Maternity leave is a leave of absence from work before and after the birth of your baby. This is a period for birth recovery, bonding, breastfeeding, and adjusting to the learning curve that comes with having a newborn. The terms of your maternity leave depend mainly on the time you can take away from your job and whether your employer pays you during your absence. These factors vary widely based on your country, state, employer, and financial situation.

Planning for maternity leave is a big project. For many moms, it can be stressful to think about taking time off or returning to work after you have your baby. Planning is the key to maximizing the time you can take and minimizing the effects on your income and career. This episode covers navigating job protections, coordinating federal, state, and employer benefits, assessing your financial capacity for time off and planning for a smooth transition back to work.

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There are a lot of considerations when it comes to raising children and financially supporting your family. There is not one universal solution, and you need to find the scenario that works for you and your family. You may have the option to stay home with your child, return to work, reduce your hours or work part-time. This could also be an opportunity to get a new job or start your own business. Regardless of your path, you will need some time off work after you have your baby. Many parents utilize maternity leave to recover from birth and care for their newborns.

Maternity and Paternity Leave

Maternity leave is a leave of absence from work before and after the birth of your baby. This is a period for birth recovery, bonding, breastfeeding, and adjusting to the learning curve that comes with having a newborn. The terms of your maternity leave depend mainly on the time you can take away from your job and whether your employer pays you during your absence. These factors vary widely based on your country or state, your employer, and your financial situation.

Paternity leave is the counterpart of maternity leave for dads and partners. Typically paternity leave is shorter than maternity leave. Everything discussed in this article also applies to partners. Partners and dads should absolutely plan on taking time off work once their baby arrives. You only have a newborn for a short time. Partners who take paternity leave can assist you as you recover from birth, navigate breastfeeding, and care for a newborn. This also allows your partner to bond with their baby.

International Recommendations

In 2000, the International Labour Organization called upon countries to provide new mothers with a minimum of 14 weeks of maternity leave paid at no less than two-thirds of previous earnings. This is the minimum recommendation, and the ILO encourages at least 18 weeks at 100% of earnings. The Global Breastfeeding Collective, led by UNICEF and WHO, has called on governments to mandate paid maternity leave for a minimum of 18 weeks and, preferably, for six months or more after birth.

According to the World Health Organization, “the evidence is clear that a nurturing environment, stimulating and responsive care can strengthen a baby’s developing brain. To undertake these critical practices, parents need time, resources, and support, including in the form of paid parental leave. Paid leave promotes gender equity, increases women’s economic participation, and improves mothers’ physical and mental health”.

How the United States Compares to Other Countries

The U.S. offers much fewer maternity leave benefits compared to other countries. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) examined parental leave policies in 36 countries, including the U.S., U.K., Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Japan, Korea, and most countries in the EU. On average, countries give women 18 weeks of paid leave after birth. The U.S. is the only country in this group that offers no nationally mandated maternity leave. Some countries extend over six months. The UK provides nine months. Generally, the countries that offer maternity leave also provide paternity leave for partners. The level of income replacement varies significantly between countries. You can view the full OECD report here. Globally, the U.S. is one of only seven countries that do not require employers to provide maternity leave.

Planning for Maternity Leave

Planning is the key to maximizing your time off and minimizing the effects on your income and career. This is a big project, and for many moms, it can be stressful to think about taking time off or returning to work after you have your baby. It is critical to plan ahead and work with your employer to ensure you are both on the same page.

Identifying Job Protections and Benefit Programs

The first step in planning maternity leave is identifying job protections and benefit programs. Some state and federal laws provide job protections for a period after you have a baby. This means you can take time off, and your job will still be there when you return. Your work, state, or federal government may offer maternity leave compensation programs. You need to know how much time you can take and whether that time is paid or unpaid. Explore job protections in your state and government benefit programs before talking to your employer.

