Image via Stocksy / Lea Csontos
Ali Dodd and Amber Scorah both lived through every parent's worst nightmare. Now they're trying to ensure that no new mother has to suffer the same tragedy.
On April 6, 2015, Ali Dodd's infant son, Shepard, suffocated at an Oklahoma day care after being put to sleep in a car seat and left unattended for two hours. In July of the same year, Amber Scorah's three-month-old son, Karl, died suddenly and mysteriously at a day care in New York. It had been Dodd's sixth day at work after just 11 weeks of maternity leave; for Scorah, it was her first day back.
"The hardest thing for my husband and me is that Shepard died alone," Dodd told Broadly over the phone, fighting back tears. "It's still unthinkable."
Now both women are calling upon the presidential candidates from both parties to publicly commit to taking action on parental leave during their first 100 days in office. America is currently the only industrialized nation in the world without any form of mandated paid parental leave, and it has one of the highest rates of infant mortality of any industrialized nation.
Though the two women come from opposite ends of the political spectrum—Dodd is conservative, and Scorah is liberal—they agree that parental leave should not be a partisan issue. Having suffered the same unthinkable loss, they know firsthand the vast importance of ensuring that all Americans get suitable time with their newborn children.
"I found Amber in July, right after Karl died," Dodd said. "She was the first mom I had heard of who was going through exactly what I had gone through. We were like, 'This is so similar. How can this happen? How can this happen in Oklahoma and New York?'" They've been supporting each other and collaborating ever since.
Before giving birth to Shepard, Dodd spent months researching and applying to day cares—she even pulled out of one after realizing the facility didn't require vaccinations. She had originally been offered just a month of unpaid maternity leave and appealed directly to a vice president at her company for 11 weeks instead. "We, as Americans, have this ideal of ourselves that we do it ourselves: We're responsible, we save, we live below our means. And you know what? My husband and I did all that," she said. "We did everything right by every conservative definition, and my baby still died."
Watch our documentary: Maternity Leave: How America Is Failing Its Mothers
Scorah, too, agonized over choosing a day care, and she worried that the three months of leave she was guaranteed through her job were insufficient, but she felt she had no other options. "I asked for more time off, but I was told there was no option for extending my leave, even unpaid. I would have to quit," she told Broadly in an email. "My partner and I weighed it, and I wanted to, but we felt that it would be financially irresponsible to give up a relatively family-friendly job to buy myself just a couple more months, which was all we could afford, only to then be unemployed and without health insurance for my child and my family."
Copious research shows that sufficient maternity leave is crucial to infant health. As Dodd and Scorah outlined in an op-ed for USA Today, "American babies whose mothers don't have maternity leave are less likely to be taken to the doctor and less likely to be breastfed. Toddlers of parents without paid leave have more behavioral problems and score lower on cognitive tests." Research shows that infant mortality goes down 13 percent with each additional month a woman has paid maternity leave—but still, one in four American women must return to work within two weeks of giving birth.
"There is so much research that shows that parental leave leads to better outcomes for our children—developmentally, health-wise, and beyond," said Scorah. "Same for mothers' health."
Dodd says that she and Scorah would ideally like to see a federal law mandating six months of paid parental leave, but "I think we both think that three months is more doable." (Earlier this month, New York state instituted the nation's most comprehensive maternity leave policy, guaranteeing women up to 12 weeks of paid time off.)
"We need, at a minimum, job protection and health care coverage to bridge the time until we return to work, and most mothers and fathers would need at least partial pay during that period," said Scorah. "This is not a revolutionary idea, certainly not unrealistic, as it is a working (and very successful) standard in most countries that are comparable economically to the United States."
Currently, just five states have mandated paid leave, meaning that activists like Dodd and Scorah have their work cut out for them. While both understand this, they feel an immense sense of purpose in advocating for other new mothers disastrously underserved by existing policies. "Our sons mean the world to us—Ali is one of the only people who can truly understand my loss," Scorah said. "So to work together with her in the names of our sons is constantly inspiring and motivating to me. I love thinking how many people know Karl and Shepard now. Their lives are so important."
Sign Scorah and Dodd's petition calling on presidential candidates to commit to act for mandated paid family leave here.
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