What You Need to Know About Maternity Leave

Defining Maternity Leave

Unfortunately, the term "maternity leave" can mean many different things, depending where you live and for whom you work. Some of us -- 57 percent -- have a law on our side called the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993. Here's how it works: FMLA provides new parents -- including fathers and adoptive parents -- with 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a newborn or newly adopted child.

When your leave is over, your employer must reinstate you to the same or an equivalent job. And if your employer provides health insurance, the company or organization must continue to provide it during your leave. But to qualify, you must work for a company that employs at least 50 people within a 75-mile radius. On your end, you'll need to have worked for the company a minimum of 12 months and 1,250 hours.

Depending on your company or the state you live in, you may receive medical leave or maternity disability, which refers to the period of time (generally six weeks for a normal vaginal birth, eight weeks for an uncomplicated cesarean delivery) that you are medically unable to work as you recover from childbirth. If you're not covered by FMLA, it's all the time you get. If you have the coverage, this disability period is part of your 12 weeks. In other words, you can't take 6 weeks of medical leave after your baby is born and then tack on 12 weeks of FMLA.

It's a start. "But it still leaves out a lot of people," says Debra Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women & Families in Washington, DC. FMLA leaves many behind; people who are self-employed or who work in small businesses, such as a neighborhood grocery or restaurant. And even if you have both FMLA and medical or disability leave, you may still run into problems.

If you give birth to a preemie who is in the hospital for four weeks after birth, you'll only have the remaining eight to spend with her. And if you have a complicated pregnancy that requires weeks of bed rest, you may use up all of your leave before you even give birth. Ultimately, says Ness, "We're still a long, long way from where we need to be."

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