I found out that I was pregnant, one month before I received a master’s degree in social work at (formerly known as) California University of Pennsylvania. I was supposed to have a child “the right way;” graduate and start working in the field of social work, get married, buy a house, and then have a child. How was I going to tell my Christian parents that their college graduate was unmarried and pregnant?
After receiving my degree, my boyfriend and I moved in with my mother and younger sister briefly before we moved into a one-bedroom apartment because that was all we could afford. My boyfriend was unemployed, struggling with his mental health and substance abuse. I felt unsupported and unloved by him; we argued often, and he reminded me of every bad choice I made after we met in college every time he got drunk.
College was filled with my best moments of laughter, fun, and joy but I made questionable choices in relationships. I spent time focused on intimate relationships and self-sacrificed and neglected my own desires and needs personally and for my future. For me, college was about finding my partner, not getting a degree. I remember writing a list in my diary when I was a teenager of what I wanted my man to be like and how I would meet him in college, and we would get married right after graduation and live happily ever after. I did not know what to do when that was not my reality. I did not know how to stay true to myself while in a relationship with someone.
I knew that I had to tell my family that I was pregnant. Hiding it was stressful and I needed their support. I knew they would not disown me, but I worried about being judged. I was grateful to my mom, my dad, and younger sister because they did not judge me, they embraced me and showed me an abundance of love and support throughout my pregnancy.
At 26, during the beginning of my second trimester we moved into our one-bedroom apartment. I remember sitting on my loveseat thinking, “I took out loans for a piece of paper to struggle financially?” What was the point of five years of undergrad and three years in my master’s program? Why did I allow myself to get pregnant by this man? He was constantly telling me through his actions that he was not ready to be in a relationship and I lied to him all the time to fit into the idea of the woman that I thought he wanted me to be. We were toxic to each other. I have all this social work training, but I am the one who needs a social worker? I did not even have health insurance at the time. I was not getting quality prenatal care. I was struggling mentally, emotionally, and physically and the guilt was overwhelming.
My boyfriend got a job, and I was working at a local non-profit in a café and my primary job was a Drug and Alcohol Intake Assessment Coordinator for youth and teens in recovery. I applied for benefits through the Department of Public Welfare, and once determined eligible, I received UPMC For You a Medicaid and Medical Assistance Plan and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) also known as “Food Stamps.” My caseworker told me that we were not eligible for cash assistance because me and my boyfriend “had too much income,” but my bank account proved otherwise. We were barely taking care of the $500 monthly rent we owed and our utilities.
The bigger my belly became, I worried about my baby’s health because my prenatal care was not great. I could not afford Lamaze classes (which in 2015 ranged between $70-$120 per class), prenatal exercise classes, or Lactation classes. I was told through word-of-mouth about Women’s Choice Network, a non-profit organization for low-income women who are pregnant and need services in the state of Pennsylvania.
If you live in or near Pittsburgh, PA, please contact Women’s Choice Network:
Call Us – 412-687-7767
Text Us – 412-201-0112
Email Us – email@example.com
My boyfriend and I attended the free classes that Women’s Choice Network offered. We watched videos on child rearing, breastfeeding, delivery, epidurals, and postpartum care to receive shopping ticket vouchers for the infant-8year old resale store that they owned next door. They helped me feel more connected to my pregnancy and prepare for delivery by taking prenatal vitamins. UPMC for You, did not offer coverage for Lamaze or birthing classes, so this free service was a major benefit and it also provided me with my first ultrasound, so that I could see my child without worrying about a co-pay.
I felt defeated often because I could not do those things prenatally that I had always imagined, like attending birth classes with other couples, buying new items for my child’s nursery, and having a maternity photoshoot. But that was not my reality. I was overwhelmed working two jobs. I felt down, anxious, and worried about being pregnant. I was overthinking and worrying about something going wrong or losing my baby because I just started prenatal care. I was engaging in negative self-talk and beating myself up for everything that went wrong. I had trouble sleeping and a poor appetite. And before sharing my pregnancy with my parents, I was isolating myself from my friends and family. I was dealing with yelling, cussing, and belittling from my partner.
I battled with myself internally on getting help and support. I was a social worker who wanted to be a therapist. How could I be in this situation? At one of my lowest moments, with tears in my eyes, I contacted the Behavioral Health phone number on the back of my insurance card. I was trembling with shame. They connected me with a provider and after the intake, I was diagnosed with Prenatal Depression and Generalized Anxiety Disorder. I had never heard of that term, Prenatal Depression. I did not even know about postpartum depression at that time.
During my first session, my therapist asked about what I enjoyed before becoming depressed. I told her about loving to sing, dance and write. I went to the Creative and Performing Arts High School for vocal performance, I performed in shows and operas, and I had a bachelor’s degree in creative writing. I told her about the pregnancy book I was gifted and that “I haven’t been writing this entire pregnancy.” I remember her saying, “well maybe that is just what you need.” I did not even realize, but I stopped doing the things that I loved throughout the 9-months of prenatal depression.
What to Expect When YOU’RE Working and Pregnant
I did not realize how my mental health was hindering my ability to be a quality employee. At the time, I thought my primary stressors were my verbally abusive relationship and lack of income, what I learned after therapy sessions was that my inner dialogue; the guilt, shame, insecurity, self-doubt, and fear were causing me the most stress.
I had heard of a paid-maternity leave, and I hoped that my employer would provide me with that assistance because, how else would I be able to pay my bills, right? I did not tell them that I was pregnant during my interview because I did not want that to hinder my chances of being hired. I needed all the money I could get.
