All The Things I’ve Learned About Maternity Leave

Last week I wrote about some of the lessons I’ve learned during my pregnancy journey. I mentioned that maternity leave benefits suck—especially in America. I know this isn’t really news to anyone—or rather I hope this isn’t news to anyone, because awareness leads to progress. But it wasn’t until I was pregnant and actually in need of paid maternity leave that I realized how bad options for families actually are. So I thought I’d share a bit about my maternity leave situation and some of the things I’ve learned about the system. So first, here are some things I’ve learned about a woman’s most common maternity leave options:

FMLA

If you work in an office, “FMLA” (The Family and Medical Leave Act) is something you’ve probably heard thrown around. You also may have noticed a short paragraph dedication to FMLA in your employee handbook. (But if you’re young and/or weren’t exactly family planning at that moment, like myself, than you probably just skimmed it.)

So it turns out when people are referring to maternity leave, they’re usually referring to the protections under FMLA. Which are essentially this: If your company retains a certain amount of employees, they are obligated to extend FMLA protection to employees who have worked for at least 12 months or 1,250 hours. FMLA ensures up to 12 weeks, unpaid, where your employer cannot fire you.

Now, take “fire” with a grain of salt. Because while they can’t fire you, they don’t have to necessarily give you your old position back. They are just obligated to maintain your employment status, your health benefits (which some employers may require you pay for during that time off) and give you either your previous position or an “equivalent” position. Benefits and programs like FMLA are reasons why it’s so important that you have a trusting relationship with your boss/employer. This isn’t the time to make any assumptions based on precedent or a coworker’s experience. Make sure you get the facts early and verify those facts with your HR department. On a few different occasions, I’ve been surprised to learn what my boss thought was company policy actually wasn’t . . .

I was a relatively new employee when getting pregnant and will only be legally covered under FMLA a month before my due date. Phew.

Here are some facts about FMLA.

Accrued Vacation and Sick Days

Simply put, you use any available sick, vacation, or personal days you have during maternity leave.  At first this sounds reasonable—you get time off, it’s paid, all is good. Well here’s the challenging part: Trying to save your accrued time off for maternity leave during a time where you’re sicker than normal and have regular doctor’s appointments is extremely difficult. Not to mention all the annual occasions you’d normally use that paid-time off for (holidays, anniversaries, etc).

I’ve been struggling with saving paid-time off and I’m a first-time mom with no other children. Add in managing the health, education, and schedules for multiple children and those days start slipping through your fingers even faster.

I’ve also learned that, in most cases, your paid-time off makes up part of the 12 weeks covered under FMLA. However, if you can financially swing it, some companies might let you use paid-time off in addition to the unpaid 12 weeks. Giving you a longer maternity leave.

I wish I had a solution or advice on how to save more days without major sacrifice, but I don’t. I struggle with this every month. Each month that I earn a day without using one feels like I’m putting some gold in my pocket.

One thing I found helpful was finding a doctor close to work. This way I can fit my appointments in the work day and don’t have to take time off. This does mean the hospital where I’ll be delivering is further from home but I figure I’ll have enough time to make the drive and will also have some extra paid days that I wouldn’t have had otherwise.

Short-Term Disability

For me, navigating the workings of things like health insurance, retirement accounts, and tax deductions is slow going—so there should be no surprise that short-term disability was a new discovery.

Before getting pregnant, I was under the assumption that short-term disability was only used for recovering from injuries or temporary disabilities. And since every dollar in my paycheck counts, I didn’t elect to sign up. What I didn’t know is that pregnancy is considered a short-term disability. Why didn’t I know that? Because I never thought to Google it . . . but also because our culture doesn’t exactly regard pregnancy, either complicated or uncomplicated, as a disability. It’s typically considered “the miracle of life,” “the embodiment of female strength, ” “a celebration”—not a disability. But it turns out, according to insurance companies, a mother’s physical recovery from delivery is considered a short-term disability. Something I was pleasantly surprised to learn. For once, something about the system sounded fair.

