So what exactly is maternity leave all about? We answered all your questions about taking time off work after giving birth, including how many weeks you're entitled to, job security, health benefits and more.

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Many companies might not offer maternity leave, and if they do, you might not even be eligible for it. Here's what you need to know to understand — and protect — your maternity leave rights.

What is maternity leave?

Maternity leave is the time in which a mom-to-be leaves from work to give birth to her child. Commonly known as family or parental leave, women who are adopting a child can also utilize their maternity leave.

Is maternity leave paid?

The United States is the only high-income nation in the world that doesn't offer paid maternity leave. The other countries that don't offer it: Swaziland and Papua New Guinea. And while some companies do offer paid maternity leave, the majority do not. Your best bet is to schedule a meeting with your company's Human Resources department to find out which policies are in place. In order for you to continue receiving your weekly paycheck while out on maternity leave, you'll need to use your vacation, sick or personal days.

One key thing to find out: how much of your time off will be paid. Some "family friendly" companies offer paid leaves, but many do not. It's more likely that any paycheck you receive will come through disability insurance, which typically provides for two weeks off before your due date and six after a vaginal delivery, or eight weeks after a cesarean section. (The percentage of salary you collect depends on your company and on the benefit plan you selected.) You may also be allowed to use sick, personal, and vacation days for your leave.

How long is maternity leave?

Under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, companies can provide employees with up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave per year. However, if you need to go on bed rest before the baby is born (or if you need to stay home longer to recuperate afterwards), that time counts against your 12 weeks of maternity leave.

How much maternity leave should I ask for?

There's no magic formula for calculating the perfect maternity leave. It depends on you, your job, your baby — even where you live and what time of year it is. Lock up a new mom for the winter in Maine with a colicky baby, no help, and few visitors, and you'll probably have a woman begging to return to her job, or any job, in a matter of weeks.

What's more typical, though, is the new mother who's forced — for reasons of finance, job security, or workplace demands — to return to the office long before she feels emotionally and physically ready.

So what to do? Ask for as much time as you can possibly get, as long as it won't jeopardize your job and you can afford it. For most companies, 12 weeks of maternity leave is standard, but closer to six months is not uncommon.

Remember, you can always ask for less time after the baby has arrived. The employee who calls to say she's ready to come back two weeks earlier than scheduled will win more admiration from the boss than the one who calls begging for a few more weeks at the last minute. Just don't sell yourself short up front.

How much maternity leave am I entitled to by law?

Your first question likely is, What, exactly, is your employer required by law to offer for maternity leave? There's only one answer to that, and it's a little complicated — the answer is, it all depends. The laws vary, contingent on the size of your company, where you work, and what kind of employer you have.

You've probably heard of the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, or FMLA, which gives workers the right to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for newborn or adopted babies. But there are catches: The law covers only companies that employ 50 or more workers; you have to have been on the payroll for a year before the leave policies apply, and you have to have put in at least 1,250 hours during that year.

If you don't work for a big company, don't despair. You may still be entitled to a leave, albeit a shorter one, under the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act. That law, which covers companies with 15 or more workers, requires employers to treat pregnant employees the same as any other disabled worker. In addition, several states and localities have more generous leave laws, so you may be entitled to even more.

When should I request my maternity leave?

After meeting with your boss to announce your pregnancy, (sometime after the three month mark), you should give her an approximate date of when you're planning to take your leave. This will give her ample time to temporarily hire -- and train -- someone to replace you while you're out of the office.

Will I still have health benefits on maternity leave?

Your health benefits will continue during your maternity leave. However, depending on your company's policies, you might still have to pay for a portion of the expenses out of pocket.

Will I still have the same job when I return from maternity leave?

Under the FMLA, you should be able to return to your position. If your job has been eliminated, then you'll most likely be offered a position that is similar in scope to your previous one in terms of job duties, salary and benefits.

What if my boss denies my maternity leave request?

First, review your eligibility to make sure that you qualify for maternity leave. Then, schedule a meeting with HR to find out why your request was denied. If you meet all the requirements but maternity leave is still not being offered to you, you can contact the National Partnership for Women and Families or the Department of Labor for tips on how successfully negotiate your maternity leave.

While paid parental leave should be a given for all working moms (and dads!), be sure that you know your rights so you can have the maternity leave you deserve.

Parents Magazine