How to Plan a Thorough and Flexible Maternity Leave

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Understand Your Rights and Benefits

Understand your rights and benefits while pregnant
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Congratulations about entering into working motherhood! Regardless if you're pregnant, adopting, or trying to start a family it's never too early to start planning your maternity leave.

Whether you are positive you'll return to work or hope to quit your job, you can benefit from a flexible, thorough approach to planning maternity leave. There are a lot of things to consider when planning maternity leave that will affect you emotionally, logistically, and perhaps financially.

The first step in planning your maternity leave is to understand your rights and benefits. You'll need your employee handbook to look up their leave policy, like if they offer any paid leave for childbirth. But at a minimum, expectant mothers are protected by several federal laws in the U.S.

Pregnancy Discrimination Is Illegal 

It's illegal to discriminate against pregnant women, whether in hiring or an existing employment situation. Unfortunately, that doesn't mean it doesn't happen. Between 2010 and 2015, 31,000 charges of pregnancy discrimination were filed. Learn about the rise in pregnancy discrimination claims to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and how to protect your rights as an expectant mom.

Maternity Leave Laws

In the U.S., there are currently two federal laws that offer protection to pregnant working women. They are the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) and the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Here's a rundown of these important laws that apply to leave taken after having a baby or adopting a child.

You May Be Entitled to Time Off

Why do many new moms take three months off to care for their newborns? Is it a medical recommendation? Not at all. That's the minimum FMLA leave (12 weeks) mandated by the federal government that new mothers may take without the threat of losing their jobs. Unfortunately, it's not paid and not all employers are "covered". You'll need to investigate your options with your employer but also learn about FMLA.

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Explore Your Work Schedule and Goals

Pregnant woman at her desk
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Privately answer the following questions. What kind of mom do you want to be? How do you see yourself being a mom and managing work? If you don't see things gelling well, does your employer have a flexible work policy you could look into?

You could share your answers with those you trust like your spouse or partner but not with your manager or co-workers. You don't know how motherhood will change your life, so try not to make any irrevocable decisions about flexible work until you've held your baby and made it through the first few sleep-deprived months.

Negotiate a Flexible Work Schedule

Do you have a rigid, 9 to 5 work schedule? Now's a good time to start exploring whether your employer has flexible work policies to accommodate pediatrician visits, the eventual school field trips and parent-teacher conferences. What would be even better is if you could set up a telecommuting day once a week or every other week. Working from home is a great way to ease back to work after maternity leave!

Understand the Pros and Cons of Telecommuting

Do you think that telecommuting may be a solution to the angst you may feel about leaving your baby? Maybe, maybe not. There are several downsides to working from home, especially if it's the majority of your schedule. While it can be a good solution to transition back to work, you need to understand the disadvantages before making a permanent move.

Should You Quit Your Job?

Many new moms daydream about quitting their jobs. At this point, there's no need to make a rash decision. You may discover that 24-7 motherhood isn't for you, or you may learn that you want to stay home full time. Wait until your baby is born to make this choice. Fortunately, there's no harm in crunching the numbers and thinking through the factors that will determine whether you should quit your job.

Beware the Dangers of the Mommy Track

Once your child is born, you may switch on to the mommy track at work. That may feel like the right move after many grueling years of long work hours and travelling. On the other hand, it may mean boring projects, less respect in the office, and the end of professional advancement. Look at your career field and office culture to determine whether you can achieve a healthy work-life balance, or risk being sidelined professionally after you become a working mom.

Find a Part-Time Job That Pays

Once you've thought through the demands of motherhood, you may conclude that your employer is simply too inflexible for your needs. You may want to explore the many options for part-time work and work from home. Don't make any irrevocable decisions, but learn what paths may be open to you. It'll be easier to do now, rather than when you have a mewling baby in your arms!

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Plan Your First Few Months of Working Motherhood

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To help plan out those first few months of your new life as a working mom answer these questions: How long should your maternity leave be? Should you come back part time or full time? Who will care for your baby when you go back to work?

