Should I Take Maternity Leave?
In this article:
- Should I take maternity leave?
- How long is ideal for maternity leave?
- How long before your due date can you take maternity leave?
- How soon can you go back to work after a baby?
- Can dads take maternity leave?
Should I take maternity leave?
Believe it or not, maternity leave is a decision that can feel very daunting for first-time moms. At least it was for me.
Sure, it might seem like a question with an obvious answer, but if you don’t qualify for PAID maternity leave, it’s not as easy as just saying yes or no.
Here’s my story and why I strongly believe every woman should take maternity leave if possible.
I’m a teacher, so you might assume that my maternity leave was paid for; however, my first born was due in July, so all my “recovery time” took place during the summer. I only had six weeks with my baby before the new school year started up again. I remember walking out of the human resources office and crying because I worried I’d be putting my family in financial turmoil if I took the time off that I desperately wanted.
I thought we would struggle with the mortgage and I anticipated the high cost of adding a baby to the family. On top of that, my husband and I had health insurance through my job, so we would have to pay out of pocket for insurance during the weeks I'd be on leave. I did not want any unnecessary burdens.
For someone who doesn’t have kids and never went through childbirth, I ultimately just convinced myself that six weeks would be fine, plenty of time. It wasn’t ideal to go back to work so soon, but at least I would have six weeks. It's better than nothing, so I would just suck it up.
Then, I had my baby.
I was so in love and it all hit me like a ton of bricks. I didn’t want to leave my sweet girl so soon. Six weeks is not nearly enough! I never thought about how bad I would want to stay home with the baby and take care of her because I was so hung up on the money.
Previously, I told myself that taking unpaid leave would be selfish… but honestly, nothing is further from the truth. You’re not taking this time so that you can go on a Hawaiian, tropical vacation. You are taking the time to care for a newborn and help your partner. That's another thing! I also wasn’t thinking about how hard it would be on my husband to leave him alone with an infant when we live in a state with no close friends or family. We didn’t know what we were in for.
So, yes. I changed my mind. I went on unpaid leave through the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and I dipped into our savings a bit.
It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in my entire life and my husband was truly relieved too. Not only was I able to witness the first milestones of my child, but I gave my body the proper time to heal. Postpartum was really, really tough—way tougher than I thought. I didn’t even stop bleeding until six weeks postpartum. Not to mention breastfeeding... The thought of pumping my boobs in a middle school was frightening, particularly during the early stages when I was pumping every 2-3 hours.
If you qualify for some kind of leave and you can make it work on your family’s budget, I highly suggest you take it. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I understand it’s a privilege, but you don’t have to take the maximum amount of leave you’re offered. I took 8 out of the 12 weeks because that’s what worked for my family. (Remember I already had 6 weeks off before that because of the summer.)
And if you are getting paid leave, definitely don’t hesitate to say yes! Work will always be there... your babies will never be this tiny again.
How long is ideal for maternity leave?
In my opinion, Europe has it right… 6 months is ideal, although 12 weeks is probably more practical. Currently, the law in the U.S. allows women to take up to 12 weeks unpaid leave (The Family and Medical Leave Act). You should know, you are not covered under FMLA if you have not been at your job for at least a year.
FMLA is unpaid, but different employers may have their own policy regarding paid maternity-disability leave. Most commonly, the physical recovery time for women who have had a vaginal delivery is 6 weeks, and for a cesarean section, it's 8 weeks.
So, what’s “ideal”?
Consider the following: your body, your baby, and your mind.
- Body: Bleeding, soreness, hemorrhoids, constipation, leaking breasts... must I go on? Your body just went through a trauma which is why it’s called “temporary disability leave." If you have a c-section, the recovery is even longer than a vaginal birth. Plus, I certainly did not fit into my old work clothes until a few months after giving birth. Depending on your job, you might not feel physically ready to go back to work after a mere six weeks.
- Baby: There are milestones you don’t want to miss in the first six months of birth: your baby’s first smile or laugh; when she holds her head up for the first time; those adorable little babbles; when she learns to rolls over; when she starts sitting up straight; and definitely when she starts to crawl! Babies can’t even eat solid foods until around 6 months old... Life at work is just easier when your baby is not 100% dependent on breast milk.
- Mind: You will be tired, mama. That’s a fact. Babies don’t start sleeping through the night until two months old. No amount of coffee will cure the tiredness that you’ll experience with a newborn (it’s all apart of the fun). Can you really do your job effectively on only a few hours of sleep? Also, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research, a study completed in 2019 showed that women who took longer maternity leaves were less likely to experience symptoms of postpartum depression. Postpartum depression is a common struggle, which affects 1 in 9 women. (This same study also suggests that longer maternity leaves benefit infant health and development).
How long before my due date can I take maternity leave?
If you choose to, you can begin your FMLA before you have your baby, so that’s up to 12 weeks before birth. With that said, most women prefer to use that time for after their baby is born.
If you are having a tough pregnancy, I suggest taking the last couple of weeks off. Do what's best for you. If your workplace requires you to be constantly on your feet with no air conditioning in 90 degree weather, then it’s probably worth it to take your leave early. FMLA states that you must provide your employer with at least 30-days notice of your intention to take unpaid family leave, so just make sure you’re on top of things.
How soon can you go back to work after having a baby?
Most doctors recommended you take 6-8 weeks to physically recover from childbirth before returning to work. My doctor told me to stay in bed the first week postpartum and not to operate a vehicle or use the stairs until after at least two weeks. If you tear, your stitches won’t heal for at least 10 days. Do you really want to bring a peri bottle and witch hazel with you every time you use the restroom at work? It’s every woman’s right to choose, but if you go back to work too soon, you risk infection, excessive bleeding, and exhaustion.
Can dads take maternity leave?
Depending on your employer, men may qualify for some type of paid paternity leave. Nonetheless, dads are eligible to take 12 weeks unpaid leave under FMLA. Adoptive parents (both partners) also are covered by FMLA.
So should you take maternity leave? I say yes.
Take all of the time you need to bond with your baby, as long as it is in your budget. I changed my mind immediately after having a baby, and I don’t regret a single second. The time will fly by. And to end on a cliche: you only live once.
National Bureau of Economic Research, Do Longer Maternity Leaves Affect Maternal Health?, October 2019.
United States Office of Personnel Management, Handbook on Leave and
Workplace Flexibilities for Childbirth, Adoption, and Foster Care, April 2015.
National Institutes of Health, National Library of Medicine, Maternity Leave Benefits in the United States: Today’s Economic Climate Underlines Deficiencies, September 2009.
- Samantha Colandrea