What the Kyte Baby Drama Reveals About Paid Leave For Adoptive Parents
Last month, the popular baby clothing brand Kyte Baby came under fire for denying a new mom’s request to work remotely while her adopted son was in a neonatal intensive care unit hours from her home. Marissa Hughes, who qualified for two weeks of paid leave, was initially fired for not being able to do her job on site, per a since-deleted TikTok her sister posted – until an online uproar led the CEO, Ying Liu, to reverse her decision.
Parents everywhere were incensed, and the debacle ignited a larger conversation about <a href="
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https://www.popsugar.com.au/family/what-you-need-to-know-about-parental-leave-47263535″ data-ga-action=”body text link”>adequate leave and reasonable accommodations for new parents. Adoptive parents in particular related to the mom’s frustration: many know all too well how easy it can be for employers to ignore the importance of adoption leave.
On a national level, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) requires companies to offer 12 weeks of job-protected unpaid leave to birth parents and adoptive parents alike. But it’s estimated that only 56 percent of US workers actually qualify for FMLA, according to a 2018 US Department of Labor survey (the most recent statistics available). Others work for small companies, are part-time employees, or – as was the case with Hughes – joined their company less than a year ago, all factors that can prevent them from qualifying.
Paid family leave is even more rare; it was available to just 23 percent of unionized and 27 percent of non-unionized, private-sector workers in 2023, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The United States is the only wealthy country in the world without a national paid leave policy (the others included in this group are small island nations like Papua New Guinea and Tonga). Thirteen states and the District of Columbia mandate some form of paid leave for qualifying employees, and any company can choose to offer it as a benefit for their employees.
Natalie Shaak, who last year led a team from Drexel University’s Center for Hunger-Free Communities on a brief that made the case for paid family leave, points out that many of those plans don’t cover quite as many weeks for adoptive parents. “The reason why is because most paid family leave is done through disability-related insurances,” Shaak says. “So it’s more about the physical side of it. Even the amount of time that you can take is based on, ‘Oh, did you have a vaginal birth or did you have a C-section?'”
Sometimes, companies simply haven’t considered adoption. But while it’s not explicitly written in many benefits packages, employees can request it, says adoption and family-building attorney Elizabeth Vaysman, Esq. That said, adoptive parents may encounter hurdles like being asked to show a birth certificate, which can take months to get in adoption cases, Vaysman warns.
“The need for it is on steroids.”
The good news: a 2023 survey from the Society of Human Resources Management found that 34 percent of employers now offer some form of paid adoption leave, up six percentage points from the previous year. That’s an important acknowledgment of why this time is crucial for parents to spend with their kids. Although adoptive parents aren’t recovering from labor and delivery, many argue that the time off may be even more critical. “The need for it is on steroids because of that original separation that is inherent in adoption,” says adoption educator Lori Holden, coauthor of “Adoption Unfiltered.”
No matter their age, a newly adopted child has just “had a ginormous transition in their lives,” says Samuel, cohost of “My Two Dads: The Adoption Podcast.” (Samuel is being identified by his first name out of concern for privacy of his son’s birth family.) “Imagine if someone [turned] up at your door and said, ‘OK, you’re coming to live with us now and we’re in charge of you.’ And then they just disappeared off again and you had no idea what was going on,” Samuel explains.
Holden, an adoptive mom herself, points out that “babies are not blank slates.” There is emerging neuroscience that shows newborns already know their mother’s scent, the sound of her voice, and the physical rhythms of things like her gait.
“It’s a massive trauma to not be able to find, touch, or be held and soothed by your mother that you’ve known for nine months,” says Sara Easterly, an adoptee and a course facilitator at the Neufeld Institute, a nonprofit that trains caregivers and educators about child development. “In infancy and early childhood, that’s when neural pathways are forming and the child is forming their worldview over whether the world is safe or not.” Without consistency in caregivers, adoptees may come to believe that attaching to people is risky; they may perceive that those they seek closeness with aren’t going to be there for them.
Post-placement is also an important time for emotional expression, according to Easterly. “There’s family lore that I was inconsolable when I first came to my family at two days old,” she says. “I’ve heard other adoptees say that they were praised for being this perfect baby who didn’t cry.” Both cases, she says, are signs that something is wrong. And both can be difficult for new parents who’ve suddenly been thrust into a role they may be insecure about. “Adoption is a different parenting experience,” Easterly continues. “There’s a lot of heartache involved.”
There are also complicated logistics involved. Vaysman says at least 50 percent of domestic adoptions are done across state lines today, which, in the case of infant adoption, means that adoptive parents might need to get on a plane at a moment’s notice and stay near the hospital while all the paperwork is completed. “The baby can’t leave the state until the interstate packet’s approved by both states,” Vaysman says. That typically takes a couple of weeks, but if a baby is in the NICU, the parents could be staying there far longer, she points out.
For any parent – by birth or adoption – the benefits of paid leave go beyond simply bonding with their child. Research shows paid parental leave can reduce rates of smoking, alcohol consumption, intimate partner violence, and obesity.
So, why is paid leave so paltry in the United States, despite research that shows that most Americans support it? President Biden initially campaigned on a promise of 12 weeks of paid family leave, but it was stripped out of the 2021 Build Back Better package. A version of the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act that would give every worker the right to paid leave has been introduced in Congress every year since 2013, but it has never made it into law. There is now a bipartisan working group in the House focused on the issue, though its December 2023 report makes no mention of adoption. Meanwhile, more states are enacting mandatory paid leave, with Minnesota and Maine joining the list in 2023.
Some advocates, like Shaak, believe the best hope for paid leave policies lies in convincing corporations that it can boost their bottom line. Since 2018, businesses have been able to claim tax credits for offering paid leave to employees. There’s also research to show it can increase morale and productivity, to the tune of nearly 7 percent greater profit per full-time equivalent employee. Then there’s recruitment and retention to consider. A recent Deloitte study of 1,000 US workers showed 77 percent could be swayed to work for an employer based on their paid leave benefits. And as was the case with Hughes, who turned down Kyte Baby’s eventual offer to return to her position, primary caregivers who aren’t given reasonable leave might quit their employers.
With so many clear benefits, the momentum for paid leave – including adoption leave – is growing, with more states and more employers than ever before now offering the benefit. But there are still far too many families who struggle because they can’t take the time off without a paycheck.
“We can do better [at] valuing our next generation, setting them up for success, and honoring their attachment needs,” Easterly says. “And that goes for all children, adopted or not.”