Family and maternity leave: How to stay in the game

What are the different forms of family leave? How do standards vary by employer type, industry, and geo? What’s the best way to handle leave with your employer throughout the process? Can you be fired while on leave or are you protected by the law?

Taking maternity or family leave can be a tricky, sticky, bittersweet challenge and opportunity. On the one hand, you might be so excited to become a mom for the first time or grow your family if you’ve already had your first. On the other hand, you might really love your job and/or really need it economically and/or struggle with the demands even without kids, so how is it all going to work with such massive, fundamental life changes?! All of these dynamics can cause all sorts of stress about how to make your job work for you and those you care about—how could it not? There might be a myriad of unknowns you’re facing, both in and out of work that span the economic, emotional, physical, and social realms of your life.

At this point in your life and career, there’s nothing more important than focusing on what you can control since there are so many factors that you simply cannot. It’s critical to break things down to make it all less overwhelming and paralyzing, digging in to make the best possible decisions for yourself based on the variables at play in your unique situation. Also, regardless of what you decide to do related to work, family, and leave, keep in mind the oh-so-wise words of Christina’s grandfather, “nothing is as important or as easy as it seems.”

On the “nothing is as important as it seems” front, remember that you can only do the best that you can based on your opportunities and constraints while also keeping in mind that nothing (or almost nothing) is written in stone. Moreover, if you make a decision that ends up not making sense, you can adjust one of the many variables as you proceed on your journey (e.g., dialing your hours up or down, working from home more to mitigate your commute, evolving your daycare situation, etc.). On the “nothing is as easy as it seems” point, this process is a living, breathing one and your best-laid plans are likely to get thwarted, derailed, or even obliterated, so stay strong and stay flexible. Make decisions quickly and partner early and often with everyone around you to stay in the game and make it all work for you in the short-term and over the longer haul. You can and it will. :)

Will I have a job when I return from leave?

There are several factors at play here such as the organization you work for, how long you’ve worked for them, and more. Let’s start by unpacking the most fundamental variable of the equation, the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). FMLA is a federal law that provides certain employees up to twelve weeks of unpaid leave job protection in every twelve-month period. If you’re an eligible employee who is a covered service member’s spouse, child, parent, or next of kin, you’ll have the option of taking up to 26 weeks. FMLA requires that your health benefits be maintained during leave and that the employer preserves your job or provides you an equivalent position (i.e., it doesn’t have to be the exact same job) when you return. Your twelve-week leave does not need to be a taken in one block and can instead be taken intermittently, which means you can go back, say, three days a week and spread the last four weeks over several months.

Both full-time and part-time employees are eligible to take advantage of FMLA if you’ve worked for your employer at least twelve months—or 1,250 hours in the previous twelve months—at a location where the company employs 50 or more employees within 75 miles. Meanwhile, special hours of service apply to airline flight crews. FMLA applies to all public agencies, public and private elementary and secondary schools, and companies with 50 or more employees. In some states such as Massachusetts, employees who have been with an organization for three or six months (instead of the FMLA-mandated twelve) are eligible to take an unpaid eight-week leave.

Will I get paid when I’m on leave?   

This can vary dramatically by organization. While companies have to accommodate the FMLA twelve-week period, they don’t have to pay you for that time. Most will cover four weeks and then look to short-term disability insurance to cover approximately 60% of your regular pay. To make up the gap between your salary and the 60% provided by insurance, many employees draw on accumulated paid time off (PTO). Meanwhile, many companies and organizations offer more than that—i.e., sixteen weeks or even six months vs. the FMLA minimum of twelve weeks. Some will provide that extended leave on a paid basis while others might allow the extra time, but consider it more of an unpaid sabbatical.

A few state governments are making strides toward paid leave. New Jersey, for example, has provided paid leave since 2009. And as of January 2018, New York State provides eligible employees up to eight weeks of job-protected, paid leave to bond with a newly born, adopted, or fostered child.

In Europe, Canada, Singapore, and other parts of the world, maternity and family leave is more generous than in the US. Like all things in life, various maternity/parental/family leave policies and medical benefits always come with tradeoffs. The advantage is that everyone is more taken care of, but the downside is that it can make the labor force less transient and more expensive to employers. For better or for worse, this dynamic tends to limit the number of employment opportunities that become available and constrain overall economic growth. More specifically, countries that have more employee-friendly policies (e.g., Sweden and Germany) tend to see fewer jobs created because each job is costlier and riskier to the employer.

Ultimately, there are no right or wrong answers, which is why communities around the world make different choices, assessing the costs and benefits to achieve what works best for them. The discussions around all of this are endless—having endured as the core of political debates all over the world.

Can I get fired when I’m on maternity leave?

Most people think that pregnant/maternity leave employees are “protected,” but they’re not entirely and can definitely be subject to layoffs. What this means is that even though an employer is unable to fire them on the grounds that they’re pregnant or taking maternity leave, they could be subject to layoffs in the event that a broader action is being taken to eliminate costs more broadly for a firm. While this is rare, it can and has happened to women we know, but they survived it and you will too.

