Few things bring people together like a shared experience, a common path trod together as we endure, overcome, and delight in similar circumstance. Hate the Internet and social media all we want, we can’t deny its ability to connect us to those beyond our immediate circles, allowing us to seek out those bonds to help us face whatever lies before us—whether a difficult health diagnosis, a loss of a loved one, a military deployment, or a pregnancy.
This is perhaps why pregnant moms so often join online birth groups, where they find solidarity and companionship with women who are expecting babies around the same date. In such a birth group with my second pregnancy, I had the pleasure of meeting and befriending women around the world from every corner of the United States and Canada to as far away as New Zealand. We shared our joys and discomforts, our plans and frustrations, our questions and our lessons learned.
We were a close yet diverse group of moms. Some stayed home full-time, while others worked. Some saw obstetricians. Others midwives. Some had scheduled C-sections, while others planned home births.
The Ups and Downs of Flexibility
This diversity led to some of our most interesting discussions as we compared our experiences with health-care and maternity leave laws. I listened as moms complained of not having the freedom to select their care providers, being forced to see an obstetrician when they wanted a midwife, or vice versa. Some were also shocked when they learned American moms did not have a guaranteed year-long paid maternity leave.
That shock hasn’t been limited to those in that group. I’ve encountered it from friends and family here in the states when they learn my employers haven’t paid my various maternity leaves. Or I hear frustration that laws don’t force employers to give new moms more time off. That shock certainly doesn’t wane when I express my satisfaction with the state of maternity leave laws in our country. In fact, for the most part, I appreciate the flexibility the American approach to maternity leave affords us parents.
As my editor, Joy Pullmann, wrote earlier this year, the goal shouldn’t be to unfairly force employers to sacrifice productivity and resources to provide a one-size-fits-all solution to new parents. Instead we — parents and employers alike — should look at our responsibilities as such and be allowed the freedom to find a solution that provides the work-life balance that works for both parties in the employment contract.
Having planned maternity leave with three different employers now, I know how daunting a task this can be. The downside to the flexibility of our American setup is that every employer is different, and it can often be difficult to determine exactly how leave will be handled and what options we have to cover lost wages. Here are a few things to keep in mind when making maternity leave plans, or even when deciding whether to accept an employment contract to begin with.
1. Start Planning Early
Generally speaking, the need for maternity leave doesn’t spring up on you at the last second. Even parents seeking to adopt go through a lengthy process before they bring their child home. Whether you are planning to get pregnant or simply could become pregnant in the future, don’t wait until the end of the pregnancy to determine your employer’s policies.
Ideally, you would review these policies when you investigate their benefit package before signing any contracts, but sometimes we can’t be picky about whether to accept a job. Regardless, get familiar with the rules and process well in advance. It will hopefully save headaches and surprises later on.
2. Get Disability Coverage If You Can
Employers often provide employees the opportunity to purchase optional disability plans. These typically come in either short-term or long-term plans to cover lost wages while employees are out of work for qualifying circumstances, such as the birth of a baby. These have varying requirements, grace periods, wage coverage, lengths of coverage, and costs, so review your options with your human resources department.
Ask a lot of questions. Ensure you understand exactly what you’re paying for, how it works, and what benefits you’ll receive. Then pick the plan that fits your needs and budget. While it’s not necessary, that portion of your pay while you’re out could help you extend your leave.
3. Save Paid Leave
Once you get that positive pregnancy test, it might be worth it to plan on saving as much paid sick leave or vacation time as possible to financially cover your family once baby arrives and leave begins. Some employers also allow coworkers to donate sick leave, so be sure to consider that option—and review its requirements—if it’s available.
4. Start a Maternity Leave Fund
If you don’t already implement a monthly budget, shame on you. You should do that. It’s just smart and easy to do. But I digress. For the vast majority of us, maternity leave means lost wages. Even with disability pay covering a portion of your income, most don’t cover full income and may include mandatory unpaid grace periods or unpaid leave when and if your disability benefits end before the federally mandated 12 weeks of Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) job protection expire.
Remember, you have roughly nine months to set aside a bit from every paycheck to cover those lost wages. Even if you don’t need it to cover income, babies do need things like diapers and clothes, so that saved money won’t go to waste.
Maternity leave planning can be a headache. I won’t lie: I’ve had my share of frustration trying to plan around the various rules and policies. Yet while many may scoff at America’s maternity leave situation, there is something beautiful in our current system that has found a pretty sweet balance between protecting our jobs so we can’t be fired while out and flexibility to negotiate a leave that fits our needs and circumstances. Instead of coveting some supposedly greener grass elsewhere, we can appreciate the gift of autonomy that allows us—at least for now—the ability to do what’s best for us and our families.
Even if we find our maternity leave situation less than ideal, we can still find comfort in sharing our joys, frustrations, questions, and wisdom with others traveling the path of parenthood with us.