Family Medical Leave Act

The Family Medical Leave Act is a national program in the U.S. that provides 12 weeks of unpaid leave after a birth or adoption. This applies to all 50 states plus Puerto Rico. The key here is that it is unpaid, which makes this inaccessible for some parents. The good news is that this is job-protected. Your employer must allow you to take time off, and your job will still be there for you when you return. One caveat of the FMLA is that this only applies to companies with over 50 employees, which could be an issue if you work for a smaller business. Your employer may require you to take accrued vacation, sick, or family leave in those 12 weeks. You really have to read the fine print on eligibility and what is covered and ensure you understand it.

State Programs

FMLA is a federal program; some parents may have additional protections or compensation under state laws. Some states have enacted legislation expanding FMLA to companies with fewer than 50 employees. Only 11 states offer some form of paid leave, and none offer compensation equal to 100% of your salary. I was unable to locate a good resource that covered every state. You need to search your state’s programs online to find out if you have additional coverage through state disability or another program. Many states specify that eligibility may only apply if the employer meets specific requirements and you have been with the company for a specific time before the leave. Be sure you understand all of the requirements.

Employer Programs

Maternity leave policies vary significantly from one company to the next, and some companies may not offer maternity leave if state or federal laws do not require them. An employee handbook should outline whether maternity leave is available and the terms. If your company has a human resources department, they can assist you in navigating leave. For smaller companies, you may need to discuss paternity leave with your supervisor or boss. You may want to wait until you are ready to disclose your pregnancy to inquire about maternity leave. See this episode for more information on when to tell your boss you are pregnant.

If other moms at your company have taken maternity leave, ask them about their experience. They may give you some insight to help you navigate the intricacies of maternity leave with your employer. 

If you compare your company’s leave policy to government programs, you also want to know how they work together. Compensation from your company may reduce other benefits. With the proper planning, you may be able to combine programs to maximize compensation.

Self-Employed Parents

If you are self-employed, you should still plan to take time off. When the amount of time and energy you put into your business equates to revenue, this can seem impossible. If you can, work ahead before your baby arrives. You may also plan to scale back your workload or reduce the number of clients you take on. Start brainstorming ways to create time away from your business to bond with your baby and recover from birth. 

Financial Planning

Once you have all the information on how much time you can take off and what is paid or unpaid, you can evaluate what is realistic. For the majority of expecting mothers, this is a numbers game. Unless your leave is 100% paid, you will be earning less. In addition to your ordinary living expenses, you will also have additional costs for your pregnancy or birth, plus expenses related to your new baby.

If you are financially able to take as much time as possible, that is amazing. You are not alone if you are on the other side of that spectrum and feel like you cannot afford to take any time off. According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 9 out of 10 workers have access to unpaid family leave. Only about 1 in 4 workers have access to paid family leave.

Any conversation about finances that impacts your family is a conversation you should have with your partner. You need to figure out what you spend, what you earn, and how a change in your earnings will impact that.


Even if you don’t find out you are expecting early on, you have many months to plan. This is a great time to get clear about what your expenses are. Most people tend to underestimate what they spend. The easiest way to compute this figure is to subtract what you save each month from your monthly income. Check credit card and bank statements for accurate numbers to break down expenses.

Once you have a realistic figure of your expenses, you can decide if you need to scale back spending and how much you need for living expenses. You also need to factor in things you may not be buying now but will need once your baby is born, like diapers and wipes. The more money you have saved ahead of time, the more comfortable you will be about taking a pay cut while enjoying time with your new baby. Evaluate how much money you have in savings and how much additional money you can put away until your baby arrives.

Time Planning

Once you have the whole finance piece in place, you can plan how much time you will be away from your work. Some programs will allow you to begin your leave a month before your due date. Some expecting moms take advantage of this. Others choose to work until they go into labor to maximize the time after their baby is born. Unless you have a scheduled cesarean, you don’t know exactly when your baby will arrive. The best thing you can do is to plan for your due date. There is always the possibility that you will go into labor earlier or later.

There is no universal timeframe for maternity leave that works for every family. A standard timeframe for birth recovery is six weeks for a vaginal birth and eight weeks for a cesarean. The International Labour Organization recommends a minimum of 14 weeks (preferably 18) for maternity leave. The Global Breastfeeding Collective recommends a minimum of 18 weeks (preferably six months or more).

