While some companies offer paid maternity leave, the majority do not. But that doesn't mean you can't negotiate — and you should. Here's how to do it. 

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pregnant woman at work
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You probably never even thought about your company's maternity leave policy until you were pregnant (most women don't!). Some large or family-friendly companies employees six paid weeks of maternity leave, but many do not. So you may have to negotiate your way to a plan you and your employer can both agree on that gives you the time off you need to physically and emotionally without putting your family under financial strain. 

Wondering where to start? Here's the best way to handle a maternity leave negotiation according to experts. Because let's face it — somebody's gonna have to pay for all those diapers!

Do Your Research

The best tip on maternity leave negotiations is to arm yourself with as much knowledge as possible, and don't be afraid to ask for what you want. Nothing is set in stone; everything is negotiable.

First, research what maternity leave is entitled to you by state, and then look into your individual company policy, so you know what your options are. Know that even though there is a company-wide policy, employees often can still negotiate a better deal.

Work the Grapevine

Sure, you need to learn about your company's maternity-leave policies according to HR. 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.

Formulate a Plan

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: Experts 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.

Many women have negotiated extra time off because they are valuable to the company. Because it can take several months to hire and train a full-time employee, your boss might be willing to give you an extra month or two of paid leave rather than risk having you quit. So it's always a good idea to ask!

"Finding a new employee can be difficult and expensive," says Amber Strocel, blogger and mom of two. "Replacing someone is estimated to cost approximately 150 percent of their compensation package for midlevel employees, and up to 400 percent for specialized employees. If your employer is smart, she doesn't want to incur those costs. By emphasizing the time you've spent at your job, what you've achieved, and what you're bringing to the table, you're reminding your boss that you're a valuable member of the team who isn't easily replaced."

Know What Else to Ask for

Aside from any paid leave you might be allowed, be prepared to ask about disability insurance, which typically provides for two weeks off before your due date and six after a vaginal delivery, or eight weeks after a C-section. You can also buy yourself more paid leave by trading in vacation days and sick leave and figuring out what paid holidays will fall during your requested leave.

Ask for the longest amount of time you can afford — you can always return to work earlier if you choose to. That will look better than scrambling to extend your maternity leave at the last minute, which comes off as unprofessional and makes it seem like your priority is not in the office (of course it isn't — your priority is your baby--but you don't want it to look that way when you're negotiating with an employer!).

Present a Formal Proposal

As part of your plan, show that you're thinking about the company's needs, not just your own when it comes to presenting your proposal. Come up with a detailed strategy of how to accomplish all of your work goals while you're away — explaining what you can do in advance of leaving on maternity leave, what can be delegated to other employees, and what, if anything, would need to be farmed out to a temporary hire. Proving that you have put as much time and effort into seeing how your job would get done as you have about your own needs will impress your superiors, and make it harder for them to say no to your request.

According to Lee E. Miller, managing director of Advanced Human Resources LLC, and co-author of A Woman's Guide to Successful Negotiating, you may be able to get more time off or a flexible work schedule upon your return more easily than you can get more pay, but it's worth trying for exactly what you want, and you'll have room to negotiate down and still get more than the set policy.

"Explain to your boss how the work can get done by telecommuting during a set amount of time before you want to return to the office full-time, and offer to do it as a trial period, giving yourself time to prove it works before they commit to anything long-term," Miller says. This gives your boss less of a reason to say no — which is always good.

Put Yourself in the Best Light

As simple as it sounds, "dress your best," advises Ivana Pignatelli, author of A Simple Guide to Pregnancy & Baby's First Year and a blogger for ModernMom.com. People do judge you based on appearances, and you want to set the tone for a successful meeting, so look professional.

"Before you go into the meeting, give yourself a pep talk by looking at your accomplishments, skills, and revenues or accolades you've brought to the company," Pignatelli says. "Consider clearly what you want to say; even practice in the mirror. Look your boss in the eye, sit up tall, don't fidget, even though you may want to, and allow your hands to be loose and relaxed at your sides, not folded. Successful negotiating body language is being both friendly and confident. Believe it or not, these are real negotiating techniques that help get you a yes."

Start Locally

Even though HR usually administers maternity leave policies, the best place to start negotiations for more paid leave or flextime is with your direct manager. He or she is the one who knows just how valuable you are to the company and is the one who will be willing to fight to make sure you get what you want in order to keep you.

Bring your maternity leave pay to your manager's attention more as a problem that you're hoping you can solve together rather than a demand to make an exception for you (one which they may not have made for anyone else). You can explain that the current maternity leave pay policy will put you in a tough financial situation and that you've done some research and have found that other companies have more liberal policies, and ask if your company has any leeway when it comes to paid maternity leave.

"In negotiations, never, ever ask for something where the answer is either yes or no," says financial guru Suze Orman. "'I would really like an extra two months paid maternity leave, can I please have that?' Your boss can say, 'No, you can't.' Now what are you going to say? They just said no. The way I would ask is, 'I would really like an extra two or three months of maternity leave, which one can I have?" That is not a yes or no answer. Normally when you ask like that, it's very difficult for the person you're asking to say 'neither!' And always make the lower number the one that you really want."

Now that you have the knowledge and the confidence, happy negotiating! Just remember to be respectful, hold your ground, and ask for exactly what you want, and you're likely to get it.

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.