This week, New Zealand’s parliament passed legislation allowing paid bereavement leave for workers who mis-carry a pregnancy.
Workers will get three days’ leave under the new law.
This is the second country in the world, after India, to have such a measure.
The second. Only.
Why is so much of women’s lives forced into the shadows?
The unfortunate and sobering truth, that many women already intimately know, is that around one in five pregnancies will end in loss. Some say that’s as many as one in four.
Workers in Ireland are entitled to the full State maternity benefit if they lose a pregnancy from 24 weeks on, but not earlier.
However, most miscarriages happen in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.
But giving three days’ leave, specifically for a pregnancy loss, is about so much more than money or time.
Such law and leave would recognise that pregnancy loss is part and parcel of life, and it’s a very common experience for women in this country.
Right now, we don’t talk about it. We don’t acknowledge it. Many women go through all the physicality that losing a pregnancy entails, telling maybe only their partner
Talk to any woman you know who’s lost a pregnancy and they will have marked the loss in some way shape or form. Women I know have bought a piece of jewellery, planted a flower, let off a balloon, taken a day’s leave from work when they’re feeling physically better, and gone for a special walk.
Feeling physically better takes time too.
As long as a woman is medically stable, there are three options after a miscarriage has been diagnosed. One is ‘wait and see’. This involves cramping and bleeding. There is also a risk of infection and a follow-up ultrasound to see if the pregnancy has passed completely.
The second option involves taking tablets. Prescription pain relief is also given. And heavy bleeding is expected too, “much heavier than a period”, says the HSE.
The third option is the so-called ‘D&C’. This surgical procedure involves fasting and an anaesthetic.
To think we offer no paid leave for women who suffer a miscarriage is actually archaic, not to mention inhumane.
Imagine experiencing one of the above three options, taking one or two sick days from work if you can afford it, having to come up with some believable lie about the flu or food poisoning, and then back to work 48 hours later to pack shelves, hold meetings, or teach a class full of 15-year-olds.
The figures show that pregnancy loss is extremely common, but our society’s handling of it would make you think it’s a total anomaly.
And another shared experience in this secret world of loss is that women will forever remember the due date of the baby they lost.
That’s the most common thing I’ve heard women share. As humans, we remember dates that carry significant meaning for us.
The Labour politician in New Zealand who introduced the bill for the paid leave, Ginny Andersen, said she hopes that other countries will begin to legislate “for a compassionate and fair leave system that recognises the pain and the grief that comes from miscarriage and stillbirth”.
And it’s not that I think our politicians haven’t cared down through the years, but how do you think to make room for something that you’ve never experienced?
In 1992, the Dáil was made up of 12% women and 88% men, and in 1981, it was composed of 7% women and 93% men. In our latest Dáil, less than a quarter of our TDs are women.
But news travels fast nowadays. Will we follow New Zealand’s lead?
Some might say “sure there’s no need, just take a sick day”. That’s one of those ‘Irish solutions’.
The only thing is this isn’t an Irish-only problem. Pregnancy loss happens every day around the world, but we don’t talk about it, we haven’t made room for it in our society
There is the aspect of wanting to grieve in private, and deal with it on your own, and not involve your employer. But there is also the point that miscarriage is taboo, precisely because we have no legislation around it, and maybe that’s why people prefer to deal with it in private and alone.
But it’s hard to justify processing any other kind of loss privately and in isolation, especially one that is potent in its physicality. Most grief is a public affair, conversations are had and experienced and empathy are shared.
Legislating for leave will have the effect of taking women’s experience out of the shadows, a public acknowledgment that pregnancy loss is common, and something that women are experiencing every day in this country.
Legislating for leave could also have the effect of taking many other women’s experiences out of the shadows, such as menstruation, something that can be physically painful for girls and women and emotionally and mentally challenging with the cascading of ever-changing hormones.
Taking any experience out of the shadow means conversations are had and concrete, accurate information gets shared. It leads to a much healthier, vibrant, productive society where energy isn’t wasted on discretion and secrecy.
It also leads to a compassionate society, where unavoidable loss doesn’t have to lead to unavoidable suffering alone.
Legislating for paid bereavement leave for workers who miscarry a pregnancy will go a long way to taking many experiences of our citizens out of the shadows.
And shadows are different to privacy. Privacy is an informed and empowered choice. Shadow suffering is shame-driven. Let’s follow New Zealand’s lead.