Planning your maternity leave can be overwhelming. There are forms to complete and job logistics to figure out. Plus there's that big unknown: What will life away from the office, at home with a baby, be like, and how do you prep for it? Heed this helpful advice from working moms who've been through it.
1. Research Your Rights
Once you've told your boss that you're pregnant, talk to your company's human resources department to find out what kind of maternity leave you're entitled to, and how long your job will be held for you. U.S. companies aren't required to offer paid leave, though many moms receive some money through a combination of sick days, vacation time, and/or short-term disability insurance. Some states have their own provisions for leave, so research them. California, for instance, lets you take paid disability up to a month before your expected due date, says Audrey Bankhead, an escrow officer and mom of two in San Diego. "I took advantage of this." Start by going to ncsl.org and typing in "state FMLA laws."
2. Get Organized Early
Discuss with your manager what you can do to ease the transition. You may be asked to help hire and train a temporary replacement or to divvy up your duties among your peers. "I made extensive notes on transactions that would be in progress when I left," says Bankhead. "I also met with clients to ensure that they'd be taken care of while I was gone." Tying up loose ends at work well in advance of your due date will also give you peace of mind if your baby arrives early. "Once I hit 36 weeks, I started copying my coworkers on e-mails," says Michaelann Heffelmire, a retail-services director in Tampa and mom of two. "At the end of each day I wrote detailed notes about every project I had worked on that day and left it at my desk, just in case." Now is also the time to set expectations about your leave. Will you respond to the occasional phone call or e-mail? Make clear how available—if at all—you'll be.
3. Start Saving
Chances are you'll need some extra funds to cover your time off. "We started putting money away almost as soon as we found out I was pregnant," says Heffelmire, who took 12 weeks unpaid leave with her first son and 12 weeks of partial-pay leave with her second son. "Small amounts can add up over nine months. I budgeted for all of our 'musts'—the mortgage, groceries, utilities—and tried to save three months' worth of that amount."
4. Understand Your Insurance.
There's plenty of paperwork that must be completed shortly before and after your baby arrives. As Dana Paiz, a physician's assistant in Grand Rapids, discovered, she needed to contact her short-term-disability insurance provider and make a claim prior to her leave. Once her baby arrived, "We needed to call again from the hospital so they could begin paying my short-term disability," she says. In some cases you'll also be required to notify your health-insurance company within 30 days of your baby's arrival. Get the details now and create a calendar alert so you won't forget when sleep deprivation kicks in.
5. Arrange Child Care
You'll need child care at some point, and the start of your leave—when you're focused on your newborn and exhausted to boot—isn't the ideal time to start researching options. Wait lists for space with a child-care provider may be six months to a year, depending on where you live, so you may need to apply well before you deliver. "Finding child care when my baby wasn't even here yet was strange but absolutely essential," says Rachel Marano, a partner at a health-care IT consulting company in Indianapolis. "I went to multiple child-care centers before finally getting accepted." If you plan to hire a sitter or a nanny, start asking friends or coworkers how they found their caregiver. Also check out services such as Care.com. Your leave will go by quickly, so it's essential to get a plan for child care in place early.