Maternity leave is a special time for mother and new baby, and one that may not be repeated. In the United States, it is also a complicated issue and something that takes a lot of consideration and involves a lot of planning. To help you get started we’ve created a bit of a primer for you. Starting with how much time you can expect and ending with how working parents can make the most of it, we break down all of the fundamentals along with some bonus tips for you and your growing family.
How much maternity time will I get?
The first thing that you will want to get all of the details about is how much maternity leave you want to take. Then, you need to research how much time, both paid and unpaid, you are entitled to through your company and state. Keep in mind that there is quite a large variety of options out there, and it is best that you really explore the logistical side of things as soon as you can upon deciding to start or add to your family.
While more companies are becoming progressive about offering adequate maternity leave, the United States as a whole is terribly behind the rest of the world when it comes to supporting new parents during this time. Here are some basics that you need to know to start your investigating:
- Many US citizens in ‘traditional’ employment are eligible for FMLA, but this only ensures that your job will be protected after you take 12 weeks of unpaid leave. You will also only qualify if you work for a relatively large company, as organizations with fewer than 50 employees are not required to offer any leave at all.
- You may be able to combine FMLA benefits, short term disability, and vacation time for maternity leave. Make sure to consider these options.
It is important that you educate yourself with some facts about your rights and options before beginning a dialogue with HR and with your supervisor. FairyGodBoss has some great info about the various state and federal options.
Why maternity leave is so important
Our founder, Karolina Bewal, learned a lot from her first maternity leave that she used in her second. “Maternity leave, the time immediately after birth, the time away from work, is a time to recover and also to adjust. Childbirth is a major physical event. A newborn is very demanding and caring for one can be all-consuming. A new child changes routines, relationships, and identities. Maternity leave is the time to recover and to begin to adjust this new phase in life.”
The first several months after a baby comes are important ones for baby and parents. To begin with, most health professionals agree that a woman needs at least six weeks to recover from giving birth. This time may vary depending on personal circumstances such as having a C-section or episiotomy and what the pregnancy was like. Besides the value it adds to your infant’s early days, your body will simply need the time to rest and recuperate. Giving birth is a big deal! The more time you can take off of work, the better.
If you plan to breastfeed, the initial weeks and months of your baby’s life can be important ones. It allows time for both to develop positive habits, for mother to adjust, and for any issues that may come up to be worked through. Devoting attention to breastfeeding during this time will also contribute to a higher likelihood that breastfeeding is prolonged to the recommended one-year, if that is what the mother decides she would like to do.
There is also significant research to suggest that having a positive maternity leave experience and easing gently into motherhood greatly reduces a woman’s risk for postpartum depression and anxiety. The extra bonding time is crucial for improving a new mother’s confidence. There is research that suggests strengthening the mother-baby relationship during this time leads to the infant developing greater productivity skills later in life and reducing its chances for mental health and learning disorders.
Preparing professionally for maternity leave
If you are pregnant there is no “too early” to begin preparing for your leave. While it is standard practice to wait until the end of your first trimester to announce your pregnancy to your colleagues, it’s good to start thinking about professional best practices and how you are going to approach your leave early on.
- Tell your boss first: Don’t let the “powers that be” hear through the grapevine that you are pregnant. While you are absolutely entitled to request whatever leave is going to be best for you and your family, it will represent a significant time that you will be absent and as a professional courtesy, your supervisor should be the first to know.
- Inform your company as early on as you can: To demonstrate a high level of dedication to your position and team, you should inform your company of your intention to take maternity leave as early as you can after your first trimester. If you have not yet determined how long you would like to take, be upfront about this. Try to provide the minimal time you expect to ask for and let this person know that you would like to open up a dialogue about the issue and that you are exploring your options.
- Over-communicate about your plans and the reasons for your plans: Err on the side of over-communicating with your supervisor about your maternity leave plans. If you plan on taking longer than the allotted time provided by your company or FMLA, do provide an explanation as to why the time is so important to you, your family, and your overall role in the company and ability to return most prepared. Keeping your company in the loop will strengthen your chances of having a lot of professional support from everyone on your team.
- Leave the start and end date open: Some women work up until their labor, some work up to the due date and still others start their leave one up to one month prior to their due date. Some return at exactly the 12-week mark and some end up extending the return to work date. Many women in the US take less than 12 weeks of maternity leave. Financial needs, employer parental leave policies, and the preferences of the mother all factor into the decision on when to take leave and when to return. Pregnancy is completely unpredictable and so are infants and new motherhood. Allow yourself some wiggle room by keeping these dates open if you can, and communicate the need for this to your manager.
- Talk to your co-workers: The experience that female employees have with maternity leave varies greatly between companies and managers. If you know of any women in the company who have taken maternity leave, have a conversation with them about what their experience was like and what they did that they felt made it successful (or what they wished they would have done differently).
- Actively participate in preparing for the team to run smoothly while you are gone: Another area where you should over plan is helping your team prepare for your absence. If someone is going to be taking over for you during this time, schedule regular meetings with them in the weeks leading up to the birth to go over things, answer questions, and do the necessary training. Type out instructions, contact lists, helpful tips, and any tutorials that will be helpful to them while you are away. This will not only ensure that you get the proper time away that you need, but will go a long way in expressing your commitment and value to the team.
- Overestimate rather than extend your leave: Everyone involved will benefit from you over guessing how long you’ll be away rather than unexpectedly scrambling because you need an extra week or two. It can be hard as a new parent to really know how much time you will need. If you have the ability to choose the amount of time you can take, err on the side of taking more than you think you will need.
