ paid bereavement leave is so important – and necessary.
It sends a powerful message: that miscarriage matters. That the loss of a pregnancy is worthy of time off, however far along you were. That it is not ‘just a heavy period’ or ‘just a bunch of cells’, or any of the other ‘justs’ that cling to this subject.
It’s a grief that cannot be measured by the number of weeks’ gestation.
A miscarriage turns you inside out. It’s painful and it’s lonely – you are, after all, grieving for someone who may only have existed for you and your partner.
A miscarriage turns you inside out. It’s painful and it’s lonely – you are, after all, grieving for someone who may only have existed for you and your partner. But I didn’t know any of this before mine. My fear, when I typed out that first email to my boss, was that I was making a bit of a fuss. There was nothing in either my pregnancy leaflets or my employee handbook about returning to work after a miscarriage. Fortunately, I had a kind boss who insisted I took the whole week off. It wasn’t counted as sick leave and I didn’t have to use up my holiday allowance, as other women can feel they have no choice but to do.
A policy like New Zealand’s helps to normalise miscarriage as a fact of life – and work. No one’s saying three days is enough to fully grieve the baby – the child, the teenager – you thought you were going to have. But it’s what those three days stand for that counts. In New Zealand, a miscarriage will now have the same legal status in terms of paid time off as any other death of a family member.
And putting it on the statute books means everyone gets something, whether you’re the CEO or on a zero-hours contract. It means people who go through miscarriage aren’t left at the mercy of individual company policies, as they are in this country.
Currently in the UK, a miscarriage is classed as a loss before 24 weeks of pregnancy, after which point the death of a baby is recorded as a stillbirth. The difference between the two in terms of legal rights is stark. Mothers and fathers who lose a baby after 24 weeks of pregnancy are usually entitled to a combination of bereavement leave, maternity leave, as well as statutory maternity pay.
However, women who lose a baby before 24 weeks do not qualify for maternity leave or pay and instead any time off has to be taken as sick leave – and it’s not always a given that GPs will write the required note. Partners aren’t entitled to anything at all. It’s a cut-off feels especially cruel for those who have a late miscarriage. (There are some things you can ask for and ways to protect yourself from workplace discrimination though after a loss before the 24-week point, as this very useful guide explains here.)
By comparison, under New Zealand’s ‘miscarriage leave’ policy, the right to three days paid leave is also extended to partners, as well as to parents expecting a baby via a surrogate.
The New Zealand policy isn’t perfect. It explicitly excludes abortion or any kind of termination, for one thing, which apparently fails to account for the enormous, complicated grief of those who have to end a much-wanted pregnancy for medical reasons.
And, of course, laws like this won’t automatically guarantee that women will feel able to take up this kind of leave. If your employer didn’t know you were pregnant in the first place, it can feel like a gamble alerting them to the fact you’re trying to start a family. Despite laws to the contrary, we all know that maternity discrimination happens. It’s bad enough to be passed over for promotions and payrises for a baby you get to come home to at night, but to face the motherhood penalty for a baby you only get to grieve? Silence can feel like the safer option, frankly.
Still, New Zealand’s new law is a welcome reminder to the world that a miscarriage is loss. And it’s high time workplaces made space for it. As Ginny Andersen, the New Zealand Labour MP who presented the miscarriage leave Bill, tweeted: ‘We should not be fearful of our bodies’. And neither should our employers.
- A version of this post was originally published by Grazia magazine.
You may also be interested in….
This post on how to feel better after a miscarriage
This guest blog on termination for medical reasons