Washington - Maya Warren sat in a hospital bed, clutching her stomach. Through the contractions, she tried to focus on the baby. But she thought instead of her bank account.
"Hand me my backpack," Warren told her mother, crouched at her bedside. Earlier that November day, she had paid a dollar for a scratch-off card, worth up to $777. Now she scraped away the silver.
"Oh, damn it," Warren said, wiping sweat from her forehead. "I didn't win."
"How you gonna be in labour and scratch on a scratch-off?" her mother teased.
Warren laughed, blinking back tears.
She wasn't supposed to give birth to her first child with no money. She had held the same full-time job in Washington for five years, living paycheck to paycheck. She'd wanted to stash away some financial cushion, and now . . .
"We needed that," she said, flinging away the worthless card. "We needed that."
Like an estimated quarter of working mothers in the United States, Warren will return to work less than two weeks after childbirth, whether she's ready or not.
That's partly because the United States is the only industrialized nation not to guarantee any paid time off to new parents.
For years, Democrats have championed a stronger safety net, one that would replace lost wages as life's expenses surge. Republicans have called such a federal mandate a "job killer" that would burden businesses.
During the campaign, however, President Trump became the first Republican nominee to pitch a national paid family leave program, proposing new mothers could apply for the benefit through the country's unemployment insurance system. Now his older daughter Ivanka Trump, recently installed as a West Wing adviser, is tasked with aiding the administration's push to turn the idea into law.
Meanwhile, low-income women are exploring their own alternatives to paid maternity leave, with some turning to the gig economy.
But for Warren, a lottery ticket still seems a better bet.
Before Warren's pregnancy started to show, she said, her home health aide shifts began dwindling – from five a week to three, sometimes two.
Maxim said hours, in general, depend on demand. "Because they are paid by the hour, full- or part-time employment status is driven by a combination of client need and employee preference," the company said.
Warren's weekly pay shrank to $150.
The expenses piled up even as she tried to save – on food, gas, her $400 monthly rent, clothes for her growing body, baby wipes, the occasional manicure when life felt heavy.
She needed a side hustle.
Warren knew people who drove for Uber and enjoyed the extra cash, so she pawned her mom's gold ring to rent a car through the ride-sharing service.
For one payment of $350, she could drive away in a Nissan Altima. Then $215 would be deducted each week from her Uber paycheck. If she didn't drive enough to cover the payments, Uber's partner in the deal, Enterprise, would charge her card on file.
In DC, Uber drivers pull about $15 an hour on average, according to Glassdoor salary data. Because they're contractors, though, the money arrives pre-tax, so Warren would have to remember to set aside some earnings for Uncle Sam.
She signed the contract.
By October, Warren planned to care for her patients by day and morph into a chauffeur at night. She aimed for 75 rides each week.
She still owed about $5 000 in student loans, $500 from old hospital visits and $300 in overdue cellphone bills. Debt had trailed her for years, and interest swelled over time. She wanted to pay it all off before the baby came. Banish the collectors, the stress.
But the week before Warren went into labour, a cashier at Chick-fil-A said her debit card had been declined. She prayed it was a mistake, though deep down, she knew: The cash was gone. She couldn't even buy a chicken sandwich.
She went into labour at the end of November, right after she'd moved back in with her mother in Southeast Washington.
The baby didn't budge for two nights, so the doctor advised a Cesarean section. Some 90 minutes later, he eased into her arms. She cupped his tiny feet. She kissed his nose. She named him Kortez Isaiah.
It was a major surgery. The doctor recommended 12 weeks of rest – four more than usual because of her fibroids.
Again, Warren thought of money.
She had a car seat from a Capitol Hill charity, a breast pump from her neighbor, a bassinet from her mom, and food stamps.
She had been driving for Uber as much as she thought she could. From Oct. 10 to Nov. 21, according to her pay statements, she had banked $1 458 – an average weekly wage of $243. That barely covered the rental cost. Not to mention the gas.
Six days after leaving the hospital, Warren sat at her mother's kitchen table, staring at her car keys. Kortez slept nearby in his bassinet.
Home health aide shifts – eight-hour days on her feet – were out of the question. Her boss had told her to come back after six weeks.
Driving, Warren thought, was probably a better option – though the doctor had told her not to slide behind the wheel for two weeks. She would not take any pills for the pain.
Her mom, she thought, had been so generous. Without her, Warren figured she would be homeless.
She was breastfeeding Kortez, so baby food came free. Soon, though, they would run out of diapers. She wanted to be the one to buy more. She hadn't gotten her mom's ring back, either. She wondered if it was still at the pawn shop.
Warren stood up. Her swollen stomach burned. Every step brought a new jolt. "Ow," she would say to no one.
She put on her black jacket with a faux-fur hood. She shuffled to her mother's driveway. She opened the car door ("ow"), eased into the driver's seat ("ow") and started the engine ("ow").
Warren picked up a woman with a suitcase who wanted to go to a house in Temple Hills, Maryland – a 15-minute ride. That would net her $7.03.
She willed herself to ignore the bumps in the road. She hoped the passenger didn't expect her to pop the trunk and hoist out the luggage.
Six weeks later, pain would still sting her abdomen, and Warren would owe Uber $1,400 for the rental car. (Uber, which looked into Warren's account for The Washington Post, said she began missing rental payments after her fourth week of driving.)
She would also face a $600 damage charge. Someone had sideswiped the Altima while it was parked on her mother's street.
The crash would coincide with her postpartum check-up, the six-week medical milestone, where the doctor would tell her to get more rest – she needed more time in bed to recover.
Warren knew she'd be back on the road that afternoon.