This is part of a series called “The First 12 Weeks” that takes readers into the homes of new parents in the Chicago area to see the joys, frustrations and needs of families. Press play on any grey audio player to hear the mothers in their own words. Click here to read more about this project and find out how you can contribute your story.
Katie reached her breaking point on an otherwise unremarkable morning in March. At eight weeks postpartum, the new mom was consumed by anxious thoughts about her newborn daughter, Parker.
Did Parker eat enough?
Did I accidentally eat dairy today?
How do I get Parker to stop crying?
Is this really supposed to be this hard?
After weeks of listening to Parker scream with frustration, Katie felt hopeless. The baby wouldn’t reliably eat.
“Eating was a struggle and because she ate eight to ten times a day, we struggled eight to ten times a day,” says Katie. “It was awful. I felt like I was consistently failing.”
The 36-year-old mother’s desperation was amplified by a fast-approaching deadline. In just three weeks, Katie was due to return to work.
The United States is one of only a handful of United Nations countries — and the only rich, industrialized one — without any national paid leave. And while research has shown that the ideal amount of maternity leave lands around six months, and that maternal health outcomes improve when birthing parents have time to heal, the reality is that American parents are lucky to get six weeks. Here only 25% of workers get any leave at all.
Katie, who has been at her current job for less than a year, had 12 weeks of unpaid leave, courtesy of a federal law that covers people caring for babies, sick family members and their own health conditions. She didn’t qualify for any of the recent programs that Illinois has enacted. Not the bill guaranteeing Illinois residents 40 hours of paid leave that Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker signed in March, which she missed by just six weeks, nor the City of Chicago guarantee — from outgoing Mayor Lori Lightfoot — that city employees receive 12 paid weeks.
But even a generous amount of time off postpartum cannot relieve the pressures of working parenthood. There’s a longstanding American value that parents, and mothers in particular, need to separate home from work to be successful in their careers.
That weighed on Katie, even though she is not in a partnership that follows traditional gender fault lines or expectations. Her wife, Savannah, who goes by Sav and identifies as nonbinary, offered all the support she could. But there are some maternal burdens that Katie just could not share, such as nursing and pumping breast milk, feeling groggy after middle-of-the-night feeding or recovering from the physical and emotional upheaval of giving birth.
“I felt all this pressure because I was the one breastfeeding,” says Katie. “I was on call and I felt really helpless.”
Without a solution in sight, Katie found herself circling a question familiar to many new parents facing the return to work. “I just kept thinking, how can I just leave?” says the new mom. “It felt kind of impossible.”
Parental rights not guaranteed
Katie and Sav are planners, and as a queer couple, their decision to start a family was a carefully considered one. As chief financial adviser of the house, Sav, who uses she/they pronouns, wanted to save enough money to cover medical expenses. Katie wanted to feel rooted in her career. By 2019, the two were exploring options.
Over the next three years, the couple would spend months of their lives and upwards of $10,000 in fertility treatments. The two were fortunate; Sav’s insurance covered most of their IVF treatments. After three rounds of failed Intrauterine Insemination — “Basically a fancy turkey baster,” says Katie — a miscarriage, and two rounds of in vitro fertilization (IVF), the couple were exhausted.
They’d each undergone IVF so they could have a biological child. Katie would be the first to carry a baby, and she would carry an embryo formed from Sav’s egg and sperm from a donor. “I’ve always felt sad that we couldn’t have a child that’s biologically both ours,” says Sav. “I just have a human desire for that — to see a kid that we would make. [Reciprocal IVF] felt as close as we could get to making a baby together.”
On May 12, 2022, Katie learned she was pregnant.
Sav took the lead on planning, researching day cares, and curating a registry with environmentally friendly baby toys and clothes. They read through Facebook posts and scoured the internet for the top-rated car seats and strollers. Nursery furniture was ordered months in advance and the walls of the baby room painted a muted sage green. Sav, whose family comes from Appalachia, stitched Parker a traditional Appalachian quilt sewn with images meant to connect Parker with history from both families.
Both Katie and Sav took all four birthing classes available through Northwestern’s Prentice Women’s Hospital — “I think we were the only queer couple in those classes,” recalls Katie — and Katie also met with a lactation consultant to prepare for breastfeeding.
The two also hired a lawyer to help them secure parental rights for Sav. As the nonbirthing parent in a queer couple, Sav did not have the same claims to the baby, even though Sav is Parker’s biological parent.
Without legal rights, the couple faced a big risk. If the family traveled to a state or a country with less progressive views on queer parentage, Sav worried about being considered Parker’s legal guardian — and about being locked out of important decisions around health or finances.
That brought another cost. The cost of going through the legal system to seek parentage for Sav that would give both parents equal rights regarding Parker anywhere they went.
“We just want to be as prepared as possible,” says Katie.
The battle to feed the baby
One early lesson a new parent learns in their first 12 weeks with a baby is that a newborn does not care about plans. That was certainly true of Parker, despite Katie and Sav’s best intentions.
Looking back, Katie can now see that Parker had struggled to eat from day one. The first time Katie put Parker to the breast in the hospital, her daughter nursed for close to an hour. When the nurse came back to the room, she was surprised to see the baby still nursing.
“I remember asking, ‘Well, when is she supposed to stop?’ ” recalls Katie. “Parker just never seemed to get full or milk drunk.”
In the coming days, Katie also noticed that Parker made clicking sounds while she nursed and that the newborn rarely latched on to the breast for more than a few minutes at a time. Even when she did latch, Parker had trouble getting milk and would drool and bite Katie’s nipples.
