Deciding the perfect moment to start your maternity leave is a tough call. If you love your job and/or have a lot of responsibility, you might not want to let your team down — but you also deserve to give yourself plenty of time to prepare for the birth of your child. And then there are financial considerations. What should you do?
To make matters more complicated, the United States has one of the worst systems for maternity leave in the developed world, so you might need to plan your timings out more carefully than you’d like.
Ultimately, the perfect time to take maternity leave depends on your personal circumstances (along with company policy and which laws apply to you). We’ll outline the main factors you should consider to help you reach the right decision.
- When Do Women Usually Start Maternity Leave?
- What the Law Says About Maternity Leave
- What Your Company Policy Allows
- Assessing Your Financial Situation
- Health of Pregnancy
- Type of Work
- The Commute
- Discuss the Situation With Friends and Family
- How to Request Your Maternity Leave
- Time to Bond With Your Child
When Do Women Usually Start Maternity Leave?
Although we all know that everyone is different, it’s impossible not to be curious about what other people are doing. How much are they earning, what’s their love life like, and when did they take their maternity leave?
On average, women start maternity leave when they’ve been pregnant for between 31 and 36 weeks. Considering a full pregnancy term is 40 weeks, 36 weeks is leaving things rather late — not everyone can wait this long (some might even give birth before then).
Although some women may start maternity leave slightly earlier, it’s unusual to take it earlier than 29 weeks into your pregnancy. On the other end of the spectrum, there are women who work right until their due date, but it’s recommended to leave yourself at least a week or two.
You need some time to relax, which the stressful environment of the workplace rarely offers.
The average woman in the US then remains on leave for around ten weeks, which gives time to rest their body during pregnancy, prepare for birth, and bond with the child after they’re born.
Naturally, the total length of your maternity leave is a key consideration as to when the starting date should be. If you only plan on taking five weeks off work, beginning your maternity leave at the 32-week mark would obviously be too early.
Your situation is also highly dependent on the factors listed below.
What the Law Says About Maternity Leave
As mentioned, the law concerning maternity leave in the US is lacking, to say the least. While most wealthy countries have policies in place to ensure that pregnant women (and sometimes even their partners) receive several weeks of paid leave, females in the USA aren’t actually entitled to any (paid) maternity leave at all.
The Family and Medical Leave ACT (FMLA) gives some workers the right to 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave and protects their jobs for its duration, ensuring they’re not penalized for having children.
There’s just one small problem — it only applies to 60% of workers. To be eligible, you must work for a company that employs more than 50 people and have worked there for at least 1,250 hours over the last year.
The Best States for Maternity Leave
Fortunately, some states have made more generous modifications.
Eight states (plus one district) have passed paid maternity leave laws on a state level — so if you live in one of the locations below, count yourself lucky. Here’s what you’re entitled to:
- District of Columbia: 8 weeks
- California: 8 weeks
- Connecticut: 12 weeks
- Massachusetts: 12 weeks
- New Jersey: 12 weeks
- New York: 10 weeks
- Oregon: 12 weeks
- Rhode Island: 4 weeks
- Washington: 12 weeks
Some of these states also give longer paid maternity leave to anyone with a disability or who has suffered from complications related to their pregnancy.
If you live in a state with no mandatory paid leave, you may still be in luck if your company has its own policy.
What Your Company Policy Allows
Unless you live in one of the few states with paid maternity leave, your only chance of getting a paid maternity leave is working for an organization that’s generous enough to offer one itself. Again, this is likely to have a strong impact on how long you decide to take maternity leave for, and how early to take your leave.
Unfortunately, considering that only 17% of US workers had access to maternity leave (including unpaid leave) in 2018, you’re statistically unlikely to be eligible for paid leave.
It’s generally bigger companies that offer the best policies — think big names like Amazon and Microsoft — but a few smaller organizations have also widened their purses.
How to Find Out Your Company’s Maternity Leave Policy
Not sure what your company’s maternity leave policy is? Already, that’s not a great sign, but there’s still some hope. Here’s how to erase all doubt from your mind.
Use Online Resources
List Your Leave has compiled a list of companies’ maternity and paternity leave policies, anonymously submitted by their employees. It’s not exhaustive, but it’s pretty extensive. You might be able to find some info on Fairygodboss, or even your company’s own website, too.
Ask Your Colleagues
You could also get some information sneakily by asking any other employees who have recently become new mothers (assuming you’re friendly with them). Do they know what the policy is? Did they manage to negotiate for more time off?
Speak to Your Boss (or HR)
Once you’ve done your own research, you can either talk to your boss directly or to human resources. Bosses can sometimes be more generous than the official company policy — but they can also be stricter. Still, it can be worth speaking to them first before you head to human resources, who are far more predictable with their responses.
The answer you get from your employer will likely be a huge determinant over when you start maternity leave and how long you can afford to leave work for.
Assessing Your Financial Situation
It would be amazing if we could all decide when to start our maternity leave based solely on sensible factors like health and the nature of our work (and we explore these factors in more detail, below). Unfortunately, more often than not, financial factors are the most significant consideration.
