‘Never took a sick day in seven years’: Oklahoma teacher moms and the realities of no paid maternity leave

On a chilly Saturday morning in February, 11-week-old Luke Myers gleefully gurgled and grunted at his mother sitting next to him on the couch. That mom, Karli Myers, holds dear time like this with her baby.

Karli Myers is a first-time parent and an English teacher at Sapulpa High School. And without any sick leave left to take, Myers had to return to her classroom the previous day, cutting short her time at home with Luke. 

That’s because public schools in Oklahoma aren’t mandated by the state to offer paid maternity leave to school faculty and staff — even though three out of four teachers in Oklahoma are women. 

Oklahoma teachers wanting to have babies are relegated to few options: try to time the birth for summer break, take limited unpaid leave, hope for colleagues to share their sick leave days, or pay out-of-pocket for their own substitute teachers.

Myers said she loves being a teacher, but —

“It was really hard, leaving him and then going and spending the day with other people’s kids,” Myers said. “You know, you’re not supposed to take a puppy away from its mother before six weeks, yet so many moms are having to do just that. And I just hate it.”

In a push to combat the state’s record teacher shortage by attracting and retaining more educators, one bill unveiled by Oklahoma Senate Republicans in January seeks to give moms like Myers some relief. 

Senate Bill 364 by Education Committee Chair Sen. Adam Pugh (R-Edmond) would mandate 12 weeks of paid maternity leave for full-time school employees. Mothers would be able to use that leave time within 12 months of the birth of their children. 

Pugh said women should not, “have to choose between… her career and her family.”

“I’d go as far as to say this is the most pro-life piece of legislation we can have this session, is to support a mother who’s having a child,” Pugh said. “And then not having to step away from the workforce, but allowing them to take some time off and then step back into the workforce in an occupation that we know is critically short.”

Twelve weeks of paid leave would have been a game-changer for Myers, who saved up her sick days for seven years to be financially able to have a baby.

“So I essentially never took a sick day in seven years of teaching to be able to account for all of this,” Myers said. “And I’ve only been married for five [years], so that tells you how proactive you really have to be if you want to be paid for the time that you’re off.” 

As the legislature mulls over measures to reel educators into Oklahoma’s classrooms, StateImpact Oklahoma asked teacher moms around the state to tell their stories of navigating childbirth and postpartum life without maternity leave.

“It’s just a really sad, harsh reality that not just teachers, but women everywhere, I feel like, have to deal with in this country,” Myers said. “The thought of that 12 weeks maternity leave — I can’t even describe to you how much of a miracle that would feel like.” 

The case for paid maternity leave

Tamika Auguste is a practicing OBGYN based in Washington D.C. and chairs the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) Foundation Board. She said the process of having a baby doesn’t just end with delivery.

“Postpartum, there is a lot going on with the mother’s body, both physiologically and mentally,” Auguste said. “Though childbirth is natural and it’s been going on since the beginning of time, we also need to recognize the effect that it has on a woman’s body.”

Auguste listed a host of complications with mothers that can arise after giving birth: 

  • Pre-eclampsia, which is when the mother’s blood pressure is elevated and proteins aren’t being processed properly through her kidneys — which can lead to seizures or even strokes. 
  • Still-healing tissue from vaginal or cesarean births.
  • For women with gestational diabetes or who had diabetes before getting pregnant, trouble with regulating glucose after the trauma of birth.
  • Postpartum depression.
  • Postpartum psychosis.

Time with mom immediately following delivery is also important for babies, Auguste said. If mothers are breastfeeding, it’s during this time babies learn cues from their moms, and moms learn cues from their babies. It’s also the point when breastfeeding problems should be addressed by lactation specialists.

And long term, research has found the duration of maternity leave is “significantly correlated” with positive mother-child reactions, leading to secure attachments, empathy, and later, academic success. 

Overall, the data on the effects of postpartum care bear out: improved physical and mental health outcomes for the mother; lower infant and maternal mortality rates; and professionally, improvements in worker morale and retention. 

In one study of women who took at least 12 weeks of leave, each additional week was associated with fewer symptoms of postpartum depression. And when comparing moms who took less than 12 weeks of paid leave against those who had more than 12 weeks, shorter leave time equated to more moms with more severe depression.

And for moms like Myers, there’s another major part of the conversation around mandated maternity leave — respect for the profession and the many women in it.

