Teachers have to use sick days for maternity leave in Wake County


Photos by Sarah Sekaly Photography

Shannon Wilkins, chemistry teacher, took seven weeks of maternity leave for her daughter Addie.

In the U.S., there are roughly 49.2 million students in kindergarten through grade 12. Teaching those millions of students are over 3.5 million teachers, 74.3% of which are female. These teachers look after, teach and influence these students for roughly eight hours a day. When these teachers go home, they have their own families, and most of the time, their own children to care for. With most of the teachers in the U.S. being female and working during the majority of their childbearing years, many would think that the school systems that they work for would provide them time off for maternity leave. This is not the case in Wake County. 

In the Wake County Public School System (WCPSS), there is no official maternity leave. Pregnant teachers have to use up sick days or family/extended leave to have some semblance of a maternity leave. Male teachers, or the spouse of a pregnant person, can get up to two weeks of leave, which also comes out of their sick days.

“My daughter was born in April, so I got 7 weeks and summer break, but obviously you cannot fully control when a baby is born,” said Shannon Wilkins, chemistry teacher.

There are different lengths of maternity leave depending on what type of birth is had. Six weeks of leave is the standard for vaginal delivery and eight for a c-section. In order to get leave, teachers have to put in a request with HR and provide a doctor’s note. Though it is labeled as maternity leave, it still comes out of the teacher’s sick days.

“At the end of the day, six weeks and eight weeks is criminal, it is not long enough,” said Wilkins. “On the Sunday before what would have been the Monday that I would come back to work if I had taken the normal 6 weeks, I remember sobbing to my husband, ‘I cannot imagine going back to work tomorrow, I cannot imagine taking her to daycare, I cannot imagine someone else taking care of her, I cannot imagine me physically, mentally, and emotionally going back.”

While the average length of postpartum recovery is six weeks, many women don’t feel ready to return to work. About one in seven women experience postpartum depression, which on average lasts about three to six months. The average maternity leave length in the U.S. is 29 days, which is just about four weeks. Some companies give more, and some don’t give any at all. 

“Mental, physical, emotional toll, you are not physically ready to go back to work in 6 weeks,” said Wilkins.

While on maternity leave, 90% of women breastfeed. This number drops to about 20% upon their return to work due to the lack of breastfeeding areas. While it is a federal law to have an area for women to pump or breastfeed, places can get around it by saying that women can pump/breastfeed in a bathroom. 

“You don’t want lunch that was prepared in a bathroom, neither does my child,” said Wilkins.

Within recent years, there have been baby formula shortages, so a longer leave would allow for women who wish to breastfeed to do so for a longer period of time. Many professions believe that a longer maternity leave would help women with their recovery postpartum and allow for them to better care for their child.