When should I take maternity leave?
Unfortunately, because of the state of the maternity leave system in the United States, once many women begin their leave the clock starts ticking, and quickly. It is therefore difficult to determine when you should take your leave far ahead of time. Leaving the start date open will help ease the stress of knowing when to begin and allow you to make a decision in the final month or your pregnancy.
There are a few things to consider when thinking this decision over and discussing it with your partner and supervisor:
- FMLA stipulates that a woman can begin maternity leave 12 weeks before she gives birth.
- There is no stipulation that a woman begin her maternity leave prior to giving birth, and you cannot be pressured to do so.
- Many women choose to begin maternity leave 1-2 weeks before the due date, or right at the due date.
- If you decide that you would like to stop work in the weeks leading up to the birth, you may want to consider speaking with HR and with your supervisor about using other types of leave to do so, such as short term disability or vacation time.
- Above all, this is a personal decision and one that you should make by listening to your body and perhaps by asking your doctor or midwife to weigh in.
Making the most of your maternity leave
Planning ahead of time for how you will use and enjoy your maternity leave will help ensure that it is a time you will look back on with a lot of joy. If you have been used to working full time in the years leading up to the birth it may be disorienting to have so much unscheduled time. Toss an infant into the mix, and some women get a bit lost. Here is a list of things to consider about using this precious time:
It is absolutely true that you should sleep when your baby sleeps during the first couple of months after its birth. Not only can your body benefit from extra rest while you are recovering, the little one WILL wake you up in the middle of the night. This is not a time to catch up on your to do list. You will need the sleep to recover and to cope with your infant’s sleep and wake schedule.
Resist the urge to clean.
This bit of advice comes up again and again from mothers who have learned from their maternity leave. While it may make sense to get caught up on their housework while the baby is sleeping or content, try to resist. Get some rest, hold your baby, and enjoy the downtime. This is often the time when many parents hire a housecleaning service for the first time. If you do, enjoy it! If you do not hire professional help, consider asking family or friends for help. Remember, it is ok if your home is a bit messier than usual during this time.
There will undoubtedly be people who will offer to help and who will repeatedly ask you what they can do. Do yourself a favor and utilize this support. If you need the floors vacuumed, say so. If someone offers to bring you a meal or some groceries, let them know what food you would just love. Every bit of help will ease your burden and allow you more time to rest and bond with your baby. You may want to create a postpartum plan to have your help lined up for those first few weeks after the baby arrives.
If you love to travel, consider an out of town trip.
This isn’t an option that will work for all families, but some women swear by using some of their maternity leave for travel. Not only will you have the time off of work, some mothers find that as far as traveling with children goes, it is most easy when one of them is so tiny and sleeps so often. Check out what these mommies have to say about it if you’d like some inspiration:
Why I use my maternity leave to travel and you should too
Trial your childcare.
One of the most valuable things you can do with your maternity leave is to prepare for life as working parents. It will greatly benefit everyone involved for you to ease into things in the weeks leading up to your return to work. If you are hiring a nanny, begin your search as early as you can and plan to have her or him work shifts here and there in the two or three weeks before your maternity leave ends. If you are utilizing a daycare, do your research before your little one arrives and do a handful of trial days while you are still on leave. This will help both you and your baby adjust and will also give you some much-needed self-care time.
Learn to use your pump.
Practice makes perfect! If you are new to pumping you may find that there is a profound learning curve when it comes to comfort, coordination, and planning. Plus, you will want to get a bit of a supply for the first week. Pull out the pump here and there to improve your comfort level.
Organize your fun ahead of time.
When you do find yourself with some free time, how will you use it? Prepare a stack of library books, a Netflix list, and some activities ahead of time. If you have a hobby you’d like to pick up again, make sure you’ve got all of the supplies you need ahead of time. Don’t let that mommy brain stump you when you go looking for something to do!
This is another common tip heard from post-maternity leave mommies. Get some fresh air, move your legs, stay a part of the world. Whether you’re just walking around Target or grabbing a coffee, you will feel so much better if you get out once a day. It will also give you the chance to get comfortable with the stroller and leaving the house with all the right baby gear.
Talk to someone.
This can be a vital time for preventing the post-baby blues. If you start to feel the slightest bit stressed out, sad, or lonely, get someone on the phone, invite someone over or face-time with a long distance friend.
Keep in touch with work friends.
If you worry about being out of the loop professionally or having a hard time fitting back in, keep in touch with any colleagues who are also friends. If your team does any regular socializing such as a once a week happy hour, try to attend at least once during your maternity leave.
Leave the house without your baby as well.
Once you are able to leave the little one with your partner or with grandma or an hour or two, take the opportunity to get out for some ME time. It will do wonders for your stress level and will help with any potential for postpartum anxiety by helping you to get used to being away from your precious one before you return to work.
Returning to work
Toward the end of your leave, you should also be planning for your return to work. Take some time to prepare for your first day back.
Maternity leave: fighting for better access
It is vital that more women have access to paid maternity leave. The benefits are known and are many, for mother, baby, and the entire family. Currently, only 17% of American working parents have access to paid leave, and FMLA only benefits 60% of workers. If this gets to you as much as it does us, read up on the issue and on what you can do to create change in your state or the nation as a whole. Moms Rising keeps a very close and current eye on the issue, with updates and new information provided regularly. Check out their overview on the issue and see what you can do to help: Paid Family & Medical Leave.