Katie’s neck and back started to hurt because often contorted herself into pretzeled positions in hopes that it would help Parker eat more easily.
“I knew it felt hard,” says Katie, “but I didn’t know that it shouldn’t be that hard.”
After two home visits, a lactation consultant suggested that the new mother take Parker to see a pediatric dentist. That recommendation was the first in a series of contradicting opinions that would consume the family’s life for the next six weeks.
In the end, the couple saw four different speech therapists each of whom offered a different theory. “One told me to restrict my diet,” recalls Katie. “No dairy. No beans. Nothing that would cause gas.” Another told the couple that Parker had reflux. “One told us to brush her skin with this weird brush eight times a day and pull at her joints. I was pulling at straws. I was spiraling.”
Even in the best circumstances, breastfeeding is hard. It’s also laborious, time-consuming and painful. When calculating the time a new mother breastfeeds in the first year of a child’s life, the hours can easily total 1,800, or just below the full-time, 40-hour-a-week job. “Everyone tells you that breastfeeding is innate and easy,” says Katie. “That just hasn’t been my experience at all.”
The new parents were savoring the moments they’d imagined: Parker’s first smile. Reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar, and much of the Eric Carle catalog. Katie made a book called My Lada Loves Me, a story that celebrates Sav who chose “Lada” as their parental nomenclature.
But an undercurrent of worry ran through the house. Parker still had difficulty eating. Ultimately, Katie and Sav elected to have Parker’s tongue tie — a condition where the tongue can interrupt the basic mechanics of nursing — clipped. If the procedure didn’t work, Katie figured it would at least eliminate one variable. But, much to her relief, Parker’s eating improved. And when it did, Katie made the decision to stop nursing and exclusively use a breast machine to pump milk.
“People always say that breastfeeding is a full-time job,” says Katie. “Now I get it.”
Breastfeeding, despite popular belief in the United States, is far from free. “It’s only free if womens’ work means nothing,” said Dr. Casey Rosen-Carole, chief of the Division of Breastfeeding & Lactation Medicine at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry. “What does it mean to create this level of fatigue? To be up at night? And what about balancing those against work and other demands? It’s an opportunity cost — time and effort.”
Despite advances in technology, pumping is hardly easier, according to a National Library of Medicine study. Especially because many workplaces are not set up to accommodate nursing mothers. No additional breaks. No private spaces to pump. And nowhere to store milk. Perhaps, then, it comes as little surprise that while some 80% of babies in the United States begin life consuming breast milk, only half remain breastfed after six months.
“We’re still stuck in this mentality that breastfeeding and lactating is this individual decision,” said Rosen-Carole. “There’s this myth that it’s under the control of the mother. But like many health behaviors, it is so hugely influenced, and undermined, by societal practices and norms.”
Katie, for her part, planned to pump in her car and in the office. Thinking about the logistics sent her into a new kind of tailspin. “I’m the only new mom at my office,” says Katie. “It’s going to take some figuring out.”
The back-to-work push
In early April, Katie is back at work and due to join a Zoom, her first in three months. Sitting at her kitchen counter, she opens her laptop and logs into her meeting. Just outside the camera frame, Katie’s pump quietly hums under a mustard yellow nursing cover draped over her shoulders.
Parker, who is ready for her next bottle, cries out from the nursery. Katie’s entire body stiffens at the sound as she sheepishly smiles at the grid of unworried faces set out in rows in front of her.
“I apologize for the screaming child in the background,” she laughs.
In the next room, Sav offers Parker a bottle. It’s her second in a row — at 12 weeks, Parker’s days of difficult eating seem behind her. And while Katie is back at work, now Sav is taking a six-week parental leave. Looking at Parker, Sav radiates content. Earlier in the morning, Sav noticed Parker holding her pacifier for the first time. The change was a delight. “Babies change so fast,” Sav says. “It’s amazing that they wake up and can do something new.”
Katie has a slightly more melancholy take. “I just already feel like I’m going to miss out,” she says. “I feel like I already am.”
Tomorrow, Katie will also wake up and do something new. Over the last week, she’s tried to ease the transition back to full-time work with meticulous planning. She bought an oversized shoulder bag designed specifically for breast pumps. She found a mini fridge for her office and intends to store her milk in it. She plans to shop for a new set of clothes — her postpartum body has left her with a limited wardrobe.
Importantly, she also negotiated a trial period working from home two days a week.
The sun shifts as the spring afternoon gives way to evening. As the night draws closer, Katie reflects on her first 12 weeks of parenthood. “Our whole world has turned upside down,” she says, “but it feels like Parker was always meant to be here. It’s been really, really difficult, but I would do it again in a heartbeat.”
In early May, a law that requires employers to provide a pumping space to nursing mothers goes into effect. Katie also shares her own news in a text. She’s been back at work for a few weeks and her new routine feels more familiar.
Pumped at a conference today, she writes. First time not at home or work!
Small victories. Katie savors each one.
Elly Fishman is a freelance writer and the author of “Refugee High: Coming of Age in America.” Manuel Martinez is a visual journalist at WBEZ.
Additional visual support was provided by WBEZ archivist Justine Tobiasz, Andjela Padejski and Mendy Kong. The project was edited by Cassie Walker Burke and fact-checked by Molly Morrow. Audio files, which were provided by the mothers, were engineered by J. Kyle White-Sullivan.