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Families facing pregnancy loss, other challenges could get more time off in Duckworth, Pressley bill

When Tatyanna Ford’s doctor couldn’t find her son’s heartbeat, she felt like she was having an “out of body experience.”

“I’m not myself anymore, I don’t know who this person is,” Ford recalled thinking. It was June, and she was in her third trimester at 33½ weeks pregnant. She had to follow through with the daylong labor and delivery of her stillborn son, who she and her husband had named Dawson, in a room with a bassinet and all the essentials needed to care for her baby after birth.

“(It) was devastating. It was actually worse than devastating but I can’t think of a word to describe it,” said Ford, a 27-year-old resident of Chicago’s south suburbs.

Tatyanna Ford at her home in Monee on July 20, 2021. Her son died in utero and was delivered at 33 1/2 weeks. (Stacey Wescott / Chicago Tribune)

Then there were many things that had to be done after the delivery. Along with handling her son’s funeral, taking down the bedroom they’d prepared for him and the ordinary postpartum checkups, Ford had to contact her job and try to get paid leave. She needed the leave — both to process the mental and physical effects of the pregnancy, and to grieve.

Her only option for paid time off was to fill out short-term disability forms. Without this she would have had to take an unpaid break that, in her estimation, would have led to her and her husband being unable to pay their bills and rent.

“Just because you have a loss, life doesn’t stop,” said Ford.

But a new bill called the Support Through Loss Act, introduced Tuesday by Sen. Tammy Duckworth and Rep. Ayanna Pressley, might provide some respite for families undergoing difficulties related to family expansion, including miscarriage, surrogacy, IVF and adoption issues, and people who have had difficulties related to fertility.

The bill is part of a broader effort to “modernize and enhance the entire (Family and Medical Leave Act) framework,” wrote a representative for Duckworth in an email, saying that the existing system doesn’t account for a range of pregnancy failures aside from miscarriages, which has led to “a complex and confusing patchwork of bureaucracy and regulations.”

In Ford’s case, she had qualified for FMLA leave under her job as a flight attendant, but that had run out a week before her son passed away; she had already used it up because her doctor didn’t want her flying during pregnancy.

If signed into law, one of the bill’s components would require employers to provide at least three days of paid leave to parents experiencing these challenges to growing their families.

In the eyes of Deborah Farmer, an adoption advocate who runs a Chicago-based PR firm and has written a book about her path to adopting her son called “My Journey To Joshua,” three days is “a nice gesture, but not enough.” According to Farmer, three days is not sufficient time to recover from experiences such as failed adoption efforts, which are mentally draining and can have side effects such as depression. She feels that families in these situations need at least a week.

“It’s grief, honestly,” Farmer said. “Three days is a weekend. You can’t get over that in a weekend.”

Farmer, who has tried IVF and adoption, called these processes “exhausting at best” — partly due to the length of time both took, and the “poking” questions she experienced, such as comments such as “whose baby is that?” after she adopted her son.

Farmer believes that more awareness needs to be spread around issues of fertility and nontraditional methods of becoming a parent, such as adoption. The bill would do this by bolstering education: it would allocate $45 million in annual funding to the National Institutes of Health, to allow for federal research and programs centered around pregnancy loss. It would also enable the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to educate the public around pregnancy loss and how it can be treated.

David and Tatyanna Ford hold a photo of their son, Dawson Ford, at their home in Monee. Their son died in utero. (Stacey Wescott / Chicago Tribune)

“The Support Through Loss Act would provide so many hopeful parents with the support they need when experiencing loss,” said Duckworth in a news release for the bill, citing her own “heartbreaks and challenges” in creating her family, as well as her successful experience with IVF in conceiving her two daughters.

According to Dr. Mary Stephenson, an expert in pregnancy loss and UIC department head of Obstetrics and Gynecology, increased education and research around pregnancy loss is crucial.

“We need to do more research to answer why pregnancy loss occurs,” said Stephenson. “The era of telling women to just ‘try again’ is over.”

For Ford, not knowing what happened to end her son’s life was one of the hardest parts.

“You don’t get that closure” of knowing why, she said. Her son had all the relevant testing to ensure he was healthy, but in the end, “all the doctors could say is they don’t know what happened.”

Ford hopes for more potentially in the form of resources such as grief counseling or therapy, and for a solution that takes a variety of situations into account. “Doctors made it seem like it was a normal thing that happened and that you should get over,” she said.

For her, getting sufficient time off is most important. It has been a month since her son’s death and she’s still grieving.


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