Paid? Unpaid?  4 weeks? 12 weeks? 6 months? Will you be expected to do some work, or can you really just turn off your cell phone and ignore work email for your entire leave? Maternity leave policies can be as varied as the employers who offer them.  No matter what your employer offers, actually taking maternity leave can be a challenge in and of itself.  I have just completed my second maternity leave, and while each experience has been different, I hope that I can lend some insight to those of you preparing for leaves of your own.

I am a mom of two little ones, my oldest is three years, and my youngest is not quite four months.  I am also an attorney at a firm that is small by industry standards (and well below the FMLA cap), but is the largest in my small city.  When I announced my first pregnancy in 2011, I soon realized that I was the first associate in a very long time (and probably the second in the history of the firm) to have a baby.   Between my big firm friends who had seemingly unending maternity leave, and my small firm friends who had virtually none, I was unsure what kind of arrangement I would work out with my firm.  In the end, my maternity leave arrangement was definitely more creative than most, but I was very thankful that my firm was willing to work with me to come up with a plan that fit my situation very well.

When my first child was born, I was living an hour from my office and working from home a few days a week.  For my maternity leave, I took one month off completely and then worked part time for one month (from home).  Once I transitioned to full time, I continued to work from home a few days a week (with part time childcare).   Working from home with a little one worked well, even if it meant handing him off to my husband in the evenings so that I could work another hour or two.  Fast forward to the birth of my second child- by then, we had moved back to the city where my firm was located.  I no longer worked from home, and my older son was in full time daycare.   Despite these changes, we worked out a very similar arrangement – no work for a month, part time for a month and then full time (from home) for another month.

Although my two leaves were structured very similarly, in practice I found them to be very different.  The first time I around, I did not have trouble disengaging and simply not working during the first part of my leave.  I think that this was in large part due to the fact that as a third year associate, I provided support on other people’s cases but had very few that were my own.  It was not a problem to assign discrete tasks to other attorneys at my firm while I was gone, and pick them back up when I returned.    Three years later, it was very difficult for me to disengage.   My practice is primarily comprised of family law and employment law – two areas that require a significant amount of attorney/client interaction.  Additionally, I now handle more of my own caseload, and I have a number of clients for whom I am their only point of contact.   As a result, I remained more “available” throughout my leave (which I am sure those I work with most closely will tell you made this leave a bit easier on them!)   But this time around, I didn’t mind remaining on call – I just wanted to maximize my time at home with my little one, even if it meant doing some work while I was on leave.  Working from home was also more challenging the second time around.  I couldn’t just hand the baby off when my husband got home from work because the three year old needs attention too!  As a result, once I transitioned back to full time, I found myself ready to spend some time in the office.  The sight of me coming down the hall with the baby in tow became a regular occurrence at our office.  Even now that I am back in the office full time now, and she is in childcare, my coworkers still pop by my office to see if she just might be here for a visit.  A baby in the office might not work for many, but for me it was the perfect way to get a few more weeks with my little one.

If you are given the opportunity to have input in structuring your own leave, I think it is important to consider what elements are the most important to you – is it that you continue to be paid? That you have no work responsibilities during your leave?  Or is simply that you have time with your little one regardless of whether or not you are working?  I find it encouraging that employers are willing to look outside the confines of traditional maternity leave to accommodate employees.  For me, it helped insure that my transition back to full time practice was smooth.

What did your maternity leave look like?  Did you find it easy to disengage, or did you remain “on call” during your leave?  Do you have any advice for women looking to structure their own maternity leave?  Let’s discuss, ladies!

Baili Rhodes

Baili is an associate with West, Webb, Allbritton & Gentry, PC, where she practices general civil litigation with a focus on family law and employment law. She received her Bachelor of Arts in Communications from Texas A&M University, and her J.D. from Baylor Law School. Baili currently serves as Vice President and District 2 Director for the Texas Young Lawyers Association. She is also Vice President of Administration of the Brazos Valley Young Lawyers Association, and a member of the Junior League of Bryan-College Station. Baili lives in College Station, Texas with her husband, Casey, their two children, and two dogs.

