You’re counting down the days until your leave but encountering more practical decisions, awkward conversations, and I don’t know what to do moments than you’d prefer. Or you’re on leave … and having serious trouble facing that first day back. Or you’ve already returned to work but feel as if you’re riding a practical and emotional roller coaster, and getting queasy. Transitions are inherently tough, and becoming a working parent means managing through several big ones in quick succession. The right information and approaches can make things easier, practically and personally, and can give you the confidence you need to start working parenthood strong.
Figuring out the details of your parental leave should, in an ideal world, be completely straightforward and take about five minutes. For the majority of expectant mothers and fathers, though, it turns into a longer and often very confusing process. Why? Because the amount of time you take is often determined by a combination of complex national leave laws; local laws, which can vary widely and change frequently; and employer policies, which can appear cut-and-dried but are often riddled with “ifs” and exceptions (some organizations will deny you paid leave if you’ve worked there for less than a year, for example). Your employment status can be a significant factor also: if you’re an entrepreneur, a small-business employee, a part-timer, or a freelancer, of if you are paid by the hour or are working outside your country of citizenship, you may be held to a different set of rules—or not eligible for the leave you expected. And of course, even if you are technically eligible for a certain leave, there’s your company’s culture and unwritten rules to think of, as well as your own sense of what’s best and workable for your family and career. When you’re eagerly looking forward to your child’s arrival and suddenly finding yourself confronting this kind of bureaucracy, fine print, and need for subjective decisions, it can be jarring, but if you know where to look for information and know all the right questions to ask, you’ll be best able to get this sorted out as quickly as possible.
Attention, American moms and dads
In the United States, the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, commonly known as “FMLA,” allows many (not all) parents to take twelve weeks of unpaid, job-protected time away from work in connection with the birth or arrival of a new child as well as to care for a newborn, newly adopted, or newly arrived foster child. During that time, parents get to continue in their same health-insurance plan and on the same terms.
Both mothers and fathers can use FMLA, but it does not apply to private-sector organizations with fewer than fifty employees, to people who have worked for their company or business for less than twelve months or have worked fewer than 1,250 hours in the twelve-month period immediately preceding the leave, or to contractors or freelancers. If you’ve just joined that great startup as employee number forty-six, or if you work full-time for an organization but on a nonemployee basis, you’re not technically FMLA-eligible. Other special provisions of the law apply to military personnel, seasonal workers, and geographically dispersed companies.
The US Department of Labor website explains FMLA in full and should answer all your questions: https://
What should I expect from HR?
Your company’s human resources team should be able to do a thorough, timely, and complete job helping you get ready for leave: pointing you to the right benefits plans, providing timelines of when (and what) paperwork needs to be done, and answering any specific questions on leave policies or logistics. They may also be helpful in preparing you for working parenthood, longer term; be sure to scour the benefits website and ask your HR rep if there are any parent-to-parent mentoring programs, return-from-leave checklists, or other resources for navigating that all-important first year back. Expect your HR interactions to be positive ones.
Understand, though, that HR’s function is to deliver and oversee company policy in an equal and fair way across the employee population—not to negotiate special side deals for individual workers. Push your HR rep for an exception to the standard parental-leave policy, and you put her in a very difficult position: saying yes to you means creating a new organizational precedent. If HR says no, or appears rigid and rules-obsessed, don’t take it personally—most likely, the reps are acting in good faith and trying to ensure consistency and fairness.
Unless you’re already rock-solid certain of what you’re eligible for, start by taking an hour or so simply to educate yourself. Double-check both national and local government websites for the most up-to-date guidelines and any pending changes on parental leave, and then check your company’s employee handbook or intranet for the same. Go straight to the source: do not rely on parenting blogs, news articles, or coworkers for hard data. Given the complexity and constant flux in leave laws and policy, and the many factors influencing how those rules may apply to you, there is a real possibility that you may be given inaccurate, incomplete, or out-of-date information.
