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Matters of Maternity Leave

Alisa Ikeda


Pregnancy can be a thrilling time of anticipation and joy. But when you start contemplating how on earth you'll manage to be both a stellar employee and a stellar mom, your nine months can also be fraught with anxiety and conflicting feelings about what may become of your career -- and what you want to become of your career. Negotiating and orchestrating a smooth maternity leave will work wonders toward easing your mind.

Do Your Homework

Before you share your news at work, study up. Familiarize yourself with the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which provides new parents -- both men and women -- with up to twelve weeks of unpaid leave in any twelve-month period for the birth or adoption of a child. Under the FMLA, you are guaranteed an equivalent job upon your return and are assured continued health coverage, at the company's expense, throughout your leave (as long as you return). The act only applies, however, to people who have been employed for a full year by a company with at least fifty employees.

Whatever the size of your company, educate yourself. Contact your state labor office to learn about disability options (this is particularly important for those of you working in smaller companies). Consult your employee handbook and check in with your human resources department or union, if applicable. Look to trusted coworkers who've already been through a maternity leave at your company. But be judicious about whom you trust with your news. You don't want to put anyone in an awkward position, you don't want word to spread, and you don't want your boss to feel like she's the last to know. If you can gather the data you need without telling anyone, do so.

When Do You Want to Leave?

Knowing your rights is just the beginning. You also need to know your wants. When do you want to begin your maternity leave? Many women choose to work right up to their due date so they can enjoy the bulk of their time off with their new baby. Others opt to take some time at the end of their pregnancy to rest up and prepare for the arrival of their little one. (You are welcome to take advantage of the FMLA while you're still pregnant, since your pregnancy is considered a serious medical condition under the act, but it will lessen the time you have to spend with your baby after he arrives.) Much of your decision will depend on your level of energy, the progression of your pregnancy, and the kind of work you do.

How Much Time Do You Want to Take?

It's nearly impossible, before baby, for you to anticipate just how much time you'll want for your maternity leave, but it's safe to say that you'll likely want more than you think. Find out what kind of pay you're entitled to (usually a combination of your company maternity leave policy, a short-term disability program, and accrued time off); tally up your accumulated vacation, sick, comp, and personal days; and determine just how much unpaid leave your finances will allow. Keep in mind, when budgeting, that your employer can legally require you to use up your paid leave first, and that some states require you to cover at least a portion of your leave before disability kicks in (again, check with your state labor office).

Who Might Handle Your Work While You're Away?

It's not necessarily your responsibility to make arrangements for covering your workload while you're on leave, but your willingness to help do so will go a long way to reassuring your employer that you are indeed committed to your job and to the welfare of your company.

A savvy employee will:

Suggest how her duties may be delegated; Offer to help find and train a temporary employee; Prepare her co-workers for her absence;Write out her job description in full detail; Label and make accessible her computer and physical files;Prepare regular status reports on all ongoing projects as her due date draws near;And be clear about whether, how, and how much she'll be accessible during her leave.

How Do You Picture Your Re-Entry?

If you're creative, you can finagle yourself a very smooth return to work.

Know that under the FMLA, you can break up your twelve weeks in any way. That means you can take, for instance, eight weeks up front and then spread the next four over several shortened workweeks before returning full-time. Your employer will likely be amendable to this idea, as she'll surely be eager to get you back into the office as soon as possible.Remember that your significant other is also entitled to take a twelve-week FMLA leave with the arrival of your child. Unless you work for the same employer, you can each take up to twelve weeks at the same time, you can overlap a portion of your leaves, or you can take them consecutively, as long as each leave occurs within a year of the child's birth (your partner, of course, will not be entitled to any medical disability pay). You might be able to arrange for your partner to care for your baby during your initial weeks back at work, which would no doubt make the transition a much easier one for you.Consider requesting a more flexible work schedule for your return. More and more family-friendly companies are offering part-time schedules, flextime, job sharing, and telecommuting privileges to keep their best employees happy and productive. Don't underestimate yourself or your company -- they may just be willing to accommodate to keep you. Negotiate yourself an area for pumping if you intend to breastfeed. You'll need a private place with a free and accessible electrical outlet (if you have an office, push for a lock on your door and curtains; if you're in a cubicle or shared office, ask for regular access to a private office with the same amenities).


Spilling the Beans

Only when you've thought through all of the above -- but before you're obviously showing! -- should you announce your pregnancy at work. Give your immediate boss the courtesy of being the first to know, and tell her in private, when she's in a good mood and free of distractions. Don't be discouraged if your joyful news isn't met with the genuine smile and hearty well wishes you might expect. Your delightful bun in the oven, you see, may also be an unfortunate thorn in her side. You're an undoubtedly indispensable employee, and the fact that you'll be leaving for any length of time may throw her into a panic.

Ask your boss if you can schedule a time in the next day or two to go over maternity leave options. Don't expect her to be prepared at your initial announcement to discuss your plans -- give your news time to soak in. When you do meet to negotiate leave details, it's important to do the following:

Remain upbeat and confident; you shouldn't be in the least bit apologetic about this wonderful event in your life;Be prepared with your ideal proposal -- in your head or even on paper;Anticipate and respect your boss's valid concerns while offering several options for easing them; Don't agree to anything you haven't thought through fully; Be willing and prepared to compromise; And get your final agreement in writing.

In no time you'll be cradling your newborn in your arms and reveling in the gloriously stress-free maternity leave you've earned.

Alisa Ikeda is a writer and editor in Marin County, California, with a B.A. in sociology and a background in book publishing.

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sammy jo Aug 22, 2013 12:17:00 PM ET

Do you have to return to worn if your employer has been paying your mertainy leave money

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