So short-term disability, in a nutshell, typically goes like this: About 14 days after delivery your insurance provider will pay you a portion of your salary (usually 60 percent) for a certain period of time (the standard is 6-8 weeks—depending on your projected recovery time). Usually, you need to file a claim to receive your benefits a few months before your due date and you need to provide a doctor’s note. (I’ve read that some women have been charged by their doctor’s office for obtaining this note. This seems absurd to me and something you should not just accept. I suggest asking your doctor for the note at one of your appointments rather than calling to get one faxed or emailed to you. This seems to be a loophole in being charged for the note.)

But here’s one thing to keep in mind about enrolling for short-term disability: So as I mentioned before, I didn’t elect to sign up for short-term disability when I was hired and it wasn’t until learning that I was pregnant that I realize I needed the coverage. I feared the worst—that I wouldn’t be able to sign up while pregnant. Thankfully, I didn’t even have to deal with that possibility (I’ll explain later). But I have read that some insurance companies still get away with pregnancy as a “pre-existing” condition. I haven’t had much luck finding out if this is a universal truth or just a remenant of the past, however, it’s safe to say that the future role of pre-existing conditions in obtaining insurance is unclear.

So I’d say to any women out there planning on having a baby, whether now or someday, your safest bet is to enroll now. Or at the very least, clarify with your HR provider about the specifics of the program. Also something to keep in mind, disability payments don’t kick in until a certain amount of time after the baby is born (typically 14 days). Be prepared to use vacation/sick time to cover those days or go unpaid for those first two weeks.

Save Money for Those Unpaid Twelve Weeks 

Unfortunately, this is the reality for most American families expecting a child. It’s definitely the foundation of our plan and having our wedding in the same year as getting pregnant didn’t really help the cause. Our wedding was small and budget-friendly and we also had some financial help from family, but it still took a chunk out of our paychecks and savings. We didn’t get a full nine months to save but we’ll have managed to gather enough to get through maternity leave.

But saving is easier said than done. Most low-income to middle-income families can’t save additional money for a maternity leave. Most of us are just trying to get through the current month. And even if you have a projected savings plan, a lot can happen in nine months. Our dog got sick over the summer and vet bills definitely set us back.

I also want to emphasize that it’s not that families like ours aren’t already saving, but saving a few hundred dollars, or even less, each month for an emergency fund is very different from the kind of aggressive saving that is required to make up a full income for three months. Plus, families shouldn’t have to deplete hard-earned emergency funds just because they had a baby. Lord knows that money will be needed later. We shouldn’t come out of pregnancy and maternity leave more vulnerable than we were going in.

So here’s my maternity leave situation: At the time of my due date, I’ll have just met the employment time needed to qualify for FMLA protection—so my employment is secure. My office also treats women equally and fair, so I know I don’t have to worry about my role in the organization. I know I’ll be reinstated into my same position when I return.

However, being a newer employee, I won’t have much paid-time off available. I’ll likely use all of my days during the first month and a half. So, sadly, we won’t be taking a summer vacation next year. But that’s okay, we’ll have a cute baby boy to take to the zoo and parks on the weekends!

I also learned from my extremely helpful HR Department—something a lot of women also don’t have—that my organization automatically enrolls all employees into the short-term disability program at the organization’s expense! That was a game changer. Still not enough to get us fully by for those three months without saving extra money, but the gap is now much smaller than it was before.

So I got lucky and was unknowingly bailed out on the insurance front but my heart breaks for all the women out there who aren’t so fortunate. Obviously, the big solution here is legislation that would ensure paid maternity/paternity leave for all families. But since the GOP are dragging their feet on anything that would help women in a meaningful way, we have to find other ways to lessen the financial blow of bringing life into this world. We need to do better about making sure maternity leave options and information are knowledge families have proactively rather than, in some cases, when it’s too late.

Side rant: We always hear talk about fostering a new generation of leaders, but why does it so often feel like women are penalized for doing just that? I mean, this is just maternity leave, don’t even get me started on child care and early education.

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