Once you’ve got a grasp of the legal and policy basics, do some “soft research” by checking in with a few trusted colleagues, as well as with friends in the industry or at similar organizations. Ask for any extra detail and color on how they were able to negotiate, use, or extend their leaves, and what in retrospect they would have done or tried to do differently. Were they allowed to work from home the last week before their due date? Add on accrued personal days? Does your organization offer long leaves on paper but frown on people who actually take them? Your goal here is to round out the hard facts with full and detailed context—and to make yourself as savvy a consumer of parental leave as possible. (Think of approaching leave the same way you would buying a car: with a lot of up-front research yielding the best outcome.) Only after you’ve done all your research and benchmarking will you be ready to have an informed conversation with your manager or human resources representative to make sure you’re on the same page, to clear up any gray areas, and to nail down your specific plans.
If you’re the first man or woman in your organization to take parental leave, the lack of policy and precedent can be disconcerting, and yet wonderfully liberating. You’re free to negotiate for the time you really need—and potentially help other families in the future.
Before making your ask, inform yourself about standard leave policies in your function or industry—and at your organization’s competitors. Then think through how to frame your request in terms that will resonate with the boss: asking for x weeks of leave “so that I can set up a good care arrangement and come back to work fully ready to contribute during busy season,” or mentioning that “offering y amount of parental leave would make us a leader in the industry,” will likely be more effective than simply asking for the time. The conversation will go best when you’re seen as reasonable, well informed, and a team player focused on the organization’s needs as well as on your own.
Be sure to come away from this information-gathering process with answers to all of the following questions:
Using your judgment—and getting creative
‘‘My second daughter was born twelve days after I started my new job. Our company has a great leave policy, but it felt strange to show up and then disappear for three months. Plus we had our nanny helping to take care of our older daughter, and my mother-in-law was in town to help for several weeks, all in a small New York City apartment.
I ended up taking a week off after the birth, another week a few months later around the Thanksgiving holiday, and then some additional time at year end. Stretching it out like that let me get up to speed in the new job, and also allowed me to be there when my family needed me, including when my wife transitioned back to work.”
—Basil, P&L director, father of two
‘‘After each of our kids was born, I took leave and then my husband—he’s an engineer—used his accrued vacation and sick days to take a month, also. No one at his organization had ever done that, but we had planned ahead. He had been banking his days off for years, and he stood firm.
If you’re considering an unusual leave arrangement and find yourself thinking, ‘There’s no way that will work,’ push yourself, and push the people you work with, too. Ask, ‘Why not?’ ”
—Laura, chief marketing officer, mother of two
If you’re at all confused, push a little. Don’t be afraid to nudge the HR person for additional detail on how nonsequential leave periods can be timed, or to point out to your manager that other mothers and fathers at your organization have beefed up their leaves by using vacation days. Good decisions and good self-advocacy start with good information, and you’re well within your rights to ask for complete clarity on something so important. Be certain to do any of this questioning and pushing in a polite, constructive way, however. You don’t want to come across as whiny, or entitled. Remember: how you operate as a working parent is an important part of your professional brand.
Once you’ve determined the actual length of your leave, you’ll want to address your own questions and concerns about how to make that amount of time work best for you. In this section, we’ll look at each of the most common leave-length dilemmas, and at sensible ways to approach them. We’ll start with longer time frames and work our way down to short leaves, or no leave. Focus only on the sections that apply to you and your particular situation. If you get a whole year’s worth of paid leave, then yes, it will be appalling to think about people who get none—and if you get little leave, it’s going to be tough to read about people who have more leave than they actually want. Leave equity is an important, and emotional, issue. But for right now, focus on how to do right by you.
Many parents wish they could take longer leaves than they can, but it’s also possible to find yourself grappling with the opposite problem: you may be able to take a solid stretch of time away from work—with pay, even—but worry if taking it all is going to be the right thing to do. Maybe you work in a client-intensive business, and are concerned about neglecting the terrific relationships you hustled so hard to build. Maybe you just joined a fast-moving startup and worry about being “out of sight and out of mind” for too long, or you love what you do and are eager to get back to it. For any number of practical or psychological reasons you might—as taboo as it can feel to say—want to take less time than allowed.
