I was 32 weeks into my pregnancy when my water broke — two full months before my twins were due. Before I could process what was happening, I had given birth to two tiny humans who couldn’t yet eat or breathe on their own. They spent the first month of their lives in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).

Few people plan for a preterm birth, even when 1 in 10 U.S. births come early. Most expecting parents count on having those last few weeks to prepare for the baby and — in the U.S. at least — to work as many hours as possible to help afford what comes next. Those last few weeks of work are essential as workers prepare for what is often unpaid parental leave and the new costs of caring for an infant.

As a result, preterm birth sends many families reeling — not just from the jarring experience of seeing their tiny baby connected to tubes and alarms, but also from suddenly having to afford a hospital stay while facing an earlier-than-expected interruption of work. And too many are also figuring out how to stay employed when they have no paid or unpaid leave from work, despite having a baby in the hospital. A horrifying fact is that a quarter of new mothers return to work within two weeks of having a baby — even when their baby is still hospitalized. Too many families are forced to choose paying the bills over caring for medically fragile newborns in their first weeks of life, and these difficult choices do not stop as those babies grow — whether it’s a preterm infant, a child with cancer, a parent with Parkinson’s disease, or a spouse recovering from COVID-19, too many families are forced to choose between keeping their jobs versus caring for loved ones who need them.  

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I was thrilled, therefore, when congressional leadership chose to include a paid leave program as a core component of the proposed Build Back Better package. It seemed like a no-brainer for the U.S. to join nearly every other country around the world in implementing paid leave, especially in this COVID-19 era. If we learn nothing else from the pandemic, I thought, at least we’ll emerge with an understanding that paid medical and family leave is necessary for a thriving economy. 

In recent weeks, though, the Senate has been playing politics with this essential provision. Most recently, it has been scaled back to only four weeks of leave with some arguing that even that is too much. And I have to ask, what on Earth are they thinking?

Study after study shows that access to paid leave helps keep families afloat and less dependent on safety net programs like food stamps and TANF. Paid leave is associated with better health outcomes for infants and new mothers. It keeps workers in the workforce — an outcome that is especially important in the face of our current labor shortage. And it increases worker productivity, which is good for businesses and the economy. And it is popular with voters and — crucially — with business owners. In other words, paid leave is wise investment in American workers, and clearly belongs in any plan that aspires to build our economy.

As I see the news out of Congress, I can’t help but think about the parents I met during my time in the NICU. The mom who was fired because she told her boss she would need time off when her baby — who weighed less than a pound at birth — was discharged. Another who lost her job because her baby came early and she hadn’t accrued enough sick days to recover from her C-section. And the dad who came in at 6 a.m. every day to drop off breast milk his wife had pumped before she went to work. He’d say a quick hello to his baby on a ventilator before rushing off to work. 

Sometimes the unexpected happens. It’s time for Congress to ensure that the unexpected won’t spell disaster for working families. Congress must include paid family and medical leave in the Build Back Better plan.

Jennifer C. Greenfield is an associate professor at the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Social Work.