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How Long Should Your Maternity Leave Be?

BY KATHERINE LEWIS    Updated on January 05, 2020

At the end of your pregnancy, the burning question on everyone's mind is, "I wonder when she'll be back from maternity leave." So how much maternity leave should you or can you take? The answer isn't simple and there are many factors to consider before answering this important question.

Know Your Rights

Putting all of the other details aside for a moment, take a look at the facts. In the U.S., you are entitled to 12 weeks of unpaid leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). This is all you will get, as the U.S. is one of three nations in the world that does not offer paid leave but hopefully, that's changing with the proposed FAMILY act bill that is working its way through Congress at the moment. 

There is a huge push for paid leave from many workers. Although it's not federally mandated, many companies, states, and even towns are taking matters into their own hands. This is great but unless you work for one of these great companies or live in a state or town paving the way to support working parents, you are responsible for deciding how much maternity leave you will take. 

It's illegal for employers to fire a woman because she becomes pregnant or takes maternity leave. However, companies can let you go if it's part of an overall reduction in workforce or for a cause. If you suspect pregnancy discrimination, consult a lawyer or the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission.

Work With Your HR department

Contact your HR department for the latest employee handbook or policies and procedures to see how much (if any) paid maternity leave you could receive. Your employer or HR department may provide a maternity leave form that you can fill in and they may even submit the paperwork for you.

Ask Others About Their Maternity Leave

Ask coworkers, friends, and acquaintances how their maternity leave went. How much time off worked for them? If there anything they would have done differently? Also, find out if and how they stayed connected to work during their leave.

Check Your Financial Budget

Crunch the numbers to see how much unpaid leave you can afford. Make sure to understand how the length of your leave might affect your employer-provided health insurance, if relevant.

Ask Spouse or Family Members for Help

Discuss leave plans with your spouse or family. If another adult can take leave after your leave is over, this could help save money on child care expenses and extend your baby's time being cared for by a family member.

Consider Sleep-Deprivation and Recovery Time

Many new moms need about six weeks to fully recover from the physical effects of giving birth. It may take another two to three months before you can start getting a 4-hour stretch of sleep at night. Some babies will sleep for five or six hours at a time when they're four months old, but other babies don't do so until eight months or later.

Because of this and depending on your job, it may be dangerous to return to work too soon. If you know you need a good night sleep to perform well at work you may want to consider taking a longer maternity leave.

Overestimate Rather than Extend Your Leave

You may want to overestimate how much leave you want, in case you end up needing more than you think. Giving birth can be unpredictable. You don't know what your health or the baby's health will be like immediately after delivery. If your newborn ends up in the intensive care unit, the last thing you want to be thinking about is calling your boss to request more leave.

There's No Easy Answer 

This question is complicated to answer for a number of reasons, so be sure to give yourself a lot of time to consider. It's easy to say you'll be back as soon as you can because you haven't met your baby yet. Once you hold your perfect newborn, you might feel that nothing else matters. So give yourself plenty of time to make the best decision for you and your family. Remember, you always have a choice. 

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