I started working at ManpowerGroup, a global, Fortune 500 staffing company, over five years ago. At the time, I was in my mid-twenties and looking to climb the corporate ladder. I wasn’t concerned with policies or benefits relating to maternity leave, as I was mostly concerned about what next big project I would be managing or where the next happy hour was going to be.
Then, on April 11th at 1:30 p.m., my world change. My daughter, Sadie McKenzie Smith, entered the world weighing 1 pound and 11 ounces. Three weeks prior to her premature birth, I was admitted to the hospital with complications. My mind was racing with all sorts of questions: “Is my baby okay?” “What will happen to my career?” “How will I complete graduate school?” “Am I going to be okay?”
I’d been in the middle of a corporate accounting graduate class and was in pursuit of my Masters of Science in project management at the University of Wisconsin, Platteville. I was also the Manager of Shared Services for ManpowerGroup Solutions RPO, managing a multitude of technology projects for our long list of Fortune 500 clients. Being a professional Project Manager, my nature is to organize my life so that there are no surprises, as it helps me prioritize the day and not feel overwhelmed.
So, when this unexpected life event happened, I tried to do what I do best: organize my mind, so that I could feel in control of something I couldn’t control. I organized my game plan as a career-driven preemie parent into 10 actionable buckets:
1. Know the importance of your corporate relationships, and utilize them.
I’m sure by now you’ve either read or know of the book “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg. I found that having existing relationships with leadership at ManpowerGroup who already at seats at the table was so helpful in my situation. I was able to reach out to these key stakeholders to explain my life event and create a corporate support system. This support system helped me communicate internally what was happening, as well as determine how I could still help the ManpowerGroup team and maintain my work calendar in the process.
2. Understand your benefits.
FMLA, Short Term Disability — all of it. Thirty days after birth, you can register your child for healthcare, too. I must have called my insurance every week I was in the hospital to make sure Sadie and I were covered.
3. Communicate with your team.
I had let my team know early on (about 26 weeks) that my blood pressure was starting to become alarmingly higher day by day with my pregnancy. Some of you might know this is commonly known as preeclampsia. I had let the team know the “what ifs” to help prepare them in an emergency. I also started to create contact lists for all my projects; it was like one huge stakeholder register. This would help my team communicate with vendors if I was there one day and gone the next. Over the next three weeks, I worked remotely from my hospital bed; I just needed my cell phone and good wifi. I attended conference calls, completed emails, project plans, lead client meetings and trainings — all between ultrasounds, nurse rotations, blood draws, and getting woken up every two hours for vitals. Working remotely allowed me to continue working without using up short-term disability or vacation time. It allowed me to maintain my “normal.” It also helped fill my day. Being on bed rest and monitors can be very difficult; it was important to keep my mind busy.
4. Don’t WebMD/Google it.
When you get admitted to the hospital with preeclampsia, inter-uterine growth restriction and a bicornuate uterus, your first inclination is to Google everything. Don’t do it. Everyone’s case is different, and you shouldn’t scare yourself for no reason. The doctors are going to use all sorts of new terminology to explain what is happening to you and baby. Read The Preemie Primer and educate yourself.
5. Speaking of — read the “The Preemie Primer.”
This book is written by OB/GYN Dr. Jennifer Gunter, and what’s great about it is that you get both the perspective of a doctor and parent (Dr. Gunter had preemie triplets). This book helped me understand the terms all preemie parents need to become familiar with, like Retinal detachment, Isolate and nasal cannula, just to name a few.
6. Work with your hospital’s social worker.
In the state of Wisconsin, babies born with a low birth weight (under 2 pounds) are considered disabled and applicable for Medicare, no matter parental income status. This meant that even though I had insurance through United Health Care, I also had supplemental care (SSI) with Medicare for as long as Sadie was in the hospital. The hospital social worker is your advocate; ask them every question you can think of and then some!
7. Take some “me” time.
The feeling of guilt is so strong when you have a baby in the NICU. You feel guilty for leaving your baby while you go home for the day (I lived over an hour from the NICU Sadie was staying at). I had a routine of visiting the NICU every day from 9-2 while on maternity leave. It was important for me to recover and not fall into a depression. Getting my hair cut, nails done, etc. helped me feel normal and provided some happiness in a stressful time.
8. Get close with your NICU staff.
I cannot stress this enough. These nurses are your advocates; they are going to help you and your little one get through this. Ask the nurses questions and press them for information about what is happening or when things might happen. I became great friends with some of the nurses, and we still speak today.
9. Save your PTO.
Don’t waste your vacation days on non-important things. In the first year of your preemie’s life, you will have developmental clinics and doctor checkups. You’ll need to reserve all the PTO you can.
10. Ask for help.
There were days I wasn’t as strong and needed some help — don’t be afraid to ask for it. I asked my mother to clean out my refrigerator at home since I was basically living at the NICU. I asked my team at ManpowerGroup to help with projects I would have normally managed myself. I asked the lactation consultant for help with breastfeeding. (Sadie was too small to latch, so I pumped every two to four hours for three months — yes, even at 2am I would wake up to pump.) Some days I just needed to drain the tears, so I would cry and then go for a walk to regroup.
What’s life like now?
Sadie is 8 months old and thriving, and I’m back to work full-time. I work remotely, allowing me to drop Sadie off at daycare each morning without worrying about competing with city traffic in Milwaukee. Every three months, I have to take Sadie to developmental clinics to asses her capabilities for her adjusted age. I have one class left in pursuit of my Master’s degree and I get to travel occasionally for work. This life event pushed me to the edge but it made me a stronger leader with more compassion.