by Bethany Santos Fauteux
I am a state certified early childhood educator and worked for a childcare center that did not provide paid leave. Most do not.
In August of 2013 I gave birth to my second child. In order to keep a roof over our heads, I had to return to work after three weeks. As I sat on the floor taking care of other mothers’ children, the pain of my c-section stitches didn’t compare to the pain of not being with my own brand new baby.
Early childhood programs give kids the basis of everything they need for the rest of their lives — from the days of the week to sharing to keeping our hands to ourselves. Living in New Bedford, most of my students were poor kids of color with a childhood comparable to mine. I was proud that I could show them learning is fun and important.
No one tells you when you take out loans for your major that you’ll earn too little to pay them back. To be treated as if you’re disposable was truly heartbreaking. Care work is so undervalued because it’s a woman’s job — child care workers earn poverty wages in 40 states.
I eventually gave up a career I loved because I was able to make more money working in a restaurant. It was still a struggle but I wasn’t drowning.
And then the pandemic hit. Our hours were cut. More than half the staff was let go. I was kept on but it was very unstable. The daycare was shut down and my daughter, who’s 13, was doing only virtual learning.
On top of that, my mother, who’s 72, was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimers. She hid it for a long time. Before I knew how bad it was, I left my kids with her. The kids called crying, saying my mom had passed out in the street. She had stopped taking her heart meds.
From then on, I became her caretaker too.
When my son’s school re-opened, there was more uncertainty. Any sign of illness required me to pick him up and get him tested. At one point, this was happening every other week. My hours got cut even more.
My lowest point came one day when the school called the restaurant to say I had to get my son, and then my mom called to say she was having a cardiac episode and I had to take her to the hospital. Would I lose my hours for the week? I was trying to be everything to everyone and failing at all of it.
Like so many women in this pandemic, I can’t work and I can’t not work. It’s like two puzzle pieces that don’t fit together.
I’m constantly juggling utility bills — when one is about to be shut off, I deal with that one and hold off the other. It’s like a jenga game. I had to get advances at work. At some point your pride just goes. I even thought about talking out a payday loan. I can’t let my kids go without water.
And I still owe student loans. I‘ve only paid on the interest.
I got involved with the Coalition for Social Justice fighting for paid leave. I thought, I’m the 99% that doesn’t have a trust fund, and these are basic human rights. Every other civilization has figured it out. Are the people who make policy, who have paid leave thanks to my taxes, telling me I’m not important enough to have access to the same support?
When I met CSJ, I felt like I met my people, ones who valued me and put that toward action and solutions.
On April 21 I testified on behalf of CSJ, our national Network, Family Values @ Work, and for the Voices of Workers group of the Paid Leave for All campaign. We know that even before the pandemic, parents had to die alone, that nearly 1 in 4 new moms had to go back after only two weeks, that dads are made to feel they’re not parents, that for many people, cancer treatment is what you do on your lunch hour or on the weekends. We need permanent solutions.
We are seeing the disastrous effects when you don’t provide a basic safety net and a disaster happens. It is sick and sad — and also avoidable. We can’t go back but we can make sure it doesn’t happen again. We need permanent solutions.
Many of us have seen needed reforms get passed and we’ve been left out. So I implore our Members of Congress, please pass paid family and medical leave now. Make it affordable, make it secure, make it include me and the millions like me.
Making paid leave equitable for women, people of color, LGBTQ folks, is what will make it effective and sustainable for all of us. It’s the road to good jobs, the bridge to good health, the bricks and mortar of a thriving society.
And it is the way to show the majority of people who are like me, that we matter to the people who dictate our well being.
Watch/Hear Bethany Santos Fauteux and other workers and leaders advocate for paid leave at House Ways & Means Committee.