Whether you've finally made it through the first half of your pregnancy or have just turned in your final adoption paperwork, there comes a time when every mother-to-be begins the countdown until the birth of a child. Now, it's time to start thinking about maternity leave.
But here's the thing. Although taking time to heal and bond with your baby in the early weeks is recommended by just about every expert, the United States does not have a standardized leave policy for new mothers. Often, it's left up to a woman to create her plan for taking time off and returning to work.
To help you figure out how to execute this sometimes overwhelming plan, we spoke to Sue Campbell and Amy Beacom, Ed.D., co-authors of "The Parental Leave Playbook: 10 Touchpoints to Transition Smoothly, Strengthen Your Family and Continue Building Your Career" and part of the Center for Parental Leave Leadership, a consultancy and coaching company devoted to helping employees and employers improve their parental leave policy and practice to find out everything you need to know about setting up, enjoying and returning from parental leave.
Phase one: Preparation
"Since there's no culture or infrastructure to support working parents in the U.S., it's up to parents to create it for themselves," explains Campbell — and that requires preparation as outlined in their book, which includes assessment tools to help you take stock of your unique work situation and career goals. This phase of planning centers on your day-to-day work life and career. Here are three steps to take:
- Understand what you are entitled to under the law. First, find out if you're entitled to the benefits made available by the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which stipulates that companies with over 50 employees are required to grant up to 12 weeks of time off for employees who have worked for at least 12 months and at least 1,250 hours during the last year. Also, investigate whether your state offers additional leave or if your company offers its own benefits (which would be listed in the employee handbook or web portal).
- Plan your announcement. Next, Campbell and Beacom recommend planning how you'll announce your pregnancy. If you haven't yet shared your news with your boss and colleagues, now is the time. Prepare for the discussion while keeping in mind your circumstances at work. Is your boss supportive? Do you feel secure in your position? Does your workplace's culture allow for a comfortable discussion of personal information? If your company is more old school, you might just make an appointment with your boss or HR to let them know about your pregnancy and that you'll be kickstarting the planning for your leave.
- Create a roadmap for your co-workers. To round out your prep, create an action plan or a detailed road map to what you do, how you do it, and what needs to be done while you're gone. This can be a spreadsheet or a letter — but it should be something tangible your team will be able to refer to when you're out of the office.
- Level set expectations. Before you go out on leave, decide how much contact you'd like to have with your workplace while you're away. Some specify that they won't be reachable beyond a weekly email; others invite the office to reach out when needed. Campbell recommends under-promising and over-delivering here. "Keeping in touch can keep you in the loop in the office, but it will also take away from your time with your child — time that you can't get back," Campbell says.
Phase two: Out on leave
Some of this phase needs to happen before the baby arrives. Other aspects fall into place once you're already a parent. Either way, this phase centers around you. Here are some suggestions:
- Advocate for yourself at home. Now that you've set expectations at work, you might need to do the same at home. For women who live with a spouse or significant other, that might mean asking your partner to take on some of the household duties you typically shoulder. It could mean asking your extended family to call or text before coming over or explaining to your workplace that you're not able to respond to requests that don't line up with your 'keeping in touch' strategy. Whatever the issue, the goal here is to begin creating an environment that will make you feel safe and comfortable while you bond with your child.
- Know what to look for postpartum. New moms can face a slew of unfamiliar symptoms and issues. From trouble breastfeeding to postpartum depression, it's wise to read up on common issues so that you can more easily recognize the symptoms. If you begin to feel like you are experiencing any postpartum issues, ask your health care provider to investigate to get the help you need.
- Start making arrangements. This is also the time to begin researching daycare options. Depending on what you choose, set up site visits, interview nannies, or discuss what child care will be like with the grandparents. Once you have a plan, do a dry run to know what it takes — and how long it will all take — before your first day back at work. Going through the motions will also get you familiar with any emotions your return might trigger.
The real takeaway: "Planning will allow you to be nimble should you have to pivot," explains Campbell. Oh, and expect that you're going to have to pivot because nothing with new babies goes 100% according to plan.
Phase three: Returning from leave
When you head back to work, allow yourself time to adjust. Expect that your routines will need tweaking and that you will need a grace period to figure out how to combine your work self with your identity as a new parent. That's both normal and OK.
Once you're settled, give some thought to your ideal work situation and career goals. "Have a conversation with a mentor or trusted HR representative about where you want to go in your career now that you're a working parent and possible ways to get there," suggests Campbell. "Because you want to keep those access channels open."
Right now, a lot of the burden for creating a plan for parental leave still falls to women, but with forethought, it can be done in a way that allows you to enjoy your time with your baby and make it easier to transition back to work. Plus, change is on the horizon. "This generation of women and men are redefining what taking time off to be with children looks like," says Dr. Beacom. "They know the current system is broken, and they are trailblazers for change."