Now consider your employer's needs. How will your maternity leave affect your participation in the company's annual schedule? Will you miss the company retreat? Will your performance review will fall during (or just after) your maternity leave? If so, ask to move it  up to before your leave.

Figure Out How Long Your Maternity Leave Should Be

It's hard to predict what your labor and delivery will be like, what your recovery from childbirth will bring and whether you'll enjoy maternity leave. At the very least, you can look into your employee benefits and crunch the numbers to see how much time off might work for you.

You'll probably use a combination of short-term disability, sick leave, vacation time, personal days and unpaid FMLA leave. A maternity leave plan is just a starting point -- don't be afraid to adapt it when the time comes.

Start to Line up Child Care

This is the time when you'll want to line up child care. Your options a daycare center, a family child care, in-home babysitting, or a relative. Read up on the place or person then go visit them. A tour or a meeting doesn't have to take long. You will either get that warm and fuzzy feeling or you won't. Trusting your gut is the way to pick your child care option.

How to Juggle a Sick Child and Work

Unfortunately, many employers require you to take all your sick leave after giving birth, so many moms return from maternity leave with no sick days. That's why it's important to think through how you'll manage the inevitable sick days with your baby.

If you're using group child care, you can count on at least one cold in the first month. If you have an in-home babysitter, she may fall sick or be unable to come to work. Figure out what your backup child care would be now so you stress less over it later.

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Tell Your Boss, Colleagues and Clients About Your Pregnancy

Pregnant woman and colleagues
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Once you've figured out how much maternity leave you want to take now you need to get it. Before you speak to your manager you could talk with other working mothers in your company to see how they handled their maternity leave.

Next, approach your manager. According to FMLA you must inform your employer as soon as possible that you will need leave. Tell your boss you're pregnant in person preferably before your belly starts bumping into the conference table at staff meetings but of course after your first trimester

How to Tell the Boss You're Pregnant

Your manager will take the news best if it comes from you directly. Here are some tried and true ways to make the conversation go smoothly.

Send a Maternity Leave Letter

Now that you've had the in-person discussion, document the fact that you informed your manager of your intention to take maternity leave. Start with this sample maternity leave letter then adapt it to fit your employer's corporate culture or policies. 

Inform your Clients As Well As Your Co-Workers

You'll also want to inform clients and colleagues of your pregnancy and plan to take maternity leave. Time the announcement so that they have enough time to ask you any pressing questions and wrap up projects before you leave. But don't tell them so far in advance that they'll have time to dump new work on you as you're trying to organize for your absence!

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How to Wrap Up Your Work and Plan Your Return Back

Pregnant woman meeting with co-worker
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In the final weeks before your leave begins, wrap up your remaining projects. Write any instructions or memos that colleagues will need to fill in while you're out of the office. It's smart to finish the top priority items first, since babies have been known to arrive ahead of schedule. Next, set the stage for your return to work.

Set Up an Out of Office Message

Before your maternity leave, set up an out of office message. To help keep your inbox clean unsubscribe from any regular newsletters or e-mail lists that you're on. Make sure to keep notes, so you can re-subscribe when you come back to work.

How to Write a Resignation Letter After Maternity Leave

If you have a change of heart while on maternity leave, write a resignation letter that is professional and in keeping with your company's policies. Make sure you understand whether you'll be expected to repay any paid leave that you took. (When in doubt, consult an employment lawyer.)

The Essentials for Returning to Work

As your maternity leave draws to an end, you'll want to follow a checklist to smooth your path back to the office. From emergency child care to the baby gear you'll need, here are the essentials for returning to work.

Surviving the First Week Back

The first week back is often the toughest. Don't worry, you'll make it through with these tips.

How to Find Work-Life Balance

Once you're an official working mom, you'll understand why all your friends complain about work-life balance. Here's the first secret you need to know about work-life balance.

Updated by Elizabeth McGrory