If you find yourself in this position, and perhaps feeling a little lonely or guilty, try to widen the lens. Leave is an essential, one-time-only opportunity to bond with your new child. Every single minute of it is precious, and to enjoy it, you’re going to need to tolerate some inherent if short-term discomfort at turning your attentions away from work. Think of this time as practice for what’s to come: if you don’t develop some experience and “muscle memory” in prioritizing family now, it’s going to be very hard to do so later. That said, you also have a family to support, a career to maintain, ambitions for the future, and your own happiness and well-being to think of, and any one of those factors can point you toward an earlier return. In other words, look at this as a whole-life, deeply personal, and head-of-family decision, as opposed to a moralistic or purely black-and-white one. Do what’s right for you, personally, as opposed to managing toward the “shoulds.”
‘‘When my son was born, I took as much time as I was allowed. It wasn’t even a decision; there was no question that I was going to be there as much as I could for my partner and the baby. Nothing else mattered. There were other doctors who could cover. The hospital would cope.
People can make whatever comments they want. Have a thick skin, and refuse to take what they say on board. It’s your right to take this time.”
—Jon, physician, father of one
Think about middle-ground solutions too: perhaps you could take a “partial leave” by working a reduced schedule, or take all the time you can but find creative ways to engage with those important clients while you do. Or consider splitting the difference: if you’re wavering between six and twelve weeks off, for example, commit to nine. As you mull things over, remember that leave is a benefit, not a rigid, all-or-nothing obligation.
A long leave can be a wonderful benefit for any working parent. The ample, unhurried time allows you to recover from the arrival, adjust to being a mom or dad, find childcare that suits your needs, and fully bond with your baby.
This wonderful opportunity also comes with its own set of challenges. After many months away from work, it’s easy to feel “out of it” or to start losing professional confidence. Even with a supportive manager and colleagues, you may fall victim to an “out of sight, out of mind” situation during a reorganization or when it comes to professional opportunities and staffing. The business dynamics and leadership may have shifted while you were out. In fact, it may feel more as if you’re starting a new job than coming “back” at all. And if you’ve settled happily into the role of full-time caregiver, returning to work after an extended leave may be even tougher than coming back from a short one.
‘‘I took a full year’s leave, which was amazing. Most of my work was for big clients, who colleagues could help look after while I was away. I stayed in touch, though: coming back for office events, department lunches, keeping up-to-date on one big project.
Shortly before I went on leave I had also relocated to a different city and office, so it was the same firm but a whole new environment. When I got back from leave, I took care to go out to drinks after work, to socialize—to get to know people I work with. Initially, I dreaded the return—but I got into things quickly, and was glad that I did.
Looking back, the whole key was in being flexible.”
—Sarah, law partner, mother of one
If you are planning six months or more away from work, here’s what to expect—and do—to ensure a smoother reentry.
Upon return, expect:
Throughout the transition back, make sure to:
Let’s say you’ve got x weeks, and try as you might there’s no way to find, negotiate, or cobble together any more. You’ve heard stories about how quickly leave time flies and how hard the return to work can be when your child is still so small. You’re getting increasingly anxious. What to do?
Your best course of action here is to try to maximize your leave—by, as much as possible, returning it to its intended consequence, which is to allow you to care for and bond with the baby. Same amount of time, more impact and satisfaction from it.
Practically speaking, that means:
There’s no two ways around it: if you’re an expectant mother or father and don’t have any paid leave, or any parental leave at all, coming to you, then you’re in a tough spot. Your goal now is to try to maximize any flexibility and benefits you do have to create at least some small amount of “effective leave.” To do so:
Once you’ve nailed down your leave timing, you’ll need to figure out how your work will be covered while you’re away. If you’ll be gone for a month or less, this should be fairly easy; the handover can be very similar to any you would do before going on a vacation. If your leave will be longer, your plan will have to be more thought-through and formal, and you’ll want to invest in getting the folks covering for you up to speed. That may sound like a lot of work, but if you know the important dos and don’ts, you’ll be able to create an effective coverage and transition plan without having it become a job unto itself.
