What to Do When Your Maternity Leave Is Too Short

woman holding newborn with laptop and cell

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Going back to work after having a baby is never an easy transition. If you're like most moms, the thought of leaving your newborn for several hours a day is nerve-wracking. You also are still healing from your baby's delivery—whether you delivered vaginally or by c-section—and you probably don't feel 100% yet. Plus, there is the sleep-deprivation to deal with, finding appropriate childcare, and deciding whether to continue breastfeeding. So, what do you do when you feel like your maternity leave is ending before it ever really got started?

A Closer Look at Maternity Leave in the U.S.

The United States is one of only a handful of countries with no national paid family leave policy, despite the fact that a majority of American mothers work outside of the home. What's more, the length of maternity leave varies widely across the country even with the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). In fact, one in four U.S. mothers have returned to work two weeks after childbirth, according to a report by the Better Life Lab and New America.

For instance, the report indicates that FMLA only covers about 60% of the workforce despite the fact that the act offers 12 weeks of unpaid leave. This fact is due primarily to the restrictions found in the act, which only apply to full-time employees that have worked a minimum of 1,250 hours in the previous year for a company that has at least 50 employees in one location. If a new mom's company doesn't meet these requirements, or if she is not a full-time employee, she is not entitled to 12 weeks off.

Meanwhile, there are a handful of states in the U.S. that offer extended unpaid family leave beyond what the FMLA provides. For instance, California and New Jersey offer six weeks and Rhode Island offers four weeks of paid leave. The statewide maternity leaves are part of Temporary Disability Insurance, which is funded through a payroll tax on employees.

Yet, despite the short length of maternity leave programs across the U.S., there is growing research that suggests programs like what is found in Rhode Island not only lead to more income and gender equality, but they also significantly improve infant and maternal mortality rates. And, they have a positive influence on the physical and mental health of children and their parents, provide greater family stability, and improve economic security.

But businesses and organizations tend to forget that maternity leave is not a vacation. In fact, it's a necessity for both the new mom to heal and the baby to get a healthy start in life. Still, companies only offer voluntary paid family leave to about 14% of the civilian workforce.

What's more, workers with the highest incomes are three and a half times more likely to have access to paid family leave when compared to those with the lowest incomes. So, new families with low incomes are getting off to a really rocky start.

Yet, maternity leave programs have shown that they are good for businesses resulting in improved productivity, economic growth, and higher employee retention, according to the Better Life Lab and New America report. Plus, there is no evidence of higher costs or turnover for companies with higher-paid leave usage.

Perhaps this is why companies like Amazon, Facebook, Netflix, Apple, and Google offer comprehensive maternity leave programs. But until more companies follow suit, women are going to have to find creative ways to deal with maternity leave plans that are too short for comfort.

Practical Tips for Negotiating a Longer Maternity Leave

Every woman at one time or another has wished that her maternity leave was just a little longer. For some this feeling is fleeting and soon they are embracing getting back into the groove at work, but for others, the thought of returning to work seems a little too soon. If you find yourself in the latter group, here are some ideas for negotiating a longer maternity leave.

Put Together a Plan

Ideally, you should think about your maternity leave before the baby arrives and make it part of your maternity leave plan. But, if you thought your company's program would be adequate and then later find that it's not, it is never too late to be strategic about your return to work.

Take some time to really think through how you could not only extend your maternity leave, but also make it beneficial for your employer as well. You want to show that you are still invested in your job, but just need a little more time at home.

One creative way to tackle the transition back to work is to shorten your maternity leave by a week or two and then apply those five to 10 days to five to 10 Fridays. This plan would extend your time at home with your baby. Or perhaps you and your partner could take intermittent vacation days in order to reduce the amount of time your baby is with a nanny or childcare provider. Do whatever you can to create a plan that allows you to phase back into work on a schedule that makes you more comfortable.

Present a Proposal to Your Boss

While it may be tempting to just email your boss your plan, you will get better results if you schedule an appointment and meet face-to-face. Not only can you adjust your presentation based on the verbal cues you get from your boss, but you also will demonstrate that you are still committed to your job.

What's more, your presentation and request for more flexibility will be more effective when you come to your boss with a solution rather than just ask to extend your maternity leave. Make sure you describe how your responsibilities will be handled and how the workflow will continue. You want to do everything you can to make sure the company is not impacted much by your absence.

Propose Telecommuting

More and more companies are allowing their employees to telecommute several days a week. Research has shown that employees work harder and are more productive when they are allowed to work from home. Be clear with your boss about how you see this working out. Demonstrate that you have given thought to how you will handle all your job responsibilities including taking calls and attending meetings. Additionally, some work-from-home moms hire a nanny to assist them while they are working.

Be creative when you come with your telecommuting proposal. For instance, can you and your partner devise a plan where one of your telecommutes two days a week and the other telecommutes three? Or, maybe you both telecommute two days a week and the fifth day your baby is with a nanny, grandparent, or childcare provider?

Explore Other Options

Sometimes new moms find that it makes more financial sense to take a more permanent leave or explore a job change rather than going back to their present company before they are ready. For instance, the cost of childcare can, at times, eat up all the new mom's income.

But before you make an emotional decision and quit your job, take time to crunch the numbers. If you discover that you could live on your partner's income alone—and your partner agrees—you have the luxury of deciding if you can take a permanent leave from your job.

On the other hand, if you are financially strapped with just one income, it would be unwise to quit your job. You don't want to put your family and your new baby in jeopardy of drowning in debt. The stress that debt brings to a family is sometimes unsurmountable and your permanent leave will have the opposite effect of what you had intended.

Tips for Coping With Truncated Maternity Leave Programs

If you have already reviewed your maternity leave options, submitted a proposal to your boss, talked to human resources, explored short-term disability, and researched every avenue possible to extend your maternity leave only to still come up short, there are still ways for you to make the best of the situation. Here are some practical ways to cope with the fact that you have to go back to work before you are ready.

Have Lunch Dates With Your Baby

One of the hardest things about going back to work is being away from your new baby. If your childcare provider is close to your office, spend your lunch hour with your baby. Work with your nanny or childcare provider ahead of time to determine the best time to stop by.

Perhaps you can time your visit so that you are there to breastfeed or bottle-feed your little one. And, if your schedule permits, make it a daily ritual. This extra time together in the middle of the day, could be just what you need to help you transition back to the work environment.

Be Strategic About Vacation Time

Once you're back at work, be strategic about how you use your paid time off like personal days and vacation days. For instance, if you have two weeks off and five personal days, you could choose to use them a few days at a time. You could plan a few three- or four-day weekends to spend with your baby.

Using vacation days strategically will help you feel like you have more balance in your life during the initial days that you are back at work. Additionally, it will allow you to ease into your work responsibilities a little more slowly.

Make Your Time Together Count

Aside from the necessities like laundry and meal preparation, make your time at home with your baby count. Put away the cell phone and the computer and focus on your new little family. Spend your time rocking, cuddling, and reading books.

You also can plan little outings, go for walks with the baby, and take small road trips. The key is that you prioritize family time when you are home. Housework and other chores can wait. Instead, nap with your baby. Taking care of yourself and your little one will help you transition back to work more easily if your tank is filled.

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