Planning parental leave

Planning your parental leave and speaking to your employer about it can create some anxiety. The good news is that although there is a lot to consider when planning for your leave, your manager and HR department are there to help support you through this process. You should be able to enter your leave feeling confident in what you’ve arranged with your employer so that you’ll be able to return to work with confidence too.

So just how does the planning start? Once you’ve disclosed to your employer or HR that you’re expecting, it’s never too early to start thinking about what your leave will look like. This will make it easier for you to work with your direct manager or team and HR to create a plan that you’re comfortable with.

Before you start the conversation, learn more about your employer’s policies and local law

Before you work with your boss and human resources to plan your leave, it can be helpful to better understand the specifics of your options for time off, as well as what pay and benefits you’re entitled to while you’re out.

What’s on the books in terms of formal leave with your employer? If you’re not entitled to an employer-sponsored leave, is your employer subject to the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) or state laws that provide paid or unpaid medical or family leave? These laws require certain employers to grant new parents up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-guaranteed leave. Military families may receive up to 26 weeks of unpaid, job-guaranteed leave.

Your HR department may provide you with all of this info, so you can ask them to share the specifics with you if they haven’t already. And do ask questions if you have any! They’re there to provide answers and assistance. Asking co-workers who have recently been on leave or talking to anyone your employer hires for benefit management (such as a short-term disability company) may also uncover more options. States with paid family leave have websites and phone numbers you can use to gather more information.

If you’re a member of a collective bargaining unit, be sure to check your contract and ask your union leadership if you have any questions or concerns.

Talk to your partner about their options

If you have a partner, you’ll want to keep in mind what sort of parental leave they may have access to. If your partner can take time off following the birth – whether an employer-sponsored leave or some other arrangement- they should definitely do so.

If they are able to take time off, do you two want to take your time off together? Time off together in those first days after bringing the baby home can be hugely important because you’ll be recovering, and they will need so much care. Other times, couples might decide it makes the most sense to stagger their parental leaves, with one following right after the other. Your family should decide what would be preferable for you based on medical needs and available childcare.

Brush up on your rights as a pregnant employee

There’s a lot that can be uncertain during pregnancy, but one thing that is reassuring is that there are laws in place to protect you during this time. So it can be empowering to know your rights as a pregnant employee. You are valuable!

For example, if your job requires you to do things that become unsafe during pregnancy, like exposure to high temperatures or inhaling dangerous chemicals, under the Pregnancy Worker’s Fairness Act (PWFA), your safety can be protected by accommodations like more breaks, rest, or sitting.

If you have a pregnancy-related condition like cervical insufficiency or anemia, for example, you may also be eligible for accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The PWFA and Title VII also protect you from being fired, harassed, or refused promotion because of your pregnancy.

You can speak with HR if you have any questions about this or if you think you may need accommodations. You can also be in touch with HR or take some time to reread your employment contract and employee handbook to determine if you’re allowed any other family benefits. If you ever feel you aren’t being supported adequately, you can file a report with the EEOC. 

Think about whether you want to combine options

Depending on your employer’s policies, some families choose to use a combination of employer paternal leave or FMLA leave along with other options for time off – like vacation time, personal days, or sick days. Consider what sort of time off would be paid or unpaid. If it happens to be an option at your company, you may even want to explore returning to work part-time, working a flex schedule, or working remotely in the beginning as a way to ease back after leave and have a bit more time with Baby. There’s certainly a lot to consider when planning for parental leave, and all parents have to do what’s best for their family based on the leave options and childcare available to them. 

When it’s time to work with your boss and HR to plan your leave…

Be empowered

This will be an important time to set a good tone and open, clear lines of communication to work out all of the details of your leave.

Take as much leave as you can

Depending on what sort of leave you’re able to get approved, it’s recommended that you take as much leave as you possibly can. Your body will need time to recover, and your baby will need all the love, attention, and care you can provide them. If, once you’re on leave, you decide that you want to return sooner, it’s highly likely that you’ll be able to, and you can cross that bridge when you come to it. Again, open lines of communication with your employer can be a huge help if your original leave plan needs to change in any direction.

In regards to deciding on a return date, some new parents prefer to return to work mid-week if they’re able to. This way, you only have to work for a few days when you’re first back before you can regroup over the weekend. Those first few days after returning to work may be especially tiring. Getting a weekend, or a day or two, off early on can be a huge help to ease back into the swing of things.

Ask about staying engaged during leave, if you’re interested

Some people stay engaged with work during maternity leave, while others have no contact at all until they return. Depending on where you work, what you do, and what kind of leave you take, you might feel better about returning after leave if you check back in on work a bit before you really return. However, for many jobs, this isn’t possible, and if you’re taking leave under the FMLA or some paid leaves, it may not even be legal for you to casually check in. So if you’re thinking about keeping in contact with work or working part-time during leave, make sure you talk with HR about your options and any legal concerns before you go on leave.

If you want a schedule change, now can be the best time to ask

If you’re hoping to make some changes in your schedule after your return from leave – for example, working part-time or a compressed workweek or working from home certain days of the week – the best time to ask for those changes is before your leave starts. These options aren’t available at all companies or appropriate for all roles, but HR can help walk you through all of your options and answer any questions you might have.  And if any of these are options for you, starting to talk about them now will give your employer ample time to prepare for your adjusted re-entry to the job. 

Set expectations, but be open to change

As you work with your employer to set clear expectations for how you’ll handle your leave, you’ll want to be sure that you think realistically about the postpartum period and what’s most important during this time.

After giving birth, your body will need time to recover from the stress of labor and birth, you’ll want time to bond with your baby. You’ll be adjusting to caring for them – including dealing with a lack of sleep. Mental health can also play a major role in whether you’re ready to head back in.

So, keep this in mind when you think about leave. Know that leave will be a period of adjustment for you, and unexpected surprises could come up as you adjust to your new role as a parent.

At the end of the day, if you already have clear lines of communication with your employer, you can re-open the conversation as necessary if anything needs to change.

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