When developing your “while I’m out” proposal, you should:
And conversely, you shouldn’t:
If you decide to stay fully on top of work and in touch with your colleagues while you’re away, you risk turning this precious time with the baby into an effective work-from-home arrangement, which defeats the entire purpose. On the other hand, if you turn all of your attentions homeward, you risk feeling professionally out of touch, and of having the transitions to parenthood and then back to work feel even more abrupt. If you can think of leave as a timeline or continuum, though (instead of as a zero-sum, “do I engage, or don’t I?” choice), you’ll be able to strike the right personal and practical balance.
‘‘Don’t worry about being out of touch. If you were doing great work and making an impact before you left, they won’t forget you.”
—Lauren, consumer-insights specialist, mother of two
However long your leave is, think of it as having four phases:
If your partner is pregnant, and/or if the plan is for him or her to take the lead on childcare, you may find yourself harboring secret—or not-so-secret—apprehensions about going on leave yourself. What are you supposed to be doing while both of you are home? Do you really want to be around all day when your partner is this exhausted, or is postpartum, or is feeding the baby and you can’t help anyway? Wouldn’t it just be better if you stayed at work? These concerns are all standard, and you’re right to listen to your instincts on how much time to spend at home. That being said, you have an important mission here, and with the right moves, you can become an unsung hero in this story.
Think of yourself as having three critical functions while on leave:
If your apprehensions are deep enough that you’re leaning toward not taking any of the leave you’re entitled to, step back and think: you’re a role model now, whether you like it or not. The aspiring parents at work may never admit it, but they’re watching you like a hawk to see if parenting is possible in your field or organization. Do you really want the next person to think “See? I shouldn’t/don’t need to/can’t take parental leave” because of your own behavior? Taking your leave—and talking positively about it—is your best way to lay good groundwork for other moms and dads in the future.
You’re going to be busy while on leave—very busy. Between diaper changes, feedings, health appointments, finalization of your care arrangements, and ongoing lack of sleep, what initially looked like a good long stretch of “time off” may slip by in an exhausting, frenetic blur. It’s essential right now that you pump the brakes on any type-A tendency toward feeling as if you need to be accomplishing anything, or moving forward in your career. Give your regular ambition a sabbatical: your child is precious, leave is short, and you’ll have plenty of opportunities to shine professionally in the coming months and years.
Parental leave as a reset
Throughout your working life, you have very few opportunities to do any kind of meaningful professional reset: to alter your portfolio of responsibilities, to project a new personal “brand,” or to work differently than before. Resetting is most feasible when you change jobs, get a meaningful promotion, move roles internally—and on the heels of your parental leave.
While you’re out, give careful consideration to what projects or responsibilities you want to avoid, or assertively raise your hand for, on the way back in. Think through how you want colleagues to perceive you, post leave. If you’ve always been the hardest worker in the office, for example, perhaps now you become the most efficient. Maybe a certain type of work or project has been your signature, and now you want to pivot. Whatever those changes might be, don’t squander this natural opportunity to try to make them.
If being on leave has left you with some career-related anxiety, however, or if you feel that it’s taking you uncomfortably far out of the game, try using these easy ways to help tamp down that worry, reassert control over your professional life, and regain your sense of accomplished self, all without eroding your precious time away.
Whether you’ve been away from work for a week or a year, and whether it’s your first child or fifth, the return from parental leave can be hard—both practically and emotionally. As your leave time winds down, you’ll likely begin slipping into a dark and gloomy mental space: wondering whether the care arrangements you’ve worked so hard to put in place are really the right ones, if it’s even possible to get morning feedings finished before 6:30 a.m., how you’re ever going to make it through that first day—and so many more days just like it—without the baby, if your career is really worth it, and so on. Every one of these thoughts and feelings is completely normal, very common, and should be taken as reassuring, wonderful proof of how bonded you are to your child.
Nonetheless, that first day back is looming and daunting, and you’ll want to navigate it as best you can. Here’s how to make reentry easier.
