Having a baby comes with a lot of big decisions that will impact many areas of your life, including your job. Studies show that maternity leave can greatly benefit mom, baby, and the entire family. Having time to bond with your baby and properly heal from labor and delivery can be critical for your health and happiness postpartum. In this blog, we’ll answer some common questions about maternity leave.
What Is Maternity Leave?
Maternity leave is when a mother takes time off from work for the birth and care of a newborn. Some companies also offer paternity leave for fathers of newborns and parental family leave – leave for an employee to take care of a newborn child, recently adopted child, foster child, or child otherwise needing care. Maternity leave practices may vary depending on your place of employment and where you live.
How long is maternity leave?
The average length of maternity leave in the United States is 10–12 weeks, and the amount of leave taken can depend on many factors, including physical recovery and financial security.
Maternity Leave in the United States
Since the US is one of the few industrialized nations that doesn’t mandate parental leave, the length of your leave and whether or not you get paid (as well as how much) will depend on where you work, how long you’ve worked there, and the number of employees your employer has. Regardless of your employer’s maternity leave policies, the first step is to talk to your Human Resources (HR) department (if you have one), review your contract, and reach out to your employer directly.
When to Talk to HR about Maternity Leave
Choosing when to tell your employer about your pregnancy and need for maternity leave is a personal decision. It’s a good idea to schedule a meeting with your HR representative (if you have one) as soon as you decide to tell your employer that you’re pregnant.
Generally, you’ll need to give at least 30 days' notice before using the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA, more info later), so the sooner you talk with your HR department, the better. You may also want to consult coworkers who have taken maternity leave as they’ll be able to give you insight on how to structure your maternity leave and how they transitioned back to work.
To help you prepare for your meeting with HR, we’ve compiled some questions you can ask about maternity leave.
Questions to Ask HR about Maternity Leave
Is maternity leave paid?
In addition to government programs like the FMLA, your company may offer maternity leave benefits. These benefits can range from paying your full salary while you’re on leave to paying just a portion of your salary throughout your maternity leave. Be sure to get the details in writing, especially how much you’ll get paid (if anything) and when the payments will start and end.
Can I take unpaid maternity leave through the FMLA?
The FMLA was enacted in 1993 to ensure parents could have time to bond with their new children without worrying about losing their jobs. Under the FMLA, the federal government requires employers (if they qualify) to allow you to return to your position (or a nearly identical one) with the same pay when you return from leave.
Through the FMLA, you’ll get 12 weeks of unpaid leave each year for qualifying family and medical reasons, including the birth of a baby, adoption or foster care placement, or when you (or an immediate family member) are seriously ill and need care. But you’ll need to check with your employer to see if your company is eligible.
As of this writing, to qualify for FMLA coverage:
- You must work for a covered employer, including any public agency, any public or private elementary or secondary school, or a private employer with at least 50 employees within a 75-mile radius.
- You must have worked at the company for at least 12 months.
- You must have worked at least 1,250 hours for the company in the 12 months before your leave.
Do I still get health insurance and other benefits while on maternity leave?
Qualification for health insurance and other benefits will depend on your specific plan for maternity leave. If you intend to use the FMLA, your company is required to keep you on its health insurance plan during your leave, but you’ll need to continue making contributions as usual unless your employer has agreed to cover your portion of the plan.
Alternatively, you may be offered a temporary extension of health insurance coverage benefits, which would allow you to remain covered under your plan. You may need to pay the entire premium, which can be costly. You’ll want to ensure that your HR representative covers this topic in your meeting. If you’re in the US, click here for more information on health care coverage if you’re pregnant.
As for other benefits, you may not be able to contribute to your 401(k), pension, or flexible spending plans while on leave, but check with your company's HR about the specifics of the leave program.
What are the state laws for maternity leave?
State-mandated policies vary, but in some places, you may be entitled to expanded unpaid leave or paid maternity leave. As of this writing, residents of California, Connecticut, Hawai'i, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, Wisconsin, and the District of Columbia have additional provisions beyond the FMLA. Check with your HR representative for more information on the maternity leave laws in your state.
How does maternity leave work if you’re self-employed?
If you’re self-employed, you don’t qualify for the FMLA, but you can purchase a private disability policy. Double-check that the policy includes coverage for both pregnancy and postpartum and that you also have private health insurance in place. (Note that you’ll want to familiarize yourself with coinsurance, the amount you pay for covered health care after you meet your deductible.) Depending on your state’s policy, you may be able to qualify for short-term disability benefits as well.
Using Short-Term Disability for Maternity Leave
Though motherhood isn’t a disability, many people rely on short-term disability (STD) to cover or extend their maternity leave. STD generally pays between 50 and 100 percent of your salary for a certain amount of time after the birth of a child.
STD will cover your salary – or a portion of it – while you’re unable to work due to injury, illness, or childbirth. Many factors can determine whether or not you qualify for short-term disability insurance, but your HR representative should be able to tell you what you’ll be entitled to. However, if you’re fostering or adopting a child, you won’t be able to use your STD benefits.
STD benefits range from covering a percentage of your salary for six weeks to allowing more time for recovery from a C-section or complications during delivery. Some STD plans may also cover bed rest during pregnancy if it has been prescribed by your doctor.
