WASHINGTON (WDVM) — Elizabeth O’Donnell and her partner were surprised when they found out they were going to have a baby, but O’Donnell says they were excited. “I had been convinced she was a boy the whole time so to find out she was a girl, that was very exciting for me.” 

O’Donnell, a D.C. Public Schools teacher, was decorating the house for Christmas when she started to feel unwell. “So I reached out to my doula and she suggested I contact GW Midwives, which was the practice I was working with, and so I went in. They said, ‘You’ll be here for about 20 minutes, [we’ll] just check her out real quick and send you home,’ and I didn’t go home.” 

On December 1 she delivered her daughter still at 31 weeks. Her midwife suggested she take eight weeks off of work. DCPS had already approved her maternity leave, so she figured the change would be easy. Instead, she was denied leave, and shared her story on Facebook:

“District of Columbia Public Schools said that because I am only “caring for [my]self” I am not eligible for paid family leave…DC government policy is essentially punishing me for not walking out of GW Hospital with my daughter, Aaliyah.”

“The feeling that I just kept getting was that it was like she never existed,” O’Donnell said. “And so I made that choice to post a picture that all four pounds of her existed and here’s proof of it.” 

O’Donnell says hundreds of women from across the country have messaged her to share their own stories. “All across the board women seem to say that they just used their sick leave or took unpaid FMLA, and yes, that was offered to me, but in my mind I experienced a qualifying event for that paid family leave.” 

O’Donnell is not alone. Women are also sharing their stories at shareyourstory.org, a March of Dimes project that generates community support and destigmatizes pregnancy loss.

March of Dimes Chief Medical and Health Officer Dr. Rahul Gupta says O’Donnell’s case is far too common. “We have a lot of work ahead of us and this shows an example of why we need to do more.” March of Dimes advocates for maternity leave on Capitol Hill. 

“To expect people to come back to work the next day or soon after, isn’t just not fair but it’s not humane,” said Gupta. “People who go through pregnancy loss, over 90% will be able to bear children again. Yet when you think about the mental and emotional state, it’s very difficult to think about.” 

“I’m not even talking about emotional recovery. I’m not even asking for emotional recovery time. It’s simply the physical recovery time after birthing a child,” O’Donnell said. She was in labor for 48 hours, underwent surgery, and lost nearly 1.5 liters of blood. 

O’Donnell says DCPS has forwarded the issue to the Mayor Muriel Bowser’s office. The school system did not respond to requests for comment.