By: Kendall Masterson

I have always hated being an only child. I berated my parents for not giving me a sibling — on birthdays, Christmas, Easter, and even in daily conversation. My incessant pleading lasted from my formative loneliness at age six on vacations, watching other families have what seemed like built-in friends, to the teenage melodrama of fighting with my parents and having no sibling to take my side.

Now, at 25, I still wish a sibling was at my side as I travel the unexpected, stormy waters of caring for a parent. My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer in September after her annual mammogram showed something unusual. Stage 1 is what the oncologist shared, and we collectively sighed relief at the good news. But the surgery to remove the foreign malignant invader from her breast would turn out to be more complex than expected. My mom went through four surgeries and needed significant time off.

My mom, a public school art teacher for more than 20 years, often cares for children in school, during after-school programs, and in her off time. Yet now that she needs time to care for herself, her job offers no paid leave, and in Virginia, we have no state paid leave program. She needs essential care for cancer surgeries, doctor’s appointments, and radiation but is left to rely on unpaid Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) for job security and the bundled sick days she has collected after her decades of service.

I joined Family Values @ Work Action as a former electoral cycle organizer yearning to make a difference. I did not know much about paid leave and was shocked when I found out there was no national paid leave program. The United States, one of the wealthiest countries globally, is also one of the only industrialized countries in the world without paid leave. FMLA provides job protection while taking time to care, but it’s unpaid, and only slightly more than half the population is eligible. How cruel to burden Americans caring for their loved ones by forcing them to use up their savings to welcome a new baby, running through their paid sick days, or cutting their recovery or caregiving time short so they can begin to earn a paycheck again.

After seven months of advocating for others to have access to paid leave, it became highly personal, urgent, and dire when my mother got her breast cancer diagnosis. After her four grueling surgeries, she is starting radiation and needs more time to recover and focus on healing. But after the Senate’s failure to pass Build Back Better, there is still no national paid leave insight. In Virginia, with a newly elected Governor Youngkin and a split General Assembly, there is no sign of paid leave locally either.

The only option for my mom now is using FMLA and the built-up sick days she has, a privileged but unnerving and inadequate situation. At a recent doctor’s appointment, my mom asked a scheduling staffer to process her FMLA papers. The scheduling staffer responded, “Tons of teachers complete radiation while still working and do not need to take FMLA.” This is how broken our system is. Never mind that we are in a pandemic, and my mother’s school is at a 30% positive infection rate, that she is older, and that her oncologist recommended FMLA! Now my mother has to advocate for herself while already feeling guilty about taking this inadequate unpaid time off. When did this healthcare system become so uncaring?

On this 29th Anniversary of the FMLA, I have to ask our elected officials: Can you put yourself in someone else’s shoes? Could you afford to take unpaid time off from your job? Could you afford not to have your paycheck for up to 12 weeks? Illness is unfair and surprising, and FMLA is used in a challenging time in our lives when our priorities must shift from work to care. Wouldn’t it be nice if we didn’t have to wait another 29 years to have a country that recognized the complexities of life and care?

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