Photo: Karina Albuquerque and her newborn son, Brian, in 2014 (Courtesy Brilianna Photography)

It took Karina Albuquerque seven years without going on vacation to achieve what she desired the most: spend her first child’s early months exclusively by their side – a luxury most parents in America simply can’t afford.

Only 16 percent of U.S. workers have some paid parental leave, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The country is the only one in the developed world that doesn’t have national paid parental leave – and makes up a small group of three nations along with Suriname and New Guinea. The topic is one of the few in which both Republican and Democratic presidential candidates agree. Despite differences in duration and extent, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump propose some sort of national paid family leave.

But until a Federal law is passed, workers who want to take some time off to stay with their newborn child must save, borrow, or use a lot of creativity to keep their finances healthy.

Albuquerque planned carefully her maternity leave years before getting pregnant. The New York City hospital where she works allows employees to spend up to one year away without pay. The nurse piled up days off and vacation time during seven years, and saved the equivalent of 12 months of her wage. She was able to spend seven months nursing her first baby, now two years old.

“When I started thinking that one day I would like to have a child, I decided to save my vacation days for that moment,” said Albuquerque. “We were afraid of not having enough money, so my husband and I did a lot of extra shifts. First we bought our house, then started saving for maternity leave.”   

Albuquerque is an exception. Women who are eligible for unpaid maternity leave take on average 58 days off, according to a research by the National Partnership for Women & Families.  The Family and Medical Leave Act, also known as the FMLA, guarantees workers can take up to 12 weeks off if their companies have 50 or more employees and if they have worked for the same employer for at least one year. But half of those who use the benefit go back to work earlier than they wish because of financial constraints.

“Some go back to work within two weeks of giving birth. It’s not good for the mother neither for the baby,” said Eileen Appelbaum, senior economist at the Center for Economic Research.

Before getting pregnant:

– Check if your employer offers maternity leave, how long it is and if it is paid;

– Plan to save at least 60 percent of your wage for the extent of your leave;

Once you are pregnant:

– Check if you are eligible for disability leave, and when you can request it;

If your budget is too tight:

– Friends and family can help you. Try a crowdfunding campaign on platforms such as GoFundMe and YouCaring.

About 57 percent of part-time workers don’t have even one paid sick day, as well as 35 percent of the lowest paid workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. These include workers in the retail, restaurant, hotel and housekeeping sectors, which are more likely to employ young women, Appelbaum said.

“They are more likely to apply for welfare benefits during this period, like food stamps and other public programs, which means taxpayers are paying for it. They also go on debt, leave bills to be paid,” said Appelbaum.

To be able to use the 12 weeks of maternity leave guaranteed by the FMLA, Appelbaum said women should have saved two thirds of their wage for the period. So a worker who makes $1,000/week would have almost $8,000 in savings by the time of giving birth. But 62 percent of Americans have less than $1,000 in savings, according to a research by personal finance site GoBankingRates.

To make ends meet, women should start saving in their early 20’s and before they get married, said Allyson Downey, author of the book “Here’s the plan”, a career guide for women during pregnancy and parenthood. She advises workers to have at least six months of their wage in savings for rainy days.

“The problem is that we don’t promote saving,” said Downey. “So many families are living with a tight budget.”

The burden of not having paid leave can be at least minimized by disability insurance. Employees who work more than 40 hours/week are eligible for this kind of insurance and may apply for short-term disability after giving birth. The value and extent of the insurance vary depending of each case, but usually women have up to six weeks of leave and receive about 25 percent of their wage for the period.

As a last option to balance their finances, parents have started using crowdfunding. There are at least 6,000 pages on GoFundMe, one of the most popular platforms for this type of campaign, with the expression “maternity leave”. Parents try to raise on average a couple thousand dollars to help paying medical bills and spending more time at home nursing their newborn babies.

“I’ve been working like crazy the last few months trying to save up enough money to sustain through the few months of not having an income but it’s been challenging,” wrote Nicole Gurgiolo, an expecting mother from Asheville, North Carolina, who raised $1,605. “I’m trying to raise money for 3 months of rent so I can use my savings for all other bills and expenses during those weeks.”    

For Elise Gould, senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute, it is important that both men and women have the same rights on paid parental leave. She explains that while Donald Trump’s policy for the area oversees only maternity leave, Hillary Clinton proposes a broader paid family leave that would cover parents equally not only at a child’s birth but also if a relative falls sick.

“The way it is today it puts a strain on families. Some women avoid taking the leave fearing to lose their jobs when they return to work,” said Gould. “If you can get men to take the leave as women you can work towards closing the wage gap.”