A “phaseback program” allows you to work flexibly, on a reduced schedule, or both, for a defined period of time upon your return from parental leave. As the name implies, phaseback is designed to make the transition back to work gentler and easier, and allow you a gradual ramp-up. These programs are now commonly found within many large companies and are increasingly offered at smaller organizations. Managers and organizations see and use phaseback as a low-cost way to support recent returnees and keep attrition rates down.
Practically speaking, the extra flexibility phaseback offers may be exactly what you need if you’ve had a shorter parental leave, are nursing, are still struggling to set up the right care arrangement, or are finding the transition back to work difficult. And if you want to try out flexible work before committing to a longer-term arrangement, phaseback is a great way to do so. Exercise caution, though, because one size does not fit all. After a long leave, you may be eager to get back into the regular routine of work, but the particular pressures of your job may actually make it harder to work part-time rather than full-, or remotely rather than in person. And there can be practical considerations, too: working from home with an infant isn’t easy in a small apartment. Think of phaseback as an option, and rely on your own instincts to determine whether or not to take it.
If your organization doesn’t yet offer a phaseback program, don’t be shy about trying to negotiate one. Keep your requests reasonable, limited, and time-bound, and frame them as a way for your boss and organization to keep you—and keep you productive—for the long term.
‘‘Each time was easier intellectually—I knew what to expect—although the same emotionally.
Here’s my advice: take one day at a time and remind yourself that you do not need to make any decisions right away. You’re in control, and if after a little while, you feel it’s not working, you can try changing things up. Your goal is to get yourself into a new routine, and to feeling that you’re contributing.”
—Andrea, regulatory relations leader, mother of five
Once back on the job, you may be tempted to get straight to work—and keep your head down. And that’s understandable: when you’re handling such a huge transition and eager to finish up as early as you can each day, you won’t feel like spending those twenty minutes messaging your colleagues about weekend plans or wasting time in aimless chitchat around the water cooler. Don’t make the mistake of undercommunicating, though, or of assuming your colleagues have an accurate take on your thoughts and actions. If your colleagues don’t know your real story, they may make assumptions: silence may be interpreted as lack of commitment, for example, or your boss may automatically think that as a brand-new parent you’re more interested in flexibility than promotion. It’s essential to take control of your story right now, and to leave the impression you want. Doing so means getting “out there,” deliberately connecting with coworkers, and talking about yourself as a working parent—which may feel deeply awkward. Even if you’re an extrovert and a communications natural, this is an interaction you’ve probably never prepped for or gotten any hand-holding on.
Thanking your parental-leave cover(s)
When you get back to work, don’t forget to express sincere, direct thanks to the person or people who covered for you while you were out. Sure, maybe they were hired and paid just for that purpose—or maybe they “owed” you after you carried the ball during their own leave last year. Nevertheless, recognizing their efforts is a gracious, leader-like thing to do, and it can help build your long-term professional capital. You don’t need to get fancy: a short, sincere thank-you email with a cc to that person’s boss will do the trick.
To make your working-parent message easier and more effective, think of yourself as putting it inside a frame defined on four sides by your priorities, next steps, commitment, and enthusiasm. Let’s say it’s Day One back from parental leave, and you’ve got colleagues dropping by your desk to say hello. Say something like, “It’s good to see you and great to be back! I’m spending the next couple of days getting up to speed on the product specifications so we’re ready for the design meeting on Tuesday. I’m looking forward to getting approval on the new prototypes.” That will work vastly better than a simple, “It’s good to see you”—or silence. The first statement brings your listener(s) into your full professional and personal plan and showcases your dedication to the team. You’ve minimized the chance of misunderstandings, taken control over perception and messaging, and kept things positive and authentic. (This same four-part framing technique works in many different situations; throughout the book, we’ll explore how you can use it to your advantage both in your day-to-day and high-stakes workparenting conversations.)
‘‘Two months after my first son was born, I was back working at the Met. I was glad to be there, but I struggled a bit with my identity. Everyone was so supportive, though: the costume crew kept telling me, ‘You look great!’ I wish I hadn’t let my worries get to me so much. After a few weeks, I knew it was going to be OK.”
