I’ve written a few posts about maternity leave, most recently my rant on the state of maternity leave in the U.S, and how challenging it can be while you’re actually out on leave. It’s no one’s idea of a vacation. Now that we’re expecting baby #2 I had to think long and hard about my career and the length of maternity leave I wanted to take. There are multiple factors to consider when determining how long to take for maternity leave. The main concerns for our family were the financial consequences and impact to my career.
That said, after assessing our maternity leave financial needs and doing some soul searching, I’m sharing my story on why I decided to take a longer maternity leave. I know that this won’t resonate with everyone, and that I’m incredibly fortunate to be in a position to take a long leave. I’m hoping that if anyone else is struggling this post will help resolve unanswered questions.
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I’ve broken this post down into the key components you’ll need to figure out before deciding how much time to realistically take off.
What length of maternity leave can I financially afford?
This is a big consideration, and probably the biggest deciding factor for most families. Since the U.S. hasn’t caught up to most developed countries in the form of federally mandated maternity leave pay, most families are forced to figure out how to pay for maternity leave out of their own pocket in some form or another.
While I’m all for taking the longest leave you can, you really need to take a hard look at your financial situation before you finalize the amount of time to take off.
The short version of the full post linked above is that you need to finalize and fully understand your expenses, as well as all the other long term financial goals you have. Ask yourself the following:
- How much are your expenses and what do you realistically need to survive?
- Is it possible to get there on one income with some creative savings and adjustments?
- If not, how much will I need to save to supplement my maternity leave length?
- Am I foregoing other opportunities or savings goals? If so, are we OK with that?
What will I do about childcare for my other child/children?
This is a question to consider if you have children currently in daycare or preschool. Our daughter learns so much at preschool and is used to seeing and interacting with all her friends. I struggle with the idea of totally removing her from group care, especially since she’ll be so close to kindergarten when I have a new baby. I don’t want her to regress and I want to ensure she’ll continue advancing even if I am occupied with a newborn.
However, you do have to consider the costs of additional childcare when you’ll be at home. We may bump her down to part time care once we see the true impact of one salary and another baby on our finances.
In most cases, if one spouse stops working, the children remain home with the parent to save on child care costs.
What is my company’s parental leave policy?
It’s important to find out what your company’s parental leave policy looks like, so you know what else you’re asking for.
Many companies don’t have any paid policies beyond short term disability (or any payment at all). Some of the more progressive larger companies offer 10-14 weeks paid leave. Some of the finance and tech companies are offering up to a year off. Whether workers are taking advantage of the longer time off and if it impacts their career progression is unclear. I do know I wish we all had that option!
It’s important to understand what your company offers for paid time off in order to assess the impact to your finances, as well as how long your job is protected for.
Does your company offer a longer term leave of absence?
Many large companies have a long term leave of absence policy in place. If you choose to take longer than FMLA (12 weeks) and your vacation time, you’ll need to apply and be accepted for a longer term leave of absence.
In many cases, the company will hold your current job depending how much longer you want to take off. In the case of a significantly longer leave, the policy holds your head count, but doesn’t hold a specific job for you. If your job is deemed critical or can’t be vacant, you likely wouldn’t be returning to your current position.
Additionally, the long term leave of absence needs to be approved by your manager. If you’re in a critical role, the company isn’t required to approve the request. If you’re considering a longer leave, it’s definitely worth it to check with your HR department to see if you have one of these policies in place.
How will maternity leave impact my career?
This is a hard one to answer because truthfully no one really knows. It’s likely not something that will show up in a corporate career for a few years. At some point, you’ll be up for promotion and will only find out if you’re passed over for people who didn’t take a longer leave.
Will you be “behind” some of your colleagues who didn’t take time off? Probably.
Will you be permanently stunted and unable to advance in your current profession? Unlikely.
There are tons and tons of articles talking about the career impact of maternity leave on women’s careers, but I have yet to find a mass longitudinal study that proves definitively a negative impact of maternity leave on careers.
In this article, they break down a paper that shows that taking less than a year off for maternity leave does not negatively impact women. However, more than a year is associated with long term career consequences. Interestingly, improvements in child outcomes aren’t seen with increases in maternity leave beyond 12 weeks. You can read the full paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research here.
If you decide you don’t want to take a longer leave because you’re worried about the impact to your career, you’ll want to read the related post on how to rock at both.
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What is the opportunity cost of a longer maternity leave?
When you answer this question, think about everything you’re giving up if you take more time off. Write every single thing down so that you can make the most fully informed decision for you family.
- Direct Salary
- 401 K Contributions
- 529 or other long term savings goals (college?)
- Debt repayment
- Promotions you may lose or projects you might miss
- Skills or training that you’ll miss out on or certifications that could lapse
It’s important to think about ALL the costs associated with being out of work longer so that you can plan for them in advance.
For instance, we switched to my husband’s health insurance the year I had a baby because we knew that COBRA costs would be too much for us to financially afford if I took a longer leave. We also discussed the implications of not contributing to my 401k or our daughter’s 529 for an entire year. If this will materially impact your future or other goals, you should factor that timing into the amount of leave you’ll take.
Will I be happy staying home with my child or children?
This is an important question to consider. You don’t need to be an early childhood educator or baby savant to stay home longer with your newborn. However, you do need to consider your mental health and what will make you happy.
I work with so many moms who were crawling out of their skin with boredom on maternity leave. They craved adult company and wanted more mental stimulation that just didn’t come from staying home with a baby all day.
Personally, I felt horrifically unproductive while I was out on maternity leave for the first time, and it was incredibly challenging for me. I know I’m not cut out to be a stay-at-home-mom forever. However, I decided to take an extended leave this time to balance my need for achievement and time I can’t get back with a baby.
I know I’ll likely struggle with the endless cycle of eat, play, sleep, diaper, repeat. And with the seemingly endless amount of laundry, cleaning, and breastfeeding that all accompany a newborn. But since this is my last child, I really want to soak up all the time, and go back to work when I feel fully productive.
During my first leave I felt like I was failing both at home and at work, and I really want to be able to devote my full energy to one place. When I go back to work, I want to feel like I’m fully present. And I want to spend as much time with my last baby as I’m able before that happens.
How long should I really take off?
The answers to these questions will hopefully help guide you in a direction to understand the length of maternity leave you want, and can or should request. In the U.S., the decision to take an extended maternity leave is a personal one. The answer of how much time is right is different for every mom.
Write down the answers to the questions above and sit down with your spouse to determine the optimal amount of leave for your family.
If you decide that a standard (or short) maternity leave is for you, THAT’S OK! Don’t add this to the list of things you feel guilty about.
Related: 7 ways to get over working mom guilt
Preparing to return to work after maternity leave
If you’re reading this and are preparing to head back to work from your leave, you’ll want to soak up all the information you can on how to successfully return to work. Luckily, I can help!
I went back to work with my first baby after 14 weeks. I successfully pumped for a year at work and breastfed for 19 months. Even as a new pumping mom I received high ratings at work and even got a promotion. Check out the information on rocking working mom life below.
If you want to learn to breastfeed and really set yourself up for success when you go back to work, check out the awesome Breastfeeding & Working Ebook I put together on breastfeeding and working success.
We’ll tackle questions like:
- How to set up the conversation about breastfeeding at work
- How to prepare to be successful breastfeeding when you return to work
- Getting your baby ready for bottle-feeding
- Your rights as a breastfeeding mom
You’ll also learn how to:
- Set up your day so you get more done
- Prioritize and set yourself up for success
- Outline expectations and your schedule with your boss
- Crush it as a boss mamma when you’re back at work
Click the banner below for more information!
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