Toward the end of my second trimester, I went to the human resources department at my primary employer to inquire about a maternity leave before I went into labor. I was struggling to get out of bed every day and dreading doing substance abuse/dependency intakes on kids every day. My mental health was declining, and I knew that coming to work in this space was making it worse. I was told that I could not be provided with a paid maternity leave because I had only been working there for under a year.
I learned quickly, that according to The United States Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division, under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), “provides twelve weeks of unpaid legal job and health benefits protections for those who qualify. However, only about 56% of workers meet the criteria. Meanwhile, many large employers provide paid parental leave voluntarily or when required by law. However, the Commonwealth of PA does not mandate this benefit for workers in the private sector.” Eligible employees who work for a covered employer can take up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave. For my employer, paid leave was only available to employees working there for longer than one year. So, my choices were to continue working while battling prenatal depression to receive income to support my family or go on a 3-month maternity leave, without income.
Unpaid Maternity Woes
Human resources also told me that if I did not come back to work within 90 days after going on leave, I would be fired. Yes…fired! How could one of the richest countries in the world have unpaid maternity leave at any employment site? Twelve work weeks is only 3 months of time off from work to spend with your child. So, if I decided to take my unpaid leave, 1-3 months before I delivered, I would have to go back to work immediately after delivering. The alternative would be to work up until the day I went into labor which felt so unnatural to me. A three-month paid maternity would have been helpful of course but still felt rushed for me. So, what I heard from HR was that I should not have gotten pregnant in America unless I was working at a job for a year.
(Note: The struggle is no different for fathers and coparents for leave during postpartum, “In the US, paternity leave falls under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which allows up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-secured leave for eligible employees within the first year of the child’s arrival.”)
So, with no idea of how we could afford our rent, bills, and save for our child, I decided to do what was best for me, my mental health, and my baby, and take an early unpaid maternity-leave when I was at the end of my second trimester.
I thought being at home would reduce my depression, but it only became worse. Sitting at home gave me time to worry and overthink. I was constantly reminding myself that I was unmarried, cohabitating, living in a one-bedroom apartment, low-income, on welfare, and diagnosed with Prenatal Depression and Generalized Anxiety Disorder. I lost myself in college and this pregnancy was the outcome of my choices. I felt ashamed, guilty, and worthless. I thought that I would be a horrible mother because I was not prepared.
I went into my delivery terrified but also ready to be done with this pregnancy. My boyfriend, my mom, my sister, and my daughter’s god mom were with me the entire deliver. I received an epidural and had a vaginal delivery. Xael was born at 10:51a, she was 6 lbs. 1 oz. and eleven inches long. She had jaundice, hip dysplasia, and she had the most beautiful eyes I ever saw. She latched to my breast like a champ.
I was still battling depression after but felt less stressed now that my daughter was here. I enjoyed connecting with her; skin to skin time, cuddling, listening to her coo, and bonding with her. She has the biggest smile, just like me and I love my sweet, my little love. While nursing, I was referred to Ngozi Walker-Tibbs, the founder and CEO of the Pittsburgh Black Breastfeeding Circle who helped me nurse for 12-months. I was one of the first in my family to breastfeed and I am proud of that. I received an email that I had been fired from my primary employer. I was upset but I knew that they would not keep me on staff if I did not go back before 90 days.
When I was 5-6 months postpartum, I applied to the same local non-profit that I was working for during the summer as the assistant to the director of youth programming. It was not the work that I desired but it allowed me to get my daughter into childcare and begin to build a life that I felt proud of.
Becoming a parent gave me the foundation of the work that I do today. I gained the love and joy of writing again, and I started a blog called Ladyhood Journey where I wrote about my college experiences and shared words of wisdom to college kids on how to avoid making self-neglecting choices in relationships. I knew that I allowed disrespect, verbal abuse, and alcohol abuse in my relationships, but I also changed who I was and lied to them and myself to fit the standard of who I thought they wanted me to be. I knew that to help others do the work for themselves, I had to do the work within, and that meant not blaming others but instead, choosing to be transparent, raw, and vulnerable with myself about my choices.
I googled self-love and found The Path of Self-love School, and although I could not afford the Foundations of Self-love program, I emailed their team and was afforded the program for free. The Path of Self-love changed my life. I learned how to practice self-love and how to spread its tools with others. I became a certified self-love coach and transformed Ladyhood Journey into The Heart Advocate where I am now a Licensed Social Worker and Self-love Therapist who helps individuals choose self-love as coping skill for mental health and healing support. I love who I am becoming, and I love what I do.
I learned and I am still learning how to stop beating myself up for my past choices. I am practicing not holding myself hostage to the reality that I did not always protect myself emotionally in relationships with partners. I am forgiving myself for settling for disrespect, verbal abuse, gaslighting, and alcoholism in relationships. I am working on being kind to the part of me that felt like I had to have a child “the right way” to be a good mother. I am a student of self-love and practicing it every day by being more compassionate with myself and making self-love choices. I am an advocate for self-worth and proud of myself for navigating one of the toughest moments of my life being a Black, low-income pregnant woman in America.
I hope my story encourages you to advocate for paid maternity and parental leave in your state, with no stipulations! Hopefully, in the future, parents will not have to deal with the concerns that people struggle with while pregnant. America is failing birthing persons and their partners and need to place value on parents because everyone deserves to have children and not have to worry about how they will provide for them financially.