Taking time off after having a baby can be expensive. Although the Family and Medical Leave Act requires companies with 50 or more employees to provide 12 weeks of unpaid leave, most parents take less than that to avoid giving up their salaries for an extended period. Only 8 percent of companies offer employees paid leave, and women without paid leave take an average of just 6.6 weeks of maternity leave. (Those with paid leave take an average of 10.5 weeks off.)
But even amid a recession, Caitlin Friedman and Kimberly Yorio, authors of Happy at Work, Happy at Home: The Girl's Guide to Being a Working Mom, say it's possible to make a relatively smooth transition into a routine that includes both parenthood and a career. In an interview with U.S. News, Friedman offered these seven steps:
[See also: Creative Ways to Combine Work and Family.]
Research your leave options. Even before becoming pregnant, ask other parents at your company about the maternity leave options available, and take note of whether people are able to work from home or work flexible hours. "Really be honest about how family-friendly your company is. You can see how other women experience their maternity leave and get back on. If the majority of them left, then that says something," says Friedman.
Once you become pregnant and are ready to tell people, which is usually around the three-month mark, Friedman recommends speaking with the human resources department about leave benefits so you can start preparing. Some companies allow employees to use their sick days for maternity leave or offer short-term-disability options, while others stick with the standard three months of unpaid leave. The same advice goes for fathers. Some companies offer at least a couple of weeks of paid paternity leave.
Delegate tasks while you're away. Some workers might fear that delegating work to other employees while they're away will make them appear easily replaceable. But Friedman says it's good for everyone if you make your time away as easy on your boss as possible by making sure your responsibilities will be covered. "Otherwise, you won't be fully present on maternity leave, and you need to be," she says. Plus, she adds, in this economy, "if you were replaceable, you already would have been replaced."
Plan to be out of the loop completely for at least a few weeks. While it might be tempting to keep your BlackBerry nearby and respond to work-related E-mails shortly after giving birth, Friedman recommends against it. "In the first couple weeks, as you're adjusting to a lack of sleep, you're not really in your best frame of mind for being professionally attuned," she says. That's why it's important to plan for at least two to three weeks of a "blackout" period.
Then stay in touch. Checking in at least once a week or once every two weeks can make it easier to return to work once maternity leave is over. Friedman recommends keeping track of key projects and clients, at least occasionally. "Get as many updates as you can, so people know you're coming back and you're up to speed," she says.
[See also: Companies Aren't Giving Women What They Want.]
Find good child care. While you're on maternity leave, it's wise to get your child-care situation sorted out. It can take six months of researching daycare facilities and interviewing nannies to find the right one, so Friedman recommends starting early. Working moms (and dads) who aren't 100 percent comfortable with their child-care arrangements have a hard time focusing when they're back at work.
Once you're back at work, show that you're still the same person. Working moms confront a lot of stereotypes, including the notion that they'd rather be at home with their children or they aren't as on top of things as they used to be. "Meet with your boss, and make it clear you want to be there," suggests Friedman. "Everyone is going to be looking at you really closely, consciously or unconsciously, to see if you're the same person you were before you left to have a baby," she says. That means you don't want to be the person who shows off dozens of baby photos and talks about child care and your baby too frequently.
Help others. "If somebody else gets pregnant, help them through the process," says Friedman. Supporting other women makes for a more family-friendly work environment.