Should you find yourself in this quagmire, we recommend exploring our guides around Finding a Job. You’ll get it back if you dig in with the same grit and determination that got you to this point. Also, consider exploring the Women at Work Mentor Marketplace to find one or more women who can spend an Office Hour with you, helping to organize your get-your-career-back-on-track effort and provide advice on various career paths, dusting off your resume, and even more strategic life decisions related to balancing and even optimizing work and family.

What is parental leave? Who is eligible?    

People often confuse maternity leave with parental leave. Parental leave is usually a one- or two- week leave for the spouse (usually the father), though under FMLA they’re guaranteed twelve weeks of job protection. Fathers don’t typically take the full twelve weeks because most employers don’t cover their pay or if they do, it’s usually only for a week or two. In the case of adoption, most companies have special terms that are a bit longer, allowing for parents to spend time bonding, so it ends up being more like a maternity leave.

When does it make sense to let people know that I’m pregnant? How can I ensure I’m considered a valuable asset when I’m on leave and when I return?

In terms of letting people know, organizations prefer as early as possible so everyone around you can plan and avoid disrupting the business as much as possible. The more considerate you are of your employer and your team, the more likely they’ll be to accommodate your unique needs and work with you to come back into the organization in a way that works for both you and them over the longer haul.

If you’re a good employee, have strong domain, and add value to the organization, you’re going to be hard and expensive to replace. If you add that with an attitude and approach that’s collaborative with the employer around your transition in and out, the employer will partner with you throughout the process. Think about your employer as a partner vs. “the enemy” who’s trying to get the best of you.

Before you leave, consider what you can do to set up others to effectively take on what you do. Write it down, package it up, and make it accessible and transparent to all the relevant stakeholders. Communicate extensively with your boss, peers, collaborators, and direct reports to ensure you’ve thought through all the pieces of the process that you are a part of, ensuring at least one or more people can take on the things you do.

This may not always work, but if you consider yourself a partner in keeping the business going while you’re out, you’re more likely to preserve good standing and build loyalty between you and the company over time. Be willing to take emails and questions should something unexpected arise that needs your input or clarification. Chances are, they won’t call you and/or the interaction will be minimal, but the gesture will be hugely appreciated, showing good faith around empowering business as usual while also demonstrating your commitment to returning to the organization. While you need to protect yourself, sometimes not recognizing the nuances of being a team player can hurt you over the long run.

The idea of balancing work and family feels impossible. Should I take a few years off work while I raise my kids?

You can…but you should know, once you’re out, it’s hard to get back in. We know the balance and logistics of it all seem exhausting and maybe even impossible but just think about it. You worked hard to get to this point in your career. You’ve studied diligently, toiled late nights and early mornings. You’ve made all kinds of sacrifices to achieve good grades and good jobs.

You can definitely make all of it work, but you have to be willing to evolve. You’ll need to accept changes and make choices—in your position, pay, childcare options, leisure time, and the other services you engage. Are you willing to travel or not? How much sleep will you get? How much time do you need to spend by yourself? Do you thrive on social time with your friends? How much do you do for your kids and how involved are you in their lives? You may have to check out a bit at times and let someone else run it for you. Those kinds of tradeoffs aren’t for every woman, but should you choose them, they can provide some amazing adventures, relationships, and experiences.

The point we want to make is that if you’re good, most organizations will accommodate you if you ensure it makes economic sense for them over the longer haul. They’ll let you evolve and grow. They’ll allow you to dial it back and then ramp back up again. They may even let you switch to a 30-hour a week schedule for a few months or even years. There are trade-offs you have to make with those changes, but staying in the game can be an amazing gift to yourself, even though it will be harder and even completely daunting at times. It’s not for everyone and we definitely don’t want to knock staying at home. We just want to provide some perspective and advice for those of you who are trying to figure out if you can or should stay in the game. Indeed, you will survive all the challenges and adversity. You will emerge on the other side of the gauntlet, hopefully with a life that’s been fashioned especially for you.

Main takeaways

  • Inform your employer sooner rather than later. The more time you give them, the more likely they’ll be to accommodate your needs down the road.

  • Set your team up for success. Before you leave, thoroughly brief your manager, peers, and reports on your current projects, daily tasks, etc.

  • Stay in the game. With the right attitude and approach, you can create the opportunity for more balance and a chance to have it all.

About Alexis


Alexis Harding is Women at Work’s resident HR expert. A long-time HR professional based in the Boston area, Alexis has rich experience in the HR departments of several large institutions over nearly two decades. She is here to engage with your questions about a range of topics that might be impacting your career and your overall success.


About Christina


Christina Van Houten is the founder of Women at Work. Based in Boston with her husband and two teenage sons, she has spent the last 20 years of her career as a senior executive in the enterprise technology sector. Prior to evolving into tech, Christina founded a women's athletic apparel brand and served in several public interest roles focused on community and economic development. She started working at age thirteen and hasn't stopped since. She’s eager to help women find their way to the best possible life they can achieve.