No matter how exciting pregnancy may be, preparing for your infant's arrival -- particularly scheduling your weeks off work after giving birth -- can be stressful, especially when you're fully committed to your job. Though an estimated 2.4 million American workers will give birth this year, the vast majority won't receive paid maternity leave (for example, just 8 percent of private-sector workers get this benefit). Parents must depend on a confusing patchwork of laws and company policies to determine just how much time off they can get post-baby, whether it will be paid, and how long their job will remain protected -- if at all. It's enough to make any levelheaded employee run screaming from her cubicle faster than you can say "epidural."
What's the best thing for a newly pregnant woman to do? Before you start showing or announce the big news to your friends at work, sit down with your partner and figure out what you ideally want and exactly what you're entitled to. Then develop a plan of action that works for both of you.
Learn Your Rights
Familiarize yourself with the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) at www.dol.gov/whd/fmla. A federal law enacted in 1993, the FMLA protects parents' jobs -- without pay -- for up to 12 weeks after the birth or adoption of a child. However, in order to be eligible, you must be employed by a company with at least 50 employees within a 75-mile radius, and you must have worked there roughly 25 hours a week for at least a year.
Next, connect with your regional office of the Women's Bureau at www.dol.gov/wb to find out whether your state has parental-leave laws that go beyond the FMLA. Some states mandate a longer period of leave, extend the FMLA benefits to workers who aren't covered by the act, or even require that certain employers provide paid leave.
Unfortunately, not all companies are bound by either federal or state leave laws. If your employer isn't, don't automatically assume you're out of luck: You may actually be able to turn to the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, which states that if an organization has 15 or more employees and held another person's job during a different type of medical disability leave, then it must reinstate a woman after medical disability due to pregnancy. You can visit workplacefairness.org and nolo.com to learn more.
Find Out Your Company's Policies
Next, check your corporate Website or read through your employee handbook to see what your employer officially offers, such as paid maternity leave or short-term disability insurance, which generally pays 40 to 60 percent of your salary for a set amount of time. "It's typically six weeks if you have a vaginal delivery and may be eight weeks if you have a cesarean," says Marjorie Greenfield, M.D., an ob-gyn and author of The Working Woman's Pregnancy Book. If you have paid leave, it will likely begin after your period of disability is over.
Also figure out how many sick days, personal days, comp days, and vacation days you're entitled to this year, realizing that there's a possibility your employer will require you to use them to cover a portion of your leave if you're entitled to it under the FMLA. However, your employer has the option to determine how you use them. "Companies don't want you to take 12 weeks from FMLA, plus another four weeks of vacation, two of sick leave, and five of disability, so that you're gone for almost six months," says Washington, D.C., attorney and employment-law expert Lily Garcia. Instead, someone with this benefits package is likely to get a total of 12 weeks off from work: four weeks of vacation, two weeks of sick leave, five weeks at partial pay on disability, and a final week of unpaid leave thanks to the FMLA.
Decide What You Really Want
Maybe you'd prefer to go back to work after just eight weeks instead of 12, but on a part-time basis at first. Or perhaps you'd like to work from home for a while after taking full-time leave -- or simply take additional unpaid time off. Your company's leave policy may actually be more flexible than you think, so it's possible you could tweak the terms to fit your needs, as long as you're open to negotiating. Talk to other moms in the office to find out how much time off they were able to take post-baby and how they worked it out, then think about ways to "sell" your plan. "You'll be more likely to get what you want if you can convince your company that it will benefit as well," notes Garcia.
Start a Conversation With Your Boss
Once you're ready to announce your pregnancy, make sure that your manager is the first one in the office to know. Schedule a private meeting, and reassure her that you'll return to work post-baby. You can say, "This is an exciting time for me, but my job is important to me, and I'll be eager to get back to work on these projects after my time off."
Go into the meeting with a general sense of your company's maternity-leave policy, but don't expect to discuss it right away -- your boss may need time to process the information. Still, you should also be prepared to answer questions about when your last day might be, how long you expect to be gone, and whom you might train as a temporary replacement. "Try to work with the company to make your parental leave -- and eventual return -- as easy as possible," advises attorney Lisa Guerin, coauthor of The Essential Guide to Family and Medical Leave. "This means, among other things, giving your employer plenty of lead time so arrangements can be made for your absence."
Confirm Your Plans in Writing
Once you and your boss have agreed to the terms of your leave, it's wise to follow up by providing her with a summary of the details. Whether you send them to her via e-mail or give them to her in a typed letter, just remember to keep a copy for yourself. Start with "As we've discussed...?" Unless it's a contract signed by both parties, it's not legally binding -- but if there's any confusion down the road, it can help to have written proof of what your understanding was originally.
Most first-time moms are surprised by how much work is involved in taking care of a baby. Don't expect it to feel like a vacation or promise to provide frequent support to your coworkers. "Many women make themselves too available to their employers during this time," says Dr. Greenfield. "They say, 'Oh, call me if there's a problem,' or 'I'll take care of that.'" In order to stay in the loop -- without feeling overwhelmed -- you might consider offering to respond to queries by e-mail once a day or every other day. But try not to commit to more until you have a sense of how parenting feels for you, because nothing's more important than getting comfortable in your new-mom role -- and bonding with your little one.
Originally published in the August 2010 issue of Parents magazine.
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