How long should a new mama take off for maternity leave?  Would that there were a simple formula.  Or that our choices in the United States weren’t limited by deplorable maternity leave policies.  (That’s a blog post for another day…).

Practically speaking, and given the constraints of the current laws where you live, how can you figure this out?  Especially if you haven’t yet had a baby, so you don’t have any concept of what it’s like to give birth, how you’ll feel about being home, or what your baby will need?

I think the “right” answer is truly different for every woman.  It’s a combination of what your employer will allow.  How much time you can afford to take financially.  How much time you can afford to take project- or career-wise.  And your own thoughts on when you think you might be ready to go back.

I was very lucky to be able to take about 20 weeks with my first baby and 16 weeks with my second.  Around the 4-month mark, I was pretty ready to go back with both of them.  I admit I felt extremely fortunate not to have had to go back right at month 3, though, when my first baby went through a massive (and I mean waking-up-every-90-minutes during the night for a few weeks, massive) sleep regression.  Sadly, this is fairly typical for that age and stage.  Having to function at work on that little night time sleep would have been a disaster.  Not that the 3-hour stretches I got when I did go back were much better, but they were an improvement.

With my first baby, I managed to be paid throughout my leave.  My then-employer provided only a one-week paid maternity leave.  But I had carried over 4 weeks of sick-leave from another job, and I cobbled together other vacation and sick days.  With all the illnesses that come with having a baby in daycare, though, I had pretty much run out of sick leave by the time baby #2 came along two years later.  That time, about half my leave was paid for through a combination of paid leave and vacation time, and the other half I had to finance myself.

Here are some questions to ask as you consider the question of how long to take off:

  • What amount of paid or unpaid leave is your employer required to provide you?  (Be sure to check out both state and federal laws.  The federal Family and Medical Leave Act, for example, requires your employer not to give away your job for 12 weeks, but DC’s version of the Act requires your job be held open for you for 16 weeks.)
  • What amount of paid leave does your employer provide?
  • How much paid leave can you cobble together through sick days, vacation days, disability benefits, etc.?
  • What type of financial cushion do you have?  (We started a savings account early for my second maternity leave, knowing it was likely to be partially unpaid, and I “paid” myself out of that account during my leave.)
  • How will the length of time you take affect the work you’re doing?  Is there a conference or a project you want to return for that will affect the timing of your return?
  • What do your ob/gyn and pediatrician say about what’s best for your and your baby’s health?
  • Knowing what you know about yourself, how happy will you be at home for an extended period?
  • Is the amount of leave you declare now negotiable later?  In other words, if you tell your employer you’d like to take 12 weeks, but later you find you’d like to extend it by a week or two, would your employer be open to that conversation?  If you said no, are you sure?
  • Would your employer be open to phase-back-in options?  (For example, I came back 3 days the first week, 4 days the second, and had longer days at work as each week went on.  Some employers also automatically offer things like a return to an 80% schedule for the first month back.)

Like so many things in motherhood, there is no easy answer to this question.  AND like so many other things in motherhood, you need to decide what works for you and your family, and then run with it.  Comparison is the thief of joy: do the best you can with what works for you, mama, and stay connected to others who are going through the return-to-work experience at the same time, so you don’t get isolated in the process.

Mamas, if you’ve already gone out on leave and returned, will you share your experiences on how long you took in the comments below?  How long to take off is a question I hear a lot, and I know reading about a variety of experiences will help other new mamas.  Thanks in advance for weighing in!

Planning to head back to work after maternity leave?  Want to make it a calm, empowering transition and meet other new mamas returning at the same time?  Take the next session of the Mindful Return Course.

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