All you need to know to make a successful transition from work to home and back again…
From the moment you find out you’re pregnant, preparations begin. You decorate the nursery, enroll in childbirth classes and of course read your employee handbook. What? Read the employee handbook? Yes. In preparation for motherhood, a woman in the work force needs to take steps to prepare herself and her employer for maternity leave. While childproofing your home and making it safe for a new addition to the family, take the steps needed to childproof your career and secure your professional future.
Before Telling the Boss
Assistant Sociology Professor Sarah Beth Estes, Ph.D., says it can help to be “strategic” when preparing for maternity leave. Accommodating an expectant mother can seem daunting to an employer. Unfortunately, this “failure of imagination” according to Estes places the burden on the expectant mother. The delicate balance between professional and family life begins the day your employer finds out you’re pregnant. The key to making a successful transition from working woman to working mother lies in the approach. Estes says by developing a strategic plan for your return to work, you show your employer that you are committed to the company and your career.
Your Legal Rights
The first step in creating your strategic plan is to know your legal rights. Under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), employers with 50 or more employees are required to give 12 weeks unpaid paternity/maternity leave. The 12 weeks can be taken in one chunk or used in smaller segments. You may also use that time to work shorter work weeks or fewer hours in the day. New mom Mary Lebeau took this option and returned to work on an “intermittent” schedule using the remainder of her leave to shorten her workweek to Monday, Tuesday, and Friday until she used the equivalent of 12 weeks work. The only exception to this 12-week rule is if you and your spouse work for the same company, in which case one person may take the whole 12 weeks, or you may split the time between you.
The problem with this law is the fact that it only pertains to “qualifying companies.” If you work for a smaller company, the company does not “qualify” and the FMLA does not apply to you. In that case you must rely on your company’s policy.
Know Your Company’s Policy
Maternity leave policies vary from company to company, making it difficult to nail down a standard for expectant mothers. If you know a few starting places for sifting through the company protocol, then you may find planning a strategy a little easier. Sometimes the process is as easy as flipping to the part of the handbook titled “Maternity Leave,” where the policy and benefits are laid out for you.
Unfortunately not all employers are this good, leaving you to search through the company information to see how leave is classified and handled.
You may find maternity leave benefits listed under the short-term disability policy or in your medical benefits package. If you still cannot find policy information, ask the human resources manager. Then put it in writing, but do so in a non-threatening way. Say something like, “So we have it on hand in the future, why don’t I just type that up for you?” This way you are doing them a favor while making sure there are no misunderstandings down the road.
Telling the Boss
Telling your employer should involve more than an, “I’m pregnant!” shouted through the corridors of the office. Instead, set up a formal meeting with your employer. It can be as simple as saying, “When is a good time to sit down and talk to you for a few minutes?” The meeting doesn’t have to be rigid and impersonal, but it does have to address very specific issues. Make sure you have organized your specific career intentions on paper. This way, when you tell your boss that you are pregnant she will be confident in your plans to return to work.
Try to see the situation through the eyes of your company and address the issues that you think may cause concern for your employer. In the world of senior management, an employer must always look at the big picture. The hard truth is that your maternity leave takes a necessary employee that is operating at high efficiency and creates a gap that will be filled by a trained replacement, or not at all leaving coworkers to overextend themselves to compensate for your absence.
The FMLA requires employers to return employees who were on leave to either the exact position they had before or to one that is “equivalent” with equal benefits and pay, and substantially equivalent skill, effort, responsibility and authority. According to attorney Christian Jenkins, this is where most employers fall short. He says companies sometimes try to get around this portion of the law by “eliminating the new mother’s position while she is on leave and then hiring someone else to perform the same duties.”
To prevent this from happening, you want to address these issues when you initially tell the employer you are expecting. To prepare for this ask yourself the following questions:
- Do I plan to return to the same position that I left?
- Will I return on a part-time or full-time basis?
- When will my leave begin? Will I wait until your go into labor?
If you are still unsure about how to put your plan in writing, a great tool is the Internet. Workoptions.com offers a template with step-by-step suggestions on how to write your maternity leave proposal.
While On Maternity Leave
After the baby is born, you will want to call work and tell everyone about your new little one, but contact should not stop there. One big mistake that new moms make is that they do not check in while on leave. You should call your supervisor once a week, letting her know that if she needs any help, she can call you. Find out how she is handling your absence so you know what to expect when you return.
When making these phone calls be prepared to deal with territorial feelings. Your stomach may tighten when someone else answers your phone extension. Don’t get jealous or protective of your job. Remind yourself it is only temporary and offer to help in any way possible. By remaining a presence in the office via phone check-ins, you remind the office that you plan to return to your position.
Returning to Work
On your final week of maternity leave, call your supervisor and talk about your return. If possible re-enter your position on a Wednesday or Thursday. The separation of you and your child will be less heart-wrenching if you know that the weekend isn’t too far away. Plus, if any child-care issues arise you can hopefully deal with them over a weekend instead of disrupting your first week back in the office.
On your first day back sit down with your boss and the person who was filling in for you to catch up on exactly what work needs to be completed, where any projects stand and how your supervisor expects you to proceed. Also, remember to thank the person who filled in for you.
These suggestions can help make your maternity leave a relaxed one, and your return to work a smooth one. So go ahead and enjoy that wonderful time of bonding with your baby!
Bonnie Jean Feldkamp is a freelance writer and mother.