If you’re unfortunate enough to live in a state and work for a company with no paid maternity leave policy, your financial situation is likely to be a particularly large determinant. This is the sad reality for many mums-to-be.
If this is you, you’re going to need to do some calculations. Work out how much money you can afford to dedicate to maternity leave and how many weeks it will stretch.
Since most women need at least six weeks to recover after giving birth (often more), this will give you a clue about how early you can afford to take your maternity leave.
Health of Pregnancy
Finances aside, the decision of when to start your maternity leave mostly comes down to one very important factor: how smooth your pregnancy is. In some cases, doctors urge women to take their maternity leave earlier than expected because of a difficult pregnancy.
Common pregnancy symptoms include:
- back pain
- difficulty sleeping
- shortness of breath
Naturally, these can make it difficult (or even impossible) to work, so it’s recommended to take time off.
More Serious Complications
You might face more serious complications during your pregnancy, such as abnormal fetal development, vaginal bleeding, or cervical thinning. Experiencing any of these make it necessary to leave work immediately.
Anyone with a history of difficult pregnancies might also want to take their maternity leave earlier. In these cases, there is an increased risk of facing complications again, and early maternity leave can help reduce stress.
This doesn’t mean that, just because you haven’t suffered from any huge complications while pregnant, you should feel guilty for wanting more time off. There isn’t some magical formula.
Pregnancy and being a new mother aren’t exactly known for being easy, so even the easiest pregnancy in the world is likely to leave you exhausted. If you feel like you’re exhausted and need time off ASAP, go for it (if feasible).
Type of Work
Some jobs are much more difficult to carry out while pregnant than others. Work that involves a lot of physical exertion and stress (like with the emergency services) will be tough, whereas office work, by comparison, should be easier to continue while pregnant.
Of course, just because office jobs aren’t physically demanding, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t strenuous. Anyone who has ever had one knows that isn’t true!
Work in areas like therapy or social work can be extremely emotionally draining, for instance, so needing a longer break is understandable. Other jobs can be very stressful or involve a lot of responsibility.
Don’t let others’ perceptions influence your decision — only you know how your work makes you feel and how early on you need to rest.
If going to work involves hours spent traveling, it’s less practical to keep working later into your pregnancy. Navigating traffic jams and public transport is often stressful enough without having to factor in being pregnant too!
But if you live close to your workplace or you know someone who can drive you during the later stages of your pregnancy, continuing to work might be more feasible.
Also, bear in mind that some organizations may let you work from home before (and after) your official maternity leave period, helping you save some energy even when you’re working. It’s always worth asking!
Discuss the Situation With Friends and Family
No man (or woman) is an island. For most people, going through pregnancy, childbirth, and parenting isn’t a journey they’ll take alone. Depending on the support you’ll receive from others, your situation might be different.
Does your household have a second income, or are you reliant on your own? If you want to work late into your pregnancy, is there someone who can support you by driving you and handling meals? It might seem trivial, but these are all factors worth considering.
If you have any friends or family members who have been through the process before, you might also find it helpful to discuss it with them. How did they find the experience? Do they wish they took time off work earlier? This could also help you reach your conclusion.
How to Request Your Maternity Leave
Once you’ve decided how long your maternity leave to be and when you want to take time off, you need to alert your employer (if you haven’t let them know already). Since maternity leave often lasts for a long time, most organizations will have to do some serious planning and consider who will fill your position. It’s best to let them know at least ten weeks in advance.
Some employers might also ask you for a doctor’s note, especially if you ask for extended maternity leave (i.e., 36 weeks or more) or a medical note to prove your baby’s due date.
With any luck, this should be a smooth process.
If you change your mind about how long you need, try to give your employer 28 days’ notice if possible. Of course, in the case of medical complications, this isn’t necessary.
What Happens if I Go Into Labor Early?
If you plan to work until late in your pregnancy, it’s possible that you could end up going into labor before your maternity leave has officially started — maybe you’ll even begin your contractions while you’re in your workplace!
In this case, your maternity leave will automatically begin the day you go into labor.
Similarly, if you suffer from a pregnancy-related illness and end up having to leave work on sickness, this will automatically begin your maternity leave too.
It just goes to show that, even if you try to plan everything perfectly, you can never predict what’s really going to happen.
Time to Bond With Your Child
Although it’s important to know your rights and understand your needs so you can plan your maternity leave appropriately, at some point, you just have to pick a date and stick to it.
Get used to it — adaptability is a skill parents need in bucket loads!
If you can’t take off from work for a while, you’ll want to make sure that you’re doing everything possible to keep your stress low. Often overlooked, simple things like maternity belts, leggings, and robes can help make sure that you’re physically comfortable as you reach the latter stages of pregnancy.
Remember, the whole point of maternity leave is to rest, relax, and then bond with your child. Don’t feel guilty about taking as much time off as you need (or want), and try to enjoy the experience. This is the calm before the storm.