—Blythe, opera singer, mother of two
If you need to advocate for yourself, correct a potential misimpression, or make a specific ask during the return-to-work period, be direct, and try using if-I-were-you language: “You may be wondering if I’m still interested in taking on more, given the twins’ arrival. But I want you to know that I’m still ready, willing, and able to become assistant principal this fall.” And if you’re feeling blue or experiencing a sense of loss at the return to work, it’s OK to admit it in a moderate, balanced way, saying something like, “It’s not easy to be away from my little guy, but it’s good to be back with the team.” You’re being authentic, but positive—and every colleague with a heart will understand.
During your first several weeks back at work you’ll feel as if you’re learning to ride a bike: you’ll be wobbly, you’ll have to make constant adjustments, and there will be a lot of stops and starts. You may suddenly get emotional (or even teary), or find that the manufacturing contract you had whipped into shape before your leave now needs to be renegotiated. While the reentry phase can be rough, don’t assume that one difficult day means you’re doomed, try not to come to any sweeping long-term conclusions about workparenting, and above all, resist the urge to take your emotional temperature too often. Your goal now is just to move ahead, one day at a time. In doing so, you’ll gradually find your footing.
‘‘Be thoughtful about what you pick back up. The organization has been surviving without you, and this can be an opportunity to transition over work that someone else is capable of handling. Don’t feel guilty about that, either. You’re just giving other people an opportunity.”
—Katherine, chief of staff to the COO, mother of two
After the first month or so, though, it can be very helpful to do a review and reset: to step back, look at how things are going, and consider any new approaches or tweaks that can make your workparenting life easier, better, and more satisfying. Reflect by yourself first, and then check in with the other key players: your partner, caregivers, mentors, and boss. You’re not looking for praise, or for a letter grade, but for new life hacks and sensible actions. After thinking through the daily routine with your partner, for example, you may agree that taking turns getting up fifteen minutes earlier each day could relieve a lot of the early-morning frenzy, or after reflecting on the professional routine you’ve got in place you may decide to take on some overtime hours again.
For the people closest to you, of course, you can keep these take-stock-and-recalibrate conversations completely informal. If you choose to speak with a boss or higher-up, though, you may want to be a little more scripted: “I’m four weeks back from leave, and while it’s certainly been a transition, I feel I’ve managed to get a good handle on things. Given our work together, though, I wanted to check in, ensure you feel the same, and see if there are any additional adjustments I should make, particularly as we get the store ready for the holiday sales.” Putting it like this reminds your boss to recognize and appreciate the work and thought you’ve put into your transition, and—particularly if he’s a working father himself—may prompt some good, authentic advice. Be careful to keep the conversation positive, and not to ask about your boss’s concerns, observations, or feedback. This isn’t a performance evaluation—it’s about process improvement, with some appropriate self-marketing thrown in.
Up until this point in your life and career, you’ve thought of “achievements” as big, objectively desirable, easily measurable milestones: you’ve completed your degree, lived abroad, landed a great job, bought a house, run a marathon, or been promoted. Now, as a brand-new working parent, it can feel like a victory to get to work on time and without spit-up stains all over your clothes, or just to stay awake on the job after a long night up with the baby. For most motivated, committed professionals, this is a major, humbling adjustment. You may feel even less professionally powerful and competent than you did at the very beginning of your career, and be wondering if, when, and how you’ll ever get back to the top of your game.
As hard as it is, be patient with the process of becoming a workparent, and try to see what you’re doing now as a major milestone achievement all its own. You’re still every bit as hardworking and high-performing, but for right now your successes are of a different sort. And soon you’ll be racking up the kinds of achievements that only a working parent can: you’ll get that deep satisfaction that comes from nailing a huge new contract—and a few hours later walking through the door to see your smiling baby; or of putting that first check into his education-savings account. Becoming a positive, proactive workparent is a stand-up, affirmative choice. You’ve started the new job well, you’ve got a lot to be proud of already—and will have much more throughout Year One.