Work the Grapevine
You can learn about your company's maternity-leave policies through an employee handbook or by meeting with someone in the company's human-resources office. But you also should try to find out what "unofficial" deals other mothers have been able to negotiate. These days, the most valued workers are bargaining for more time off and a flexible return to work. The best way to find out is by talking to other new moms in your office. Your efforts may yield you a valuable source -- and a new pal. Nothing brings women closer than talking about pregnancy, a new baby, and maternity leave.
Find out what kinds of leaves your company has recently granted and, just as important, how they went. If your boss just gave a generous leave to three women who all quit two days before they were supposed to return, you may be swimming upstream. On the other hand, if four new moms just came back enthusiastic and productive, you're likely to hit no resistance at all. It's always a good idea to understand what you'll be up against before you begin negotiations.
Present a Formal Proposal
Once you decide exactly what you want, you'll need to write up a well-thought-out proposal that outlines your request and -- here's the most important part -- describes exactly how your work will get done when you're gone. Is there someone on staff who can take over the tasks that need to be done in your absence? Can certain projects wait until you come back? Will there be a need for a temporary worker in your absence? Ask yourself the toughest questions your boss might have about your leave -- and come up with answers to them.
One other point: I strongly advise that you ease back into work by arranging a part-time schedule or working from home a day or two a week. Your proposal should also detail exactly how this arrangement would work and what parts of your job could be done differently during this period.
Offer to Stay In Touch
If you expect your boss to grant you a generous leave, she must believe, right from the start, that you're coming back. A good way to convince her of that is by offering to come in for special workshops, seminars, or meetings.
Personally, I don't think it's a good idea to take on real work while you're home on leave if you don't absolutely have to. But it's critical that you stay in touch. You should know about new projects your company has embarked on or any reorganizations or restructurings that have taken place. Most of all, though, you want to let your boss and coworkers know that even though you now have a baby who has stolen your heart, your job is still an important part of your life.
Pitch Your Plan
Once you've got your proposal in writing and have given it to your boss, make an appointment to meet with him face-to-face. Think of yourself as a salesperson who's eagerly pitching your boss on a great deal. You want him to believe that you love your job, love your work, love the company, and that it's worth his effort to do the right thing for you. Never mind that you're not certain about exactly what you want to do after the baby comes. Stuff the ambivalence somewhere else for now.
At the meeting, be brief and to the point. Give him a quick summary of your written proposal, and offer to answer any questions he might have. Volunteer to take care of notifying the human-resources department or any other company personnel who need to sign off on your leave.