Negotiating Your Leave

There’s no magic formula for calculating the perfect maternity leave. It depends on you, your job, your baby — even where you live and what time of year it is. Lock up a new mom for the winter in Maine with a colicky baby, no help, and few visitors, and you’ll probably have a woman begging to return to her job, or any job, in a matter of weeks.

What’s more typical, though, is the new mother who’s forced — for reasons of finance, job security, or workplace demands — to return to the office long before she feels emotionally and physically ready. “I was so exhausted when I went back that I couldn’t see straight,” says a friend who took a six-week leave. “And I missed my baby so much that I just sat at my desk and cried. I really wish that I had taken a little more time.”

There’s no way to predict in advance how you will feel, what kind of baby you’ll have, or exactly how much time off you’ll want — and need. But unfortunately, you have to make decisions about your time off long before your leave begins.

So what to do? To help you negotiate the best possible maternity leave, here are some things to keep in mind.

Ask for the Longest Leave Possible

Okay, so you may win the baby lottery and get an infant who sleeps through the night from Day One. Breast-feeding may go well, and you may feel in terrific shape a few days after birth. You may also have a job you adore and a great caregiver waiting in the wings. So maybe a four- or six-week leave will be all you’ll need.

But perhaps not. Maybe you’ll find that you want to continue on-demand breast-feeding for longer than you had planned. Or maybe you won’t find the perfect child-care arrangements as quickly as you’d hoped. Or it could be that your baby has health problems — or you do. The fact is, there’s simply no way to predict your needs.

One of the most consistent things I’ve heard from the women I’ve interviewed over the years is that they wished they had asked for more time. My advice: Ask for as much time as you can possibly get, as long as it won’t jeopardize your job and you can afford it.For most companies, 12 weeks of maternity leave is standard, but I personally feel it’s best to try for four to six months, if possible. That’s enough time to recuperate, enjoy the baby, and even get a little bored and ready to do some work at home. Remember, you can always ask for less time after the baby has arrived. The employee who calls to say she’s ready to come back two weeks earlier than scheduled will win more admiration from the boss than the one who calls begging for a few more weeks at the last minute. Just don’t sell yourself short up front.

Know What You’re Entitled To

Your first question likely is, What, exactly, is your employer required by law to offer for maternity leave? There’s only one answer to that, and it’s a little complicated — the answer is, it all depends. The laws vary, contingent on the size of your company, where you work, and what kind of employer you have.

You’ve probably heard of the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, or FMLA, which gives workers the right to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for newborn or adopted babies. But there are catches: The law covers only companies that employ 50 or more workers; you have to have been on the payroll for a year before the leave policies apply, and you have to have put in at least 1,250 hours during that year.

If you don’t work for a big company, don’t despair. You may still be entitled to a leave, albeit a shorter one, under the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act. That law, which covers companies with 15 or more workers, requires employers to treat pregnant employees the same as any other disabled worker. In addition, several states and localities have more generous leave laws, so you may be entitled to even more.

One key thing to find out: how much of your time off will be paid. Some “family friendly” companies offer paid leaves, but many do not. It’s more likely that any paycheck you receive will come through disability insurance, which typically provides for two weeks off before your due date and six after a vaginal delivery, or eight weeks after a cesarean section. (The percentage of salary you collect depends on your company and on the benefit plan you selected.) You may also be allowed to use sick, personal, and vacation days for your leave.

Helpful Tips

Work the Grapevine

You can learn about your company’s maternity-leave policies through an employee handbook or by meeting with someone in the company’s human-resources office. But you also should try to find out what “unofficial” deals other mothers have been able to negotiate. These days, the most valued workers are bargaining for more time off and a flexible return to work. The best way to find out is by talking to other new moms in your office. Your efforts may yield you a valuable source — and a new pal. Nothing brings women closer than talking about pregnancy, a new baby, and maternity leave.

Find out what kinds of leaves your company has recently granted and, just as important, how they went. If your boss just gave a generous leave to three women who all quit two days before they were supposed to return, you may be swimming upstream. On the other hand, if four new moms just came back enthusiastic and productive, you’re likely to hit no resistance at all. It’s always a good idea to understand what you’ll be up against before you begin negotiations.

Present a Formal Proposal

Once you decide exactly what you want, you’ll need to write up a well-thought-out proposal that outlines your request and — here’s the most important part — describes exactly how your work will get done when you’re gone. Is there someone on staff who can take over the tasks that need to be done in your absence? Can certain projects wait until you come back? Will there be a need for a temporary worker in your absence? Ask yourself the toughest questions your boss might have about your leave — and come up with answers to them.

One other point: I strongly advise that you ease back into work by arranging a part-time schedule or working from home a day or two a week. Your proposal should also detail exactly how this arrangement would work and what parts of your job could be done differently during this period.

Offer to Stay In Touch

If you expect your boss to grant you a generous leave, she must believe, right from the start, that you’re coming back. A good way to convince her of that is by offering to come in for special workshops, seminars, or meetings.

Personally, I don’t think it’s a good idea to take on real work while you’re home on leave if you don’t absolutely have to. But it’s critical that you stay in touch. You should know about new projects your company has embarked on or any reorganizations or restructurings that have taken place. Most of all, though, you want to let your boss and coworkers know that even though you now have a baby who has stolen your heart, your job is still an important part of your life.

Pitch Your Plan

Once you’ve got your proposal in writing and have given it to your boss, make an appointment to meet with him face-to-face. Think of yourself as a salesperson who’s eagerly pitching your boss on a great deal. You want him to believe that you love your job, love your work, love the company, and that it’s worth his effort to do the right thing for you. Never mind that you’re not certain about exactly what you want to do after the baby comes. Stuff the ambivalence somewhere else for now.

At the meeting, be brief and to the point. Give him a quick summary of your written proposal, and offer to answer any questions he might have. Volunteer to take care of notifying the human-resources department or any other company personnel who need to sign off on your leave.