Though Myers had to save up her sick days to ensure her paycheck would keep coming after Luke’s birth, her husband — who works for Sam’s Club — automatically had six weeks of paid paternity leave. She said it felt like a “double-edged sword” — thankful he was around, but frustrated that even as a mother and a state employee, she didn’t have access to paid parental leave.

“I just think that’s something that needs to be valued,” Myers said. “If we truly, as the state of Oklahoma, are wanting to attract and retain and reward and respect teachers, [we must be] respecting them as moms.”

In a profession so overwhelmingly female, policy that “respects moms” extends beyond childbirth, said former high school English teacher Jennifer Williams. Williams had been teaching at her district for about a year when she became pregnant with her second child.

But Williams’ pregnancy didn’t go as planned, and in her second trimester, she learned she had miscarried. She remembered taking off on a Thursday or Friday, having her surgical procedure, recovering from the surgery and the loss over the weekend, and being back in the classroom Monday morning.

“I felt guilty about that. And I took the least amount of time that I could,” Williams said. “You keep teaching because the kids need you.”

Years later, when Williams and her husband decided to try for another child, they aimed, like many teachers do, to time the potential pregnancy for a summer birth. 

Summer births may be the only financially viable option for many teachers. When Williams didn’t get pregnant in that narrow window for a summer birth, she and her husband ultimately decided not to try anymore to expand their family.

When current Oklahoma City Senator and former teacher Carri Hicks had her first two children, she was able to time the births for the summer. But when a surprise pregnancy left her third child with a February due date — just a couple of months before high stakes state testing for her fourth graders — she kicked into high gear. 

Hicks spent all of her Christmas break putting together weeks of student assignments for her substitute to use. She found a long-term sub, but right before Hicks left, the sub had to back out, and Hicks’ plans for an easy hand-off collapsed. 

“Everything fell apart right at the last minute. And the sub that they had didn’t even last a day — she ended up leaving one day into the assignment.” Hicks said. “You know, we’re transitioning with the newest member of our family, but knowing that there was somewhat of a revolving door of subs is really heartbreaking, because that’s not what I wanted for them.”

Given the problems it’s already dealing with, is Oklahoma’s education system even robust enough to handle 12 weeks of paid maternity leave? Or could a policy like that topple our teacher-strapped schools like a house of cards? 

‘It will be disruptive’

With state testing around the corner, Hicks came back to work after just four weeks — well before her doctor released her to return. And when she arrived, she found the “revolving door” of subs had left her students in a lurch.

“When I came back to the classroom, it was clear that none of the materials had been used… all of my hard work was still sitting on the back counter. And I’m thinking, ‘What did you guys do while I was gone?’” Hicks said. “Looking back, it’s like, ‘Well, was that my responsibility to go up to the school once a week just to check in?’ You know, it shouldn’t be.”

Hicks said for paid maternity leave to work, schools and lawmakers are going to have to get creative. She said one solution could be implementing “floating teachers” — trained and certified educators who work with students throughout the building one-on-one or in groups, and can fill in gaps with a high quality instructor when teachers go on leave.

“It will be disruptive. And given the current climate and the sub shortage that we’re already facing, I can only anticipate that that will be more challenging for districts if teachers are out for a full six weeks of maternity leave,” Hicks said. “It forces us to kind of confront some of the not-so-pretty pieces of education, and [say], ‘You know, yes. We’re going to invest in some additional positions just so that we’re ready in case we have any teachers that are out for any extended periods of time.”

‘Bring[ing] hope back’ for Oklahoma teachers

For Karli Myers, it will be awhile before she tries for a second child. If Luke gets sick, she said she’ll take personal or emergency days so her sick leave bank doesn’t deplete. And once she builds up enough sick days again — which will take at least two years — she can try for another baby. 

She said issues like fighting for maternity leave are part of the broader picture of the challenges of being a teacher in Oklahoma. To get teachers into Oklahoma classrooms, Myers said the legislature will have to address things like low pay and lack of classroom resources, and other high-profile officials have to “stop villainizing teachers”

“I love my job. I love being a teacher. I’d love to stay in this profession, but I’m just continually disheartened and depressed, actually, by so many things that are happening right now with the current climate,” Myers said. “I hope that this new legislative stuff that’s on the line could potentially bring some hope back.”

You can read more maternity leave stories from Oklahoma educators here: