A mother's anguish after her baby dies in day care sheds light on a key problem with the American workplace
Amber Scorah dropped her 3-month-old son Karl Towndrow off for his first morning of day care around 9:30 am on July 13. Less than three hours later, he was dead.
In an article she wrote for the New York Times this past weekend about her loss, Scorah doesn't damn the unlicensed day care she took her son to for her son's loss, nor does she condemn her employer that wouldn't allow her to extend her leave by taking unpaid time off after her first three months of paid maternity leave.
Instead, she damns the workplace culture in America that demanded she return to work before she was ready, and she's lobbying for a national parental leave system that guarantees at least six months of paid leave for parents.
"I wasn't just up against the end of my parental leave," Scorah, an editorial producer at Scholastic who lives in New York, writes. "I was up against an entire culture that places very little value on caring of infants and small children."
The US is one of just two countries in the world that doesn't ensure any paid time off for new moms, according to a report from the International Labor Organization. The other is Papua New Guinea. In countries like Germany and Sweden, new mothers are guranteed at least one year of paid leave.
While plenty of studies have shown the value of parental leave policies, many parents in America today are faced with a near-impossible decision: sacrifice a job and the ability to provide for their child or give up the ability to nurture their child "past the point of vulnerability," as Scorah describes it.
Scorah faced such a dilemma with her son Karl. She says that she was told by her employer's HR department that there was no system in place that would allow her to extend her maternity leave beyond three months. Her only option was to quit, which would mean losing out not only on an income, but also health insurance for Karl, since her partner, Lee Towndrow, worked freelance. Or Towndrow could quit his job, but, since he earned more, Scorah says that would mean not being able to pay all the bills.
After a long search, Scorah says the couple settled on sending Karl to a day care near her workplace, which came highly recommended. She justified the decision "a million ways," Scorah writes, "as one justifies when one has run out of alternatives." But regardless of all the justifications, the decision felt wrong, she says.
"I would have stayed home with Karl longer, but there just didn't seem to be a way," Scorah writes. "And I knew well enough that a million other mothers in America before me had faced the same choice and had done the same, even earlier than I had, though it tortured them emotionally, or physically, to do so."
Her son died two and a half hours after the first time she left him at day care of "undetermined" causes, she says.
Scorah continues to wonder if Karl would be dead had he been with her that morning and says that had he been at home with her, where she wanted him, she wouldn't be living with "the nearly incapacitating anguish of a question that has no answer."
"Regardless of the answers I will never have, the question I now ask is: Should parents have to play this roulette with their weeks-old infant? To do all they can possibly do to ensure that their baby is safe, only to be relying on a child-care worker's competence or attentiveness or mood that day?" she writes.
In the wake of their grief, Schorah and Towndrow created ForKarl.com, a website that allows users to contact their state representatives or presidential candidates to urge them to sponsor and support a parental leave bill that would provide at least six months of paid leave to new parents.
"A mother should never have no choice but to leave her infant with a stranger at three months old if that decision doesn't feel right to her. Or at six weeks old. Or at three weeks old," Scorah writes.
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