When you request time off, it is easier to cut your leave shorter than asking for an extension. You may consider asking for as long off as possible right from the start. Chances are your company would love to have you back early if that works better for you. 

Vacation, Personal Time, and Sick Days

A great way to get paid for the time your employer would otherwise not compensate you is to use any accrued vacation, personal time, or sick days. If your company offers paid time off, find out how much you will have accrued by your due date so you can factor that into your calculations. Many expecting mothers stockpile as much paid time off as possible during their pregnancy.

Insurance and Other Benefits

If you receive health insurance or any other benefits through your employer, you should know how these will work during your leave. There are specific questions you can ask to understand how maternity leave could affect your benefits.

Will you continue to accrue vacation, sick, or other paid time off during your leave?

If employment time plays a factor in seniority within your company, pay raises, or any other benefits, will the period of your leave be counted towards your time of service?

In cases where your company pays a portion of your health, dental, or other insurance, will it continue to pay its share during your leave?

If you pay a portion of health, dental, or any other insurance, how will you pay your share of benefits if you are not receiving compensation during the pay period in which your portion is due?

Will contributions continue during your leave if you have automatic contributions to a 401K or other retirement plans? If you are not receiving compensation during a pay period in which your contribution is scheduled, will you skip those contributions? If you will miss automatic contributions, could you adjust your contribution amount to max out your plans for the year?

Make a list of the questions. Ensure you get each answered so you fully understand how your maternity leave will affect your benefits.

Tips for Planning with Your Employer

Talking to your employer about maternity leave can be challenging. Your company will be excited for you to have a baby. They may not be looking forward to having you away from your job. Make sure you and your company are clear on every detail of your maternity leave, including projected dates, pay, benefits, etc. You should have the terms of your maternity leave in writing. If your company doesn’t have a formal process to accomplish this, you can send your supervisor or human resources department an email with a recap of your conversations. 

Planning for a Smooth Transition

A big piece of you being absent is how your employer will fulfill the responsibilities of your role. Your company may need to hire someone else to fill your position, or you may be passing off your job responsibilities to coworkers. You should assist in any way possible to make this a smooth transition. This could include training someone or making detailed notes for someone else to handle your tasks. It is much easier to transition your workload if you start your maternity leave a month before your due date. If you plan to wait until you enter labor, plan to hand off everything a few weeks early, just in case.

Setting Boundaries with Your Employer

It is essential to set clear boundaries when you are away from work. This applies to your employer contacting you and you performing any tasks. You may be comfortable with your work contacting you about anything at any time. You could request that they email you only and let them know you may need a day or two to reply. It is also an option to be clear that you are unavailable because you will be maximizing your time with your newborn. You know your workplace and the company culture best. The goal is to avoid coworkers bombarding you with emails, calls, or texts when you are focusing on your new baby. 

Planning to Quit

If you are not planning to return to work but plan to receive maternity leave benefits, you may want to wait to break the news to your employer. Unfortunately, the systems in place force you to tell your employer you plan to return to work to receive benefits, even if that is not your intent. If you notify your employer that you will not be returning, you will unlikely receive any maternity leave benefits from your employer or the government. If you plan to remain home with your baby, you will need to navigate whether you disclose that to your employer ahead of time and what the consequences are for financial or other benefits you could receive.

Planning Your Return to Work

The last step in planning your maternity leave is planning for a smooth transition back to work. If someone new is coming in to take over your job duties, you should know whether you will return to the same role after maternity leave. If you are handing off clients or projects, find out if those are coming back to you when you return.

Returning to work can be a big adjustment for new parents. Not only are you returning to all your responsibilities of being an employee, but returning to work means you will be away from your baby. You may consider easing into work rather than returning to a 40+ hour week immediately. If you typically work Monday through Friday, you may consider returning to work on a Wednesday, so you have a short week to start. Some mothers will return part-time for a period to ease back into work. You may also have the opportunity to work remotely for a portion of your hours. It may take creativity and flexibility from you and your employer to make this a smooth transition.

