How much time will you take off?
Maternity leave serves two purposes: your recovery from birth (disability) and taking care of your new baby (parenting.) Even though you might feel fine within a week or two, six weeks is usually allowed for recovery, so for the first six weeks, your leave is both disability and parental. Beyond that, leave is for the care of the baby. This distinction becomes important because laws and company policies may treat these two purposes differently. Many new mothers don’t take all the leave that is allotted to them. For many, the lack of pay is a deterrent; for others, the loss of stature and accomplishment at work; still others know they aren’t “baby people” and look forward to their return to the workplace. You will need to figure out what is right for you.
The first six weeks
For most jobs, federal laws require that your employer cover the six weeks of postpartum recovery as any they would handle any other disability leave. Depending on your contract you might use sick days, short-term disability pay, or, if you are out of sick time, leave without pay. Some contracts specify maternity leave policy, but the first six weeks can’t be less generous than disability leave would be for any other condition. One silver lining if you end up having a cesarean: you may be able to extend the “disability” time to eight weeks, with a note from your physician.
Through 12 weeks
If you are covered under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), you are allowed twelve total weeks of parental leave, but this runs simultaneously with any other paid leave. Generally FMLA allows you to get six more weeks after your first six “disability” weeks. You may be able to work out an arrangement with your employer to work part time for several months or spread these six weeks of days through the child’s first year of life. The law doesn’t require that you be paid during this time, though. If you worked part time last year, work for a smaller company, or haven’t been at your job a year, you may not be covered by FMLA, and your employer isn’t required to allow more than the disability time off. But many smaller firms have policies that parallel the FMLA.
Beyond three months
Some jobs and some states have more generous policies than those required by federal law. Check with human resources to find out the policies at your workplace, and with www.nationalpartnership.org to find out state-by-state requirements. You also may be able to individually negotiate leave beyond your employer’s standard benefits.
People may seem judgmental about how much maternity leave you take. You may feel pressured to go back to work quickly, or to take more time off than you really want, or both. Keep in mind that it is usually easier to go back to work earlier than planned than it is to extend your leave as the time to return gets close. Many experts recommend planning for maximal leave, and then going back early if that seems right when the time comes. Listen to your heart, and talk to those who know you best. The decision on how much time to take off is a very personal one. You are the one who knows best what is right for you and your family.