What You Need to Know About Maternity Leave

Your Plan of Action

As soon as your pregnancy is confirmed, find out your company's leave policy, if you haven't already, and follow these tips.

  • Know your company's track record. Talk to other parents around your company and ask what type of leave they received. If you're the first expectant mother at your company, look at how they handled other types of disability. The legal protection offered by the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 means your company must treat pregnancy the same as any other temporary disability. If your company allows employees to return to the job after a heart attack or an injury from a car accident, or continues their pay while they heal, then it must provide at least the same terms for your disability leave.

    Legal rights aside, it's always good to know how your particular boss has handled other employees' leaves. Some managers consider maternity leave sacred time between you and your child; others have no problem pestering you 10 minutes after you've given birth. Take all of this into consideration when you're figuring out what you want for your leave.
  • Know what you want and ask for it. Your company's leave policy isn't necessarily written in stone; you may be able to get more time than you expected or other perks if you're willing to negotiate. But to do so, you need a clear picture of what you're asking for. If your company doesn't have a formal leave policy or you're unhappy with what's offered, write down exactly what you expect from your employer, including the amount of time you'll need and the pay you want.

    It worked for Jill Overn of Atlanta. She was covered by the FMLA, but her leave ended around Thanksgiving and she wanted extra time. She asked, and her employer agreed to a four-month leave. "My company is the kind that really views its employees as family," she says. But it's important to keep in mind that to your employer, your leave is as much a business situation as it is a personal one, so make the tone of your request friendly, professional, and to the point.

    Once you and your boss have an agreement, tweak your written request accordingly, sign it, date it, and have your boss do the same. If your employer won't put it in writing, you can. You could say, "I wrote down the details of our talk about my leave. Please let me know if I left anything out."
  • Be as helpful as possible. When you meet with your manager to discuss your leave, let her know that you're willing to help get the job done while you're gone. Perhaps you can offer to train a temp or be available for phone consultations. "Don't over-promise," cautions Cindia Cameron, organizing director of 9 to 5. "Don't agree to return before you're able, or offer to be on call. You need time to be with your baby."
  • Be your own cheerleader. If you're not covered by any laws, some short-sighted managers may look at your leave as an opportunity to cut costs. Be sure to prepare yourself for that, says Cameron. Counter that idea armed with reasons why giving you what you want benefits the company; your skills and experience make you a valuable employee. "And your company could easily lose more time and money by letting you go," explains Cameron. "It can take longer than your leave to interview, hire, and train a new person." Hopefully, your careful homework, solid track record, and good attitude will win you the leave you want and deserve.

Amy Zintl is a mother of three and a writer based in New City, New York.

Originally published in American Baby magazine, August 2004.

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