September 2, 2021

I wasn’t trying to get pregnant. But I wasn’t trying to not get pregnant either. Not that it was anyone’s business.

Except that about a month into my brand new job as an editor at KTOO Public Media, I got pregnant.

I had just sold my house in Utah and moved with my husband and my dog to Juneau, Alaska, to work full-time in public media for the first time. It was my dream job.

KTOO is a small independent station with a full-time staff of about 25. The organization doesn’t have a full-time human resources position, so when I suddenly needed to understand the station’s family leave policy, I had to ask the payroll administrator about it.

At the time, that policy gave parents two weeks of additional medical leave following childbirth. Then, I could take another 12 weeks off, blowing through my sick and vacation leave, before taking the rest unpaid. And if I wanted to stay on KTOO’s health insurance during that time, I’d have to reimburse the station for their portion of my premium.

I’d never had a baby before, so I thought that this all sounded reasonable.

I thought I would be one of those women who would be back to work in a matter of weeks. About a month before my due date, I got everything ready. I even composed and scheduled my out-of-office message. The next morning I went into labor.

Three days later, I delivered a pre-term baby boy during a 3 a.m. emergency surgery. There were a lot of complications. I was in the hospital for a week.

By the time I used up all my paid leave, I was just barely past my due date, my baby was five weeks old and I still couldn’t go to the bathroom on my own. Baby was having a hard time feeding and was struggling to gain weight. I was sleeping just a few hours a day and could hardly remember my own name. I thought I would never be able to go back to work. I thought very seriously about quitting.

I took two more months off unpaid. Instead of getting a paycheck, I was writing my employer a check to cover health insurance premiums for me, my husband and my new baby. I was grateful for the insurance coverage while the medical bills rolled in, but having no income during those months when my life changed forever was very hard.

If this sounds terrible, that’s because it was. But to KTOO’s credit, when I still wasn’t in any condition to return to work after 12 weeks of leave, I was allowed to work from home for three more months. They turned a studio greenroom into a lactation suite for me. They invited me to bring my infant with me to the office.

These were kind gestures. But I wasn’t physically able to breastfeed and never used the lactation suite. And bringing an infant to the office isn’t like bringing your dog to work. There was nowhere to change a diaper, and more importantly, no way to humanely muffle his cries. I stood in the back of the room at staff meetings with him strapped to my chest, bouncing up and down until my legs were wobbly.

I survived. I stayed in the job. And three years later, I became a vice president at the organization.

In 2020, we added to our five-year strategic plan the goal of becoming the best nonprofit to work for in the community. I was still sour from my parental leave and I knew becoming a better employer was key to meeting that and all the goals on our strategic plan — starting with a better family leave policy.

That’s about when Poynter started offering six months of family leave to its employees. I forwarded the article to my general manager with the note: “If our board is serious about our goal of making KTOO the best place to work in Juneau, there’s a playbook here.”

His response? “I’d support this 100%.”

In January 2021, he and I presented the idea to our board of directors. We formed an ad hoc committee to work on the policy. That group only had to meet twice before adopting a policy that is a meteoric step up from what we had: 12 weeks of paid leave for bonding with an infant (regardless of gender and including adoption), plus eight additional weeks of leave for a parent who gives birth. Only one board member voted against it, expressing concern about additional leave for the birth parent and wanting more clarity on the distinction between the two tiers.

We modeled ours after the Poynter policy, with a few key differences. Ours lets you keep all your annual and sick leave. And there’s no “waiting period,” except for the one month everyone has to wait for their insurance to kick in. You’re also covered if you or your partner are already pregnant when you are hired.

The one thing the committee struggled with was whether or not to include foster parents in the policy. We knew we wanted it to extend to any employee who became the primary caregiver for an infant, but we struggled with figuring out what the age cutoff should be. There are people who foster children of all ages for varying lengths of time and we weren’t sure how the policy would apply then. In the end, we left out foster parents with the understanding that we’d consider it on a case-by-case basis.

The policy is new and hasn’t been tested yet. I’m deeply proud of it and I will wave it proudly the next time I am recruiting in the newsroom. But it’s hard to not be a little jealous and admittedly a little resentful of my experience when compared to what’s in store for the first person who uses our new policy. Of course I wish we had done this four years ago, but I consider my experience the necessary sacrifice in order to bring about this change.

The time is right. I know mine isn’t the only newsroom filled with reporters who aren’t parents. Instead of thinking that this is just how journalists are, it’s time to start thinking that maybe we have created newsrooms and pay plans that only attract people who aren’t trying to support a family. As we begin to do the hard work of creating more inclusive newsrooms that more fully represent the communities we serve, I encourage us to offer up the most generous leave policies we can — whether it’s for becoming a parent, taking care of another family member, maintaining good mental health or dealing with long-term illness.

The people who we want telling stories from our communities won’t all be able to work Monday through Friday from 9-to-5. They might not be able to work year-round. They might not be able to work full-time. They might not be able to come to an office. If we’re doing it right, people can bring their whole selves to work and use their lived experiences to present a richer, more honest, more nuanced understanding of the world. More flexible policies will help that happen.

Since becoming a mom, I work less. I don’t respond to emails as quickly. I prioritize sleep (still making up for all those lost nights). But my sensibilities are sharpened. I care more about everything — about my staff, about our sources, about our word choices, about our community. Being a mom has made me a better leader. I can’t wait to see what policies like this will unlock in my staff and in newsrooms around the country in the future.

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Jennifer Pemberton is the Vice President for News and Managing Editor at KTOO, the public media station in Juneau, Alaska. Her radio stories have aired…
Jennifer Pemberton

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