Extending Your Maternity Leave
Vacation time, sick leave, and personal days may be used to supplement or extend your maternity leave or STD benefits, depending on your employer’s policy. If you’re reaching the end of your maternity leave and still want to remain at home with your baby, you may be able to take an unpaid leave of absence, use unpaid disability leave, or work from home while you transition back to work.
How to Prepare for Maternity Leave
Figure out your plan for maternity leave. You’ll want to know what you’re eligible for and what you’ll want to use. Your employer may have specific requirements for how and when you can use leave, and you’ll need to decide what scenario will work best for you and your family.
It’s a good idea to consider what you can afford – or how long you’ll be okay financially on just a portion of your salary – especially if you’re a single parent or if your partner is also planning to take leave.
Talk to your HR department. It’s best to keep your HR department in the loop about your decisions both before and during your leave. If you want, you can set up a schedule of how often you want to check in with your employer and how you can stay connected with your work while on leave. You’ll also want to understand the process for returning to work.
Complete any necessary paperwork. Don’t wait to start tackling your paperwork – there’s going to be a lot of it. You’ll need to fill out separate paperwork for the FMLA, STD, and anything internal to your company. You’ll also want to work on a transition plan to set your company – and whoever will be covering for you – up for success while you’re gone.
Decide when your maternity leave will start. Some people start maternity leave from one week to one month before their due date. Others wait until labor begins for financial reasons, so they can spend more of their leave with their baby, or a variety of other factors.
A few things to consider will be your energy level, whether or not you have any pregnancy complications, and how much stress or physical labor is involved in your job. You’ll also want to make sure you understand any company-specific policies on maternity leave timing.
How to Make the Most of Your Maternity Leave
Let’s be honest: maternity leave is not a vacation. Your time will be filled with tender moments and sweet newborn snuggles, but you may also experience a wide range of emotions, from overwhelming joy to worry and even self-doubt.
Be gentle with yourself. The earliest days of motherhood are all about learning (for both you and your baby). If you’re planning to return to work, you may be acutely aware that this time with your sweet baby is limited, but you don’t have to figure everything out on day one. Instead, focus on getting to know your newborn and finding your rhythm as a mom. Here are a few ways to enjoy your maternity leave:
Get comfortable in your new role.
It will take time to get to know your new baby – even if you’re not a first-time mom. You’ll most likely be sleep deprived, and both you and your baby might still be trying to figure out breastfeeding or bottle-feeding. You’re also still recovering from giving birth – a serious stressor to your body! Take things slowly, one day, one hour, or even one minute at a time.
Keep your schedule clear (or don’t).
Everyone is excited to meet your new bundle of joy, so you might have friends and family trying to make plans. It’s okay to stay at home and do nothing but cuddle your newborn. It’s also okay if you want to pack your schedule to the brim with social activities – community can be very helpful, and there are lots of great breastfeeding support groups, Mommy and Me classes, etc. You know your body (and your baby) best.
If you’re struggling to switch from work mode to mommy mode, you may find it particularly challenging to stay still. But rest assured that the to-do list (and the outside world) can wait until you’re ready.
Ask for help.
You shouldn’t have to do all of this alone. You’ve got enough on your plate between diaper changes and middle-of-the-night feedings. If someone offers to help, let them – it could be as simple as getting help picking up your groceries or doing the dishes.
What to Do while on Maternity Leave
Schedule a postpartum checkup. Taking care of yourself after delivery is just as important as taking care of your newborn, so don’t forget to schedule follow-up appointments with your doctor or midwife. A previous standard for postpartum checkups was six weeks, but the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) now recommends that all women should have contact with a maternal care provider within the first three weeks postpartum.
Search for childcare providers. If you haven’t already, make finding childcare (and a few backup options) a priority. The last thing you want is to scramble for childcare the week before returning to work.
Get your baby insured. Don’t forget to add your new addition to your health insurance (and any other important documents like your will). You usually have 30 days after your baby is born to do this. They’ll have quite a few checkups in the early stages of their life, so make sure you’re prepared and not left paying for appointments out of pocket. You may also want to familiarize yourself with the timeline and process for receiving your baby’s birth certificate and social security card.
Going Back to Work After Maternity Leave
Determine how you’ll transition back to work. You already have a plan in place with your employer for how you’ll transition back to the workforce, but you may want to set aside some time toward the end of your maternity leave to ensure a smooth transition for both you and your baby. You may also benefit from a self-check-in to see if you’re ready to go back to work or if you need more time. It’s also okay if you change your mind about maternity leave and want to jump back into work earlier. Just be clear with your employer so they can prepare for your return. If you have the option, you can talk to your employer about easing back into work by showing up part-time until your maternity leave ends. You’ll also want to do a few practice runs with your childcare provider to help ease the transition.
Introduce bottle feeding or start weaning. If you haven’t already introduced a bottle to your baby, now is the time (at least 1-2 weeks before you return to work). To start, try introducing a bottle to your little one for one feeding a day.
If you’re planning to pump when you return to work, it’s a good idea to become familiar with your breast pump. You can work on building up a stash for your little one to have while you’re away. Don’t forget to talk with your employer about setting up a pumping space for when you return.
If you’re ready to stop breastfeeding, look up safe ways to wean your baby so you don’t become engorged (you don’t want the first few days back at work to be physically painful).
Maternity leave is an incredibly important period. It’s a wonderful opportunity for new parents to bond with and nurture their newborns, and it’s a chance to get some much-needed rest (if you can!) – you’ve earned it!