Congratulations! You’re getting ready to start a family and begin an exciting new chapter. Whether you’re planning to have kids, currently pregnant, fostering a child, or in the middle of the adoption process, the realities of motherhood are brilliant, confusing, beautiful, and terrible—sometimes all at the same time. And becoming a new mom can be particularly tricky when it comes to your career.
In honor of Mother’s Day, we’re offering this comprehensive guide for the ins and outs of navigating the workforce as a soon-to-be mother. What does maternity leave look like, how do you talk to your employer, and what can you do to plan for success during your absence?
Maternity Leave in the U.S.
In an ideal world, every employer would offer paid maternity leave, but that’s not the case. So, let’s take a look at what you can expect, what federal and state laws require, and the possibility of paid leave.
Pregnancy Discrimination Is Illegal
In 1978, Congress passed the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) to eliminate pregnancy-based discrimination. This law prevents employers from discriminating in hiring, firing, promotion, pay, and other benefits based on pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions. But even with the law in place, this doesn’t mean that discrimination doesn’t happen. If you think that you’re being discriminated against for choosing motherhood, you have recourse. You can start by filing a claim with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) or speaking with a lawyer.
12 Weeks of Unpaid Leave
The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) requires all employers to offer a minimum of 12 weeks of unpaid leave after childbirth or adoption. FMLA secures your position during this time, and your job will be waiting for you when you return without penalties for taking time off.
However, to be eligible for FMLA, you must have worked in your job for more than a year. Your employer also needs to have more than 50 employees within 75 miles of where you work. So, if you work remotely or are employed by a small company, you may not be covered.
FMLA offers protection for women who are pregnant, biological fathers, and adoptive and foster parents.
Additional State Regulations
As of January, 2019, 18 states and the District of Columbia offer protection for new parents that goes beyond the FMLA regulations. In California, for example, companies are required to offer parental leave if they have just 5 or more employees. Employees can also qualify for these benefits as soon as they start their position.
Paid maternity leave is available at the discretion of your employer. You’ll need to speak with HR or check your employee handbook to see if your employer offers any paid leave in addition to what’s required by FMLA. If they don’t, there are a few things you can do to provide income during your absence:
- Ask about using your accrued vacation or sick time to either extend your leave or help pay for part of your time off.
- Consider using short-term disability insurance to provide a portion (50%-100%) of your salary after you’ve given birth. How long you can collect insurance payments depends on your condition and local regulations.
- Negotiate with your employer for additional time off or part-time pay; you can also discuss options to work from home.
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How to Talk to Your Employer About Taking Parental Leave
The key to a successful maternity leave is to talk to your employer beforehand. You want a detailed plan in place to handle your absence. That’s why it’s important to tell your employer that you’re pregnant as soon as you feel comfortable, typically at the end of your first trimester or beginning of your second.
You don’t need to formally announce you’re pregnant. Instead, it’s usually a good time to tell your boss after you complete a project or receive a positive review; this way your boss is already thinking about keeping you and your talent.
If you’re adopting, you can request to take family leave as soon as the child is placed with you—you don’t need to wait until the adoption is finalized. Adoptive or foster parents sometimes request leave early to attend mandatory counseling sessions, appear in court, or travel for the adoption.
When you first tell your boss about your intentions, keep it simple. Let your employer digest your announcement for a week or two. Don’t worry about going into details right away; it’s not the time or place. Keep it concise and professional, not emotional.
Once you’ve told your employer, start planning your next conversation. Consider your responses to these questions:
- Do you want to move from full-time to part-time?
- Do you want the ability to work from home or have flex-time?
- Is there anything else you want to adjust before or after your new family member arrives?
Once you have a plan, ask to speak with your manager privately. The clearer you can be with your employer, the better.
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Preparing for Your Temporary Absence
It’s perfectly reasonable to be completely unavailable while you’re on family leave. You can also choose to be available for emergencies or part-time work; it’s entirely up to you. Whatever you decide, you’ll have to prepare for your absence. That means putting a detailed plan in place for your leave.
Some things to consider:
- Create and leave behind documentation for key tasks. The more step-by-step processes and information you provide, the less likely your company will need to reach out for help.
- If you’re a lead or have decision-making authority, make sure you delegate that authority to someone else.
- Talk to your coworkers and employer about what type of contact you’re willing and able to handle during your leave. For example, you might offer to check your work email once a week or answer calls only on Fridays.
- According to FMLA, your employer can’t ask or require you to work on your leave. But employees can voluntarily field occasional calls as a professional courtesy.
- Choose a central gatekeeper who can screen all requests to contact you and decide when a situation needs your attention.
- If you’re going to submit a claim for disability insurance coverage, be careful that you don’t violate the terms of this agreement. For example, you’ll need to have the proper documentation from your doctor. Depending on your employer, policy, and location, you might have additional restrictions that prevent you from working during your absence. There will also likely be a delay between submitting the claim and receiving those benefits, so make sure you have savings to cover your expenses for at least a month or two.
Planning to be a mother while having a career is easier said than done—but it can also be an incredibly rewarding adventure. The key is not to worry about perceptions or biases; they are outside of your control. Instead, focus on holding your head high and being confident in who you are and what you offer.
And remember: Being a mom doesn’t take away from your career potential. In many ways, motherhood makes you a better leader. You’ll be more patient, better at resource allocation, and understand new perspectives.
Starting a family is a remarkable milestone. Enjoy the journey, and reach out to other working parents around you. They might also have advice to help you out!
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