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Nina Gilbert recounts how having a flexible employer helped her get back to work after having a premature baby and how important it is for employers to extend parental leave for those going through a similar experience.
The Government has just launched a consultation on changes to parental leave which include a proposal for a new right to extended leave for parents of premature babies.
At present, in addition to worries about the baby, such parents often face financial struggles because their maternity leave either doesn’t cover or barely covers the period their baby is in hospital. Nina Gilbert wants this to change and has already got her own company to extends its parental leave policy. She feels that by telling her story she can raise awareness about the challenges parents of premature babies face and can encourage other employers to follow suit.
Nina’s son Harrison was born in February 2015 at St Thomas’ Hospital in London. Nina, who lives in Hertfordshire, had been referred to the hospital due to health problems and says if she had gone to her local hospital she doesn’t think her baby would have survived. “He was a medical miracle,” she says. Harrison was born at 23 weeks by Caesarean section and weighed just 420 grams. He suffered a collapsed lung among other complications and was given a very slim chance of survival. Nina was told that, if he did, he was likely to have serious long-term health problems. He has indeed been in and out of surgery many times and there were several times in the early days when the family nearly lost him, although he is fine now.
Nina, who has been campaigning for better hospital facilities for the parents of premature babies, was discharged from the hospital around two days later. She moved in with a friend who lived near the hospital and had to commute every day to see her son, despite herself recovering from major surgery.
Her husband, who was having to go home to look after the family home in Hertfordshire, is a freelancer and stopped work for several weeks when Harrison’s health situation was critical. That impacted on the family finances and he had the added worry of finding a job during an incredibly stressful time. He could then only visit in the early morning or evenings during the week.
Nina says she was not aware of the financial problems at first because she was totally focused on Harrison and her emotions were all over the place. She wasn’t even able to hold Harrison for three weeks. “It was not until later that I realised the financial predicament we were in,” she says.
Nina had booked a year off for maternity leave from her job as Head of Client Services at digital media agency Clock in Hertfordshire. She says it was very difficult being on her own at home with Harrison. Isolation was a problem – she could not go out in case he got an infection, he was on oxygen and had to have regular medication. She was constantly worried he would need to be rushed back to hospital.
When she was approaching the end of her leave she spoke to her employer about returning on reduced hours and gradually building them back up. She returned in April 2016 on two days a week after adding accrued holiday onto her maternity leave. Harrison couldn’t go into nursery at the start as he was still on oxygen so Nina and her husband had to hire a nanny.
When he started at nursery Harrison had lots of stomach upsets and loose nappies. In the early days the nursery would contact Nina often to ask her to come and get him as they were worried he might have a virus. Eventually she got a letter from the doctor to say he had a sensitive stomach and things calmed down. She now works full time.
After Harrison was born, Nina became aware of The Smallest Things, the charity which is campaigning for more parental leave rights for parents of premature babies. However, it was only recently that she found out about its Employers with Heart charter for employers who are willing to extend parental leave. Her employer has been very proactive on flexible working and open. So Nina decided to bring up the possibility of signing the charter and put the case for it to the board around April this year.
She says having a good parental leave policy and offering flexible working means the company can attract a higher calibre of applicants, given it is based outside London. The company has recently announced that female employees of Clock who give birth prior to 37 weeks’ gestation will be granted extended maternity leave at full pay by the number of days their baby was born early. Fathers and partners will also receive an extra two weeks’ leave in addition to their paternity leave.
Nina is keen that her story serves to raise awareness of the financial and work implications of having a premature baby, including the additional costs of travelling to and from hospital and specialist childcare that many people who haven’t been through it might not consider. “My company has been very supportive throughout our experience,” she says.
“The majority of other mums on my ward were not able to go back to work either because their children were too poorly or because their employers were too inflexible, meaning their choice of whether to work was taken away from them. It is very upsetting. We need more companies like mine who understand the implications and to get the word out to others so they can have conversations about it too.”