This Post Has 9 Comments

  1. Pingback: Can Solos And Smalls Afford To Offer Paid Maternity Leave? | ATL Small Firm Center

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  4. Anonymous

    I had my first baby in February of this year. I was fortunate to also be at an office that allowed me to take 8 weeks paid leave (despite being a very small office). I was the first female attorney in close to 13 years to have a baby at my office and I can say that my experience with leave was fantastic. I was not expected to partake in any duties during my leave (I did so at my convenience and as I felt able), but it was more surprising from my colleagues to hear from me than to not. My advice to others out there is not to be afraid to ask for time off or for help with work during that time. I was certain that I was going to be faced with a difficult task of going on leave and returning, only to find my office (of primarily males) to be the most accommodating and helpful people I know. I enjoyed every moment of my leave, which I feel certainly helped with the transition back to the office with the new baby.

    Great topic! Also, kudos to TYLA for getting this blog going, it is great!

  5. Anonymous

    I love this post and this discussion! It is so important.

    I have two girls. My first leave was 6 weeks paid, then 8 weeks unpaid, so 14 weeks total. My firm at the time allowed me an extra two weeks after my 12 FMLA weeks ran out so that I could stay home until my husband was off for the summer. That was very kind of them to do. I was a 3rd year attorney and I turned everything off and learned how to be a mom for 14 weeks. My second leave was after I had left the firm and gone in-house. I got 8 weeks paid this time and then took 4 weeks unpaid for a total of 12 weeks. Again, I turned it completely off and just did the mom thing for the entire 12 weeks.

    My advice toward anyone facing a conversation about maternity leave is to just relax and think of it as an opportunity to practice your skills of negotiation. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want. They might say no. But, they might say yes. And wouldn’t that be cool if they said yes? Be reasonable in your requests, but keep in mind that we are pretty much the only first-world country that doesn’t provide for paid leave for a lot longer than 12 weeks (don’t quote me on that, I’m too lazy to Google the actual statistics, but my friends who live in Canada and Ireland were simply scandalized when they heard of my maternity leave parameters which byAmerica standards were pretty awesome). Also, don’t be scared of these conversations. If the person you have to talk to about it is so horrible that they make you feel guilty for taking leave or act like they are put out by the thought of you spending time out of the office to be with your baby or they refer to is as “your vacation” – you should probably reevaluate your working situation anyways. Life is too short to work for someone who doesn’t like babies or respect mothers.

    A few practical things I wish I had known ahead of time….a lot of firm’s/company’s short-term disability insurance carriers determine what their maternity leave looks like. Make sure you talk to the most senior person at your office you can regarding what your benefits will be. I was told by a very sweet (read inexperienced) girl in the benefits department at my company that I would be getting 12 weeks at my full salary. I was thanking my lucky stars. Until she wrote me an email when I was 6 weeks in to my leave to say, oops, I was wrong, you only get 8. Now, I realize a lot of you may think I’m SO annoying for being annoyed at this. But, I was. I was out a month’s salary with short notice. We had just saved up money for something specific and there it went. So, yeah, I was annoyed. I advise you to talk to the most senior person in your firm/company and maybe even contact the carrier directly to have your benefits explained to you. Another random yet interesting fact is that a lot of short-term disability carriers will pay 6 weeks for a V delivery and 8 weeks for a C delivery. That’s one reason why the length of paid leave can differ even among women at the same firm/company. That’s also why sometimes you get an excruciatingly awkward email from your firm’s administrator asking how your baby was delivered because the Executive Committee needs to know. The thought of the firm’s Executive Committee discussing my V delivery still horrifies me.

    Being lucky enough to know both Laura and Teresa personally, I can tell you they are two of my working mom heroes. They love their work, are hilarious and loving moms, and are simply divine people in general. I respect them both as attorneys and as moms. I read both of their comments and was more than a tad jealous of their ability to miss work while they were on leave, get back in the office and forge on. My experience was a tad different.

    For me, neither leave was long enough. And I definitely did not miss work and was not ready to go back. After I had my first daughter I was just in general sad that I was a working mom. I had law school loans to pay off and a husband who is a teacher. I had to go back. I didn’t really have a choice. Well honestly, I did have a choice….I just made it when I was 19 when I doodled “I want to be an attorney” on the cover of a spiral notebook when I realized I was the only person in my Organic Chemistry class who had no clue what the hell the professor was talking about. After I had my daughter, I still loved being an attorney. But, at the same time, I was sad to be a working mom. Every once in a while, admittedly, I still am. Although, my sadness about being a working mom has faded significantly and now is replaced by general happiness with occasional pangs of guilt accompanied by declarations of my plans to quit my job and stay home with my girls and live in a van down by the river.