Returning to Work and Breastfeeding

One of the top reasons mothers quit breastfeeding is that they return to work and cannot produce enough milk. The keys to continuing to provide your baby with breastmilk when working are planning and making pumping a priority. There is an episode that covers the fundamentals of pumping breastmilk to meet your goals, whether an occasional pumping session or building a serious freezer stash. That episode walks through navigating pumping at work, including talking to your boss, creating a comfortable space to pump, cleaning and sterilizing your pump and accessories, and safely storing your milk.

Planning to Pump at Work

Do not wait until the day before your maternity leave ends to think about the logistics of pumping at work. If you plan, you will get off to a much better start than if you just wing it. Pumping at least a few weeks before returning to work will build up a reserve, which is helpful to take some of the pressure off you as you figure out pumping while on the clock.

If you have any coworkers who experienced pumping at work, they are an excellent resource for how your company handles this situation. They can also give you tips on what worked well or didn’t. If you are the first person at your company to navigate this, this is an opportunity to help others who follow you.

Talking to Your Employer About Pumping

Federal law requires employers to provide reasonable break time for employees to express breast milk for one year after their child’s birth. Employers must also provide a place, other than a bathroom, that is shielded from view and free from intrusion from coworkers and the public.

Talking to your boss or HR department about pumping breastmilk can be awkward, but it doesn’t have to be. All you need to say is, “I will provide breast milk for my baby when I return to work, and I will need to pump a few times a day.” That is it. If you are uncomfortable having an in-person chat, send them an email. You know the politics of your workplace best, and you may need to wordsmith your email or your conversation to align with your company’s culture. Overall, the tone should be, “this is something that will be happening, so let’s figure out the best way to make it work for everyone.” Don’t approach it from the perspective of, “is it okay with you if I do this?” with the implication that your boss could say no.

There are three basic logistics you need to work out ahead of time. How you will fit pumping into your schedule? Will your employer pay you for the time you spend pumping? Where you will pump?

Pumping Timing and Compensation

If you are exclusively breastfeeding, you can expect to need to pump about three times during an eight-hour shift. While companies are required to give you adequate time to pump, they are not required to pay you for that time. You should be able to time one session during a meal break and multitask eating and pumping.

Some employers will not be concerned about whether you are on or off the clock. If you can use that time to relax or tackle personal tasks, take advantage of it. If you are concerned about taking a pay cut to pump or working later to make up the time, try and find a way to get some work done while you pump. This may be easier if you work in an office than if you have a retail or service job.

Creating a Space to Pump at Work

If you have a private office, you may be able to pump without having to go anywhere. Larger office buildings may have a dedicated lactation room on site. If you work in a different environment, like a warehouse or a retail store, you may need to get creative to create a comfortable space to pump.

Most mothers would like to know that no one will walk in on them while pumping. If you are concerned about this, it is a good idea to put a sign or note on the door. You can be as obvious as making a sign that says, “Baby’s lunch in progress.” Or something more discreet like, “Do not disturb.” If the room you will be pumping in does not have a lock, you may consider requesting one. You can also purchase a portable lock or a door security bar if your employer will not install a lock.

The Motherhood Penalty

You have rights relating to your pregnancy, maternity leave, and pumping breastmilk when you return to work. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has regulations that prohibit pregnancy discrimination. These laws are in place because companies have discriminated against pregnant women; unfortunately, pregnancy discrimination still exists.

While there are laws prohibiting discrimination, you may experience the motherhood penalty. This is the idea that working mothers encounter systematic disadvantages in pay, perceived competence, and benefits relative to childless women and men. There is evidence that the hourly wages for women are 5% lower per child. It is challenging to balance a career and being a parent. Mothers typically bear the burden of this more than fathers. It is difficult to compete with people who are not taking leaves of absence and have much more time to devote to work because they do not have a child. This can be very frustrating. Your career may take a temporary backseat to your baby, but the long-term benefits of being a mother far outweigh temporary sacrifices with your profession.

Final Thoughts

The time your baby is a newborn will fly by. This is time you will never get back. If you have the resources, I encourage you to take off as much time from work as possible. A big part of being a parent is doing the best you can with the resources you have. For many new parents, that means returning to work shortly after having a baby.

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