Returning to Work
Going back to work after having a baby isn’t an all-or-nothing decision.
By Sharon Marcus
Before your baby is even born, it is very likely that you will need to make a decision about when, or if, you will be returning to work. Lots of moms return to work full time, but others opt for a part-time schedule, some work from home, and some forgo work altogether and become stay-at-home moms. But how do you know what you want to do with your job when you don’t even have a baby yet? And what if you change your mind once the baby is born? Don’t feel as though you need to rush your decision – you have your entire pregnancy to consider all the options. These options vary from country to country and are not consistently applied in any one geographic location. Check with your employer and negotiate your own work/life balance.
Do Your Homework
Read your human resources materials to determine if you qualify for the federal Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which allows workers to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave during any 12-month period to care for a baby. The criteria for whether your company is covered and what your entitlements would be are available at www.dol.gov. In addition, 11 states have adopted similar statutes to the FMLA, and the federal Web site gives a comparative analysis of state-specific versus federal provisions. Many times, state and federal statutes can be applied concurrently, or you can follow the one that serves you best.
“If you are with a small company or organization that is not covered by the leave act, look for medical or personal leave,” says Beth Brascugli Hirsch, SPHR, a human resources compliance expert. See how many vacation days you have left for the year and whether you are eligible for any short-term disability leave before the birth. All told, you may be entitled to more time away from the office than you think.
Once you decide how much time you’ll have off, start thinking about coming back. Find a co-worker who’s a mom, and ask her about her experience returning to work at your company. When you’re ready, approach your human resources department with a realistic plan that you have discussed at length with your partner. Many women choose to “go public” during their fourth or fifth month, once they start showing.
“Maintaining confidentiality with your human resources department at first is a prudent strategy,” says Hirsch. “This way, if you end up with an adverse supervisor, your HR person knows and can help you through the process.” Speak confidently and be firm but flexible. Hopefully, they’ll treat you the same way.
A Full-time Comeback
The FMLA generally requires that employees be restored to the same position they held before their leave or an equivalent one. But even if your job is the same, your life will be dramatically different. If you can, give yourself time to readjust. “Try to structure your return so that you have some flexibility during the first year,” says Joan K. Peters, author of When Mothers Work: Loving Our Children Without Sacrificing Our Selves (Perseus Books Group). “The more realistic you are with your boss, the more serious she’ll be about your intent to rejoin the workforce.”
“My company allows me to work from home on days when I can’t make it to the office and also offers discounts for nearby day care,” says Leanne Humphries*, 29, of Hopatcong, New Jersey, who returned to her full-time job at a textbook publishing firm after her maternity leave. “It makes financial sense for me to keep my salary, health benefits and 401(k).”
To make returning to work easier, Peters suggests that you plan for your partner to stay at home and care for your child during your initial weeks back on the job. Jeannine Forrester, 29, of Union, New Jersey, an accountant who is pregnant with her first child, says her husband, a journalist, can work from home. “His writing doesn’t require a desk job,” says Forrester. “I feel better knowing that the only person that could love our baby as much as I do will be with him.”
The Part-time Plan
When thinking about whether a part-time schedule is right for you, it’s crucial that you first ensure that you and your family can handle your reduced income. Are you willing to forgo some of the luxuries (vacations, shopping and dinners out) that a full-time salary afforded you? Does your company offer financial and health benefits to part-timers? Weigh your part-time salary against the costs of commuting, work-day lunches, business attire, partial child care (if needed for the days you’re at work) and your contribution toward your benefits. Will that amount impact your family?
Do the legwork early on so it’s simple for your employer to agree to your new schedule. “Make sure that your boss doesn’t have to do the work of shuffling or restructuring,” says Peters. “She’ll be more receptive to your plan if you show her why it will be successful.” Detail your part-time hours, salary, health and employee benefits, and expectations for workload and shared responsibilities with other employees. Be prepared to suggest a complement - someone who will do your job on the days you’re off.
“I knew that I’d return to work at some point, and I didn’t want to miss an opportunity with a company and staff that I know I truly enjoy,” says Maggie Berg, 33, of New York City, who returned to her corporate position part time after giving birth to her son. “It allowed me to get back into the swing of things, and it makes the time that I am home with my son even more precious.”
Maybe you’ll be returning to work without spending much time at the office at all: Technology allows for so many options, and companies are never anxious to lose a productive employee. You can tap into the company network via your home computer and set aside hours that you will be easily reachable for conference calls. A quiet room with a computer, phone and a fax/scanner/printer can become a truly successful workspace (and maybe even a tax write-off). Help your employer understand why this arrangement will suit your job by assuring her that the quality of your work will not be sacrificed. Let her know that your plan - for example, hiring a babysitter for a few hours a day - will allow for uninterrupted work time.
What If I Change My Mind?
It is common to have a change of heart about your working situation after the baby is born. “I just finished my MBA and have always been career-minded, but now that the baby’s here, I definitely don’t feel that way anymore,” says Dawn Hawkins, 29, of Somerset, New Jersey. “I was quick to tell my boss that I’d be back right on schedule, but now I think a part-time situation or consulting might be all I can handle.”
The good news is that you are never obligated to return to your job. If you decide during your maternity leave that you won’t be returning to work, try to give your employer time to find a replacement. Remember that the company may request reimbursement for health-care premiums paid during your absence as allowed by law, says Hirsch. This policy varies greatly from one company to the next, so consult your HR department.
If you go back full time but quickly realize that you’re unhappy, don’t jump ship during your first few weeks back at the office, recommends Peters. Try negotiating a flexible arrangement and, if that fails, offer to work until a replacement is found. Leave on a positive note in case you want to return in the future.
Realistically, you won’t truly know how you are going to feel about returning to work until your baby’s birth. Just be honest with yourself and listen to your heart. Make the decision that is right for you, your baby and your family.
*Some names have been changed.