    When I went back after I had my second daughter, I was sad because I felt as though I didn’t get enough time to bond with her during my 12 weeks of leave because I was having to juggle both girls at once (hint – keep sending your older kid to preschool when on leave with your second – the older one already had their turn at time alone with mommy). The first time around, I sat in the chair and stared adoringly at my baby girl for hours and hours. The second time around, I put the baby down as quickly as I could so I could undo whatever mischief my older daughter had created while I was taking care of the baby. The baby is super chill and laid back (complete opposite of big sis), so she was fine doing her own thing. Which was good in theory, until 12 weeks came and went and I realized how little time I had actually had to bond with the baby. I was completely miserable (and likely suffering from a touch of postpartum) when I went back to work. But, the misery went away sooner rather than later and was replaced with happiness and balance and comfort at knowing we don’t have to live in a van down by the river after all.

    Putting that in writing might make me look weak. If it does, I’m ok with that. I write all of this simply to point out that maternity leave affects people differently and if you are miserable when you return to work I promise it gets better and easier as time passes (and if you think you are dealing with a touch of postpartum talk to someone about it!).

    I always say that being a working mother is not for the faint of heart. So three cheers to all the working moms and working moms to be. You are tough and smart and probably also smokin hot and funny. Good for you.

    1. Andrea Cottrell

      I posted this comment. Didn’t mean to put it in Anonymously. Don’t want Laura and Teresa thinking they have a secret admirer. 🙂

  6. Amy Banks

    This post is very timely for me as I enter the seventh month of my first pregnancy. I am very lucky to practice in a partnership with my father. Since we are the only attorneys in the firm, we have plenty of room for baby Philip to come to the office as often as needed. We’ve already got a designated nursery space for him upstairs with me! The current plan (although I know it will likely change) is for me to take six-weeks off of actual court appearances after the baby is born. Like Baili, my practice areas (criminal and family) require quite a bit of client interaction, so I don’t think it is reasonable to think I can totally turn off my practice (or my email) for that long. I’m hoping to ease into working part-time, bringing the baby to the office with me whenever possible. My mom is going to retire after my six-weeks off of court and our current plan is for her to have primary responsibility for Philip for two days, my husband (who luckily is self-employed and has a flexible work schedule) to take the baby two days, and then I will do the Lion’s Share on Fridays and the weekend so my husband can get in a little more work. I’m very excited for the baby to get here, and very hopeful that our plan will work!

  7. Laura Docker
    Laura Docker

    I took the full FMLA leave available after the birth of both of my boys (now 2 & 5). I was lucky enough to work at a firm that provided paid leave for the first six weeks I was off, and even luckier that it was financially possible for us to swing the last 6 weeks on our own. Like you Baili, I found it a little easier to pass off my workload when my first was born. But I remember even then, it was still a little difficult to disengage from work. A girlfriend from my office called me at home about two weeks into my leave. She was just calling to check on the baby and tell me that they were missing me at the office, but I immediately started peppering her with questions about files I had left for her to work on. I had spent two weeks stressing about nursing and baby weight, and endlessly discussing poop and sleep cycles. All I wanted in that moment was to discuss discovery disputes and jurisdiction issues. It was the best feeling to be talking about something (not the baby) that I was really good at, when I was still feeling pretty unsure of my parenting skills. The separation from work got easier as time went on and I fell into a great routine with my little boy, and when the time came to return to work I was really glad I had taken as much time as I did. It didn’t feel rushed, it just felt right for us.

  8. Theresa Berend
    Theresa Berend

    Over the years, I’ve been blessed to have worked at two law firms that both supported my pregnancies and the time I needed to make sure my children and I were healthy before and after delivery. Both of these law firms stepped up to the plate and provided me with six-weeks paid maternity leave. Of course, I could have taken a greater amount of unpaid maternity leave under the terms of FMLA, but in both cases, I just didn’t need any more than six weeks.

    My daughter, who is 9, was a breeze and we were both ready for her to go to daycare so I could return to work. With my youngest son, who is almost 6, I think I could have used more time with him since he was born a month early, but I was preparing for a massive trial and it worked out best for me to be back in the office. Luckily, he was healthy and our wonderful daycare took him and loved him perfectly well after six weeks. In both cases six weeks was sufficient for my children’s needs and my needs, plus it almost seemed luxurious after having given birth to my oldest son, who is 10, the month before I graduated law school. In that case, I took a final exam within a week after my son was born, and a few weeks later (before he could start daycare), my mother came into town to help out while I started full-time bar review classes. Compared to that experience, six weeks focused on just raising and falling in love with my newborn baby was heaven! With that said, I certainly recognize that this time frame is not right for every mother or every child. Do what’s best for you and your baby!

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