At some point during every working woman’s pregnancy, the concept of “maternity leave” will eventually come up. Ah maternity leave – that blissful period where mother and child rest, bond, and begin to form a lasting, lifelong relationship with one another. It sounds wonderful, and it is. Unfortunately, the hard, cold policies surrounding maternity leave can quickly dampen any expecting mother’s spirits. How much time do you get off? Can you take time off before your baby arrives? Will your time off be paid? Do you have to use up your sick time and vacation time before you’re eligible for maternity leave? Do you even qualify for maternity leave? While most people have a vague notion of what maternity leave is, or is supposed to be, many people won’t truly understand the confusing, and often discouraging, policies surrounding maternity leave until they have to use it.

My first conversation with my human resources department about my pregnancy and my potential maternity leave options was a sobering experience. I sent my HR rep an email informing her of my pregnancy and asking what my maternity leave options were. The response email I received was slightly concerning, “We do not have a maternity leave policy. You are covered by FMLA. Please plan accordingly.” I had no idea what any of that meant. FMLA and plan accordingly? What did that mean? What was FMLA? I spent the next few weeks trading emails with my HR rep and researching FMLA, or the Family Medical Leave Act. What I found was discouraging. My company’s policy worked out like this: when I officially left work to have my baby (whether I left a few weeks before the baby came or went into labor at my office) I would begin using up any accrued vacation and sick time. Any time off covered by my vacation and sick time, which for me came to about three weeks, would be paid time off. After I used all my vacation and sick time, I would then be covered under the FMLA. Because I had been with the company for over a year, FMLA entitled me to twelve weeks unpaid time off, during which my employer is required to hold my position for me.

Did you catch the part about those twelve weeks being unpaid?

So to summarize it, my blissful, joyous “maternity leave” would eat up all my sick time and vacation time during the first three weeks, and any additional time I wanted off would be unpaid. Now I finally understood what my HR rep’s initial email meant when she said, “plan accordingly”. Uncompensated time off can have serious consequences on family finances. However, going back to work three weeks after the birth of my daughter didn’t sound realistic either. Suddenly maternity leave wasn’t sounding as great as it had been cracked up to be.

My company is just one example of how employers handle the issue of women, and men, taking time off for the birth of a child. Many of my friends work for companies that offer significantly more generous maternity leave packages which included partially or fully compensated time off and extended leaves of absence. Outside of the United States, maternity leave policies look very different. Whereas the United States only provides unpaid job protection for twelve weeks, many countries, including Australia, France, United Kingdom, Spain, and Germany offer some type of paid maternity leave for working mothers.

Understanding your company’s maternity leave policies can be a challenging and confusing ordeal. Every company is different, and while federal law requires employers to hold your position for twelve weeks, unpaid, beyond that every company establishes its own packages and policies. Bottom line – when trying to figure out your options regarding taking time off work when you have a baby, always start with your human resources department. Prepare a list of questions ahead of time, ask your HR representative to walk through your company’s policies, and make sure you fully understand the impact of your decisions before scheduling your time off.

About This Blogger: Jen Gehring

Jen-Gehring-LogoWhen she’s not managing political campaigns or teaching law classes, Jen Gehring enjoys spending time with her family, including her two young children. A fashionista and recovering-perfectionist, this busy working mom uses her precious seconds of free time to run, sip wine, and escape into reality television. She’s been a freelance writer for the last five years.