I’m not here to complain. I’m actually here to tell you about my positive maternity leave experience. Here’s the thing, I’m one of the lucky few, a few moms do exist with great maternity leave experiences. I’m here to tell my story because you, employers in the United States, have the ability to make a positive change for future mothers who work at your company.
Prior to having kids, I didn’t do anything special. I didn’t negotiate an extended leave. I didn’t request extra vacation days or ask for special privileges. However, I did work for my employer for almost a decade, accruing vacation time according to policy and rolling over the maximum number of days allowed each year. I did choose a career in an industry that offered strong benefits and work-life balance. When the time came in my life to review my employer’s maternity leave policies, I was pleased with what I found.
I was able to take a 5 month maternity leave after each of my kids were born, both times with 100% pay.
How was that possible? Well, I’ll give you the scoop. My company offered 6 weeks of short-term disability for a normal birth (8 weeks for a C Section), along with an additional 8 weeks of parental leave coverage. These 14-16 weeks (based on the type of birth) were paid at 100%. After that, I used all my annual vacation time, as well as all the vacation time I had previously accrued. When you add in the typical paid holidays, this allowed me 5 months following my childrens’ births to recover, bond with my babies and figure out my “new normal.” The best part was that it was not only allowed under my company’s policies, but fully supported by my superiors.
I understand 5 months is a long period of time to go without a valued employee, but it went by so quickly each time. In those 5 months, I worked harder than I ever. It wasn’t for a demanding client or difficult boss, instead for little babies who needed their mother. Just as they were adjusting to life in the real world, I was adjusting to having another tiny human in my house. One that cried, ate constantly and couldn’t tell me what it needed. I slept less in those two 5 month periods than any other 5 month stretch in life. I can’t imagine how hard it would have been had I returned to work within a couple months. And it certainly wasn’t a time I was ready to hand my babies over to another caregiver, no matter how much I trusted them.
Yes, my company missed me while I was gone, but things didn’t come to a crashing halt in my absence. I worked closely with my boss before I went out on leave to figure out a reasonable transition plan which worked for all parties. Even though there were compromises across the board, everything worked out just fine. I took a few phone calls and responded to emails periodically, but, for the most part, I was able to focus on my new additions. When I returned, I picked up right where I left off.
I can’t say I was excited to return to work after the 5 months was over (let’s be honest, I cried the first day back), but I strongly believe my extended maternity leave made it a little bit easier. Right around my return date, both of my children magically started sleeping through the night. Even the strongest mothers can’t function 100% at work when they are up anywhere between 2-4 times a night. Both of my babies also started eating solid foods shortly after my return, which made my life as an exclusively nursing mother a tad easier. Because my children were a few months older, I never dropped off a tiny newborn at daycare as so many working mothers are forced to do. I dropped off infants who could sit up on their own. We had a schedule and could tell the difference between their cries, which made me more comfortable telling someone else how to best assist in my absence. Not something I could have easily done after a mere 12 weeks.
On top of that, I took advantage of my company’s flexible work arrangement policies. Upon returning to work, I chose to reduce my work schedule to 60%. Slowly coming back gave me an opportunity to re-enter the workforce and balance work with my much more hectic life at home. The flexibility also meant I was able to attend doctor appointments without cutting into my vacation time. I also had the ability to periodically work from home when my kids were sick and unable to go to daycare. I made up any missed hours in the evenings or weekends as needed to make sure I didn’t get behind on my projects and assignments.
I ultimately left the company shortly after my oldest child turned three to become a stay-at-home mom. However, I stayed at that company for about three years longer than expected because of my employer’s policies. Instead of quitting because I thought it wasn’t possible to balance work and home, I made it work for three years. It wasn’t perfect by any means, but it was manageable. I was able to focus on my baby instead of worrying about how I was going to survive without pay for a few months.
The generous paid maternity leave policy offered by my company made a positive impact on my life, as well as my husband’s and children’s lives. But my company was unfortunately the exception and not the norm when it comes to maternity leave. Having a child is inherently emotional and challenging, and I can’t imagine how much harder it would have been if I had to take that time unpaid, or even worse, returned to work only weeks following my child’s birth out of fear a long maternity leave would have been unsupported by the company. We’ve all seen the stories on the internet stating US maternity leave coverage is one of the worst on the globe. It is time to see that improving these policies will actually help keep working mothers employed at your organization.
I wish more employers would recognize that adding a couple extra months of pay onto maternity leave and improving flexible work arrangement policies will actually help you retain your employees and save you money in the long run.
Now that you’ve read my story, my final ask is this: please think about how you can improve your company’s policies to make it easier for new mothers. Then start a conversation about it with those in your organization who have the power to implement a change. Those conversations can make a difference. A big difference.