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Myth: Whatever your decision is, you’ll know in your gut that you made the right one.
Reality: Because there’s no ideal option for many women, it’s normal to have doubts. If you stay at home, you may feel isolated and resentful or worry that you’ve ruined your career. If you keep working, you may feel guilty about missing out on your baby’s development. “You may have a lot of negative feelings, but that doesn’t mean you’ve made the wrong decision,” says Michele Kremen Bolton, author of The Third Shift: Managing Hard Choices in Our Careers, Homes, and Lives as Women (Jossey-Bass, 2000).
“Every woman should allow herself two months back at work (or at home) before she decides if she’s made the right decision,” recommends Chris Essex, co-director of the Center for Work and the Family in Rockville, Md. Try to build flexibility into your plan with your manager in case you later want to cut back your hours or return to work full time.
Most women now can take maternity leave without the threat of losing their jobs, thanks to the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which requires businesses with 50 or more employees to give women 12 weeks of unpaid leave without repercussions. But how companies put the law into practice varies greatly. Some lucky women get fully or partially paid leave; others use their vacation and sick days to cover part of their leave. Five states (California, Hawaii, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island) require companies to pay new moms disability for six weeks, and some employers in other states voluntarily do this as well.
To give an acceptable amount of time to prepare for your leave, inform your manager that you’re pregnant by your third or fourth month (sooner if morning sickness or fatigue is cutting into your availability or productivity). “Read your company’s manuals and talk to other women there who have gone through this so you have a good idea of how accommodating your company is,” suggests Lauren Asher, spokeswoman for the National Partnership for Women & Families in Washington, D.C.
Before you talk to your boss, have a clear idea of when you expect your leave to begin and end, make a list of responsibilities that must be delegated to others, and create a plan for who will cover for you. Also let your employer know how available you’ll be while on leave.
“Make the transition as smooth as possible for the company and for yourself,” says Asher. If your announcement is met with unhappiness or pressure to return to work earlier than you’d like, hold your ground. “Don’t compromise on the things that are most important to you,” she adds.