We’re bringing you articles about maternity leave all week — covering everything from current policies (or lack thereof) to personal stories and solutions that may be crazy enough to work. #matleaveweek
You can spend hours researching cribs, breastfeeding methods, and sleep training tips. But no matter how much prep work you do, nothing can truly brace you for what it’s like to be a new mother. And one of the trickiest things to figure out — especially for career-driven moms-to-be — is maternity leave.
Assuming you can even get it, how much time should you take off? How frequently should you check in with the office during your absence? Is it better to jump back into work full-time afterwards, or set up a more gradual transition?
Here, six successful women with very different maternity leave experiences share their stories — some traditional, some out of the box.
Laurie Green, 32, Executive Director of Communications for the Palm Beach Show Group, Jupiter, FL
I was extremely nervous to drop the I’m-having-a-baby bomb on my boss. I work for a small business, and they’d never had an employee go on maternity leave before, so I was entering uncharted territory. I did a lot of careful research beforehand and developed a proposal suggesting six weeks of unpaid short-term disability leave. It seemed fair to me, but I honestly didn’t know how it would go over, or if I’d even have a job to return to after my baby was born.
Luckily, it turned out I had nothing to worry about. My boss put me completely at ease, and asked me if there was anything else he could do — so I proposed an additional four weeks of paid leave. He agreed, and even suggested that I bring the baby into the office with me when I was ready to come back, to make the transition easier.
After the 10 weeks were up, I felt ready to dive into work again, knowing that I would be able to have my daughter at my side when I returned. To my surprise, upon arrival, I found my office equipped with a brand-new Pack ’N Play that had an attached changing table and sound machine!
During my first week back, I brought my little girl into work two days and worked from home the other three. The next week, I came in with her for three days. While I loved having her with me, I wasn’t as productive as I wanted to be, and in front of my coworkers I felt a lot of pressure to put 100 percent into being a good mother and 100 percent into work. So after that, my mother-in-law watched her at home twice a week, and I’d go to the office on my own. She’s now 14 weeks old and about to start day care full-time.
I am so grateful to my boss for his understanding and progressiveness. Many friends of mine who’ve gone on maternity leave were resentful that they had to go back to work before they were ready, or else decided not to return at all because they didn’t feel appreciated. But I was actually motivated to work harder than ever after having a baby because I knew how much my company valued me.
Genna Rosenberg, 41, Owner of GennComm, Los Angeles
When my first child was born, I was SVP of communications and investor relations at a large, publicly traded toy company. The standard maternity leave policy was six weeks of paid leave, but because of my role and tenure, I was able to negotiate for three months, with the understanding that I would be working to some extent.
In my position, I handled all the PR for the firm, as well as media and investor relations. My plan was to facilitate our big conference call about our quarterly earnings and then go on maternity leave. But the Friday before the call, I found out that I’d have to be induced the following Monday — two weeks early. The call was scheduled for Tuesday, so I did the final prep work over the weekend and then told my family and my boss that as long as everything went well with the delivery, I still wanted to mediate the call.
My husband thought I was nuts, but even though I love being a mother and I know it’s the most important job I’ll have in my lifetime, it’s also important for me to honor my commitment to my career. So less than 24 hours post-labor, my husband wheeled the baby into the hallway, and I did my thing.
After the call, my boss thanked me and asked me to let him know how the callbacks with our company’s research analysts went. Well, I told him I wasn’t doing callbacks — I was going to focus on my baby. But since that experience I think they respected me more for having seen the project through. In fact, the CFO called me soon afterwards to give me my annual bonus, which was the largest I had ever received.
I felt good about the length of my absence, although I do remember my first day back at work, sitting in my car and crying because I was so sad to leave my daughter. I’d built such a strong connection with her and it wasn’t easy to go back to work, but I love what I do and knew it was time. I also felt confident about the child care I had in place, which helped.
When my second child came along, I had just started my own agency. Twenty weeks into the pregnancy, I found out that my unborn son had congenital heart disease, so in order to save his life my entire family uprooted and moved from L.A. to Boston to be close to Boston Children’s Hospital, which had the technology and experience to treat him.
Since there was a lot of uncertainty about my son’s health condition, I didn’t have a formal maternity leave plan in place. We spent the first month after his birth in Boston, mainly in the hospital. It was very hard to get much done there, but we brought in our laptops and worked while he slept. I didn’t take home a paycheck during this time — or for the first two and a half years as business owners, since we wanted to build up the company and had savings from my last job to draw from.
It wasn’t an easy situation, but I’m fortunate to have an incredible support network, both personal and professional. My parents and in-laws live nearby, so they helped us at home, and we have a wonderful nanny who has been with our family for six years now. My team at work is amazing — everyone was so understanding and put in extra effort to keep things running smoothly. All in all, I landed a total of four new clients while on bed rest and shortly after the baby was born, and I felt proud of that.
Once my son was around four months old, I went back full-time. Although I do wish I could have been even more focused on him and not had to think about work at all, I care about my business. Luckily, he is doing well, and so is our company — the year after his birth was our biggest to date, and our revenues almost doubled.
Stephanie Dressler, 33, Vice President at Dukas Public Relations, San Diego
I am the only female senior executive at my firm. Although my company has a maternity leave policy, which is based on length of employment, I was actually the first person ever to take advantage of it!
I combined my allotted maternity leave with some vacation and sick time and took a total of eight weeks of paid time off, which was the perfect length for me. It was an amazing experience to spend those two months with my daughter. Thankfully, because my employer is a smaller business, they were able to be extremely flexible with me. I unplugged a lot and my daily responsibilities were delegated to others.
That said, it was extremely difficult for me to disconnect. Aside from my honeymoon, I hadn't taken more than two weeks off since I entered the workforce more than a decade ago. I’m a very hands-on manager, so at least three times during my leave I prepped and called in to major strategy conference calls for various clients.
I also checked my emails, but I limited it to just once a day or every other day. I'm the person who was checking and responding to emails throughout my wedding week and honeymoon. (I think it's difficult for women in leadership positions to completely detach for months.) One thing that helped immensely is that I programmed my phone so that it wouldn’t alert me every time I had a new email.
Ultimately, being in touch occasionally really helped me stay sane while also keeping me up to speed on accounts and letting my clients know I was there for them and only gone temporarily. It definitely helped ease my transition back to full-time.
Michelle Black, 34, Credit Expert and Co-Owner of Hope4USA, Charlotte, NC
Although I became pregnant very quickly, my husband, Donald, and I sadly lost the baby due to a miscarriage. We were devastated, but after a time we decided to try again.
Getting pregnant was not so easy the second time around. We tried for over a year and a half without success. My doctor suggested in vitro fertilization, but after careful consideration we concluded that it simply wasn’t right for us. Instead, we decided to adopt — and it was then that our first miracle occurred. Before we even met with an agency, a local woman who was six months pregnant with a little boy found out about our situation through a friend at our church.
She had been working with adoption agencies to find a home for her son, and we talked on the phone for over an hour. At the end of our conversation, she said, “This is why I have not yet been able to pick a family to adopt my baby. He is meant to be with you and your husband. You are meant to be his family.”
The following week, Donald and I attended an ultrasound appointment with her. Once we saw our son and heard his little heart beat in his birth mother's womb, we immediately fell in love. We met with attorneys and social workers, had background checks done, and began preparing our home for our soon-to-arrive baby boy.
The day before our son, Nate, was born, I came down with the flu — or so I thought. I visited the doctor to get a prescription (not wanting to get the new baby sick), but it turned out that I was pregnant! Our second baby, Gaby, was born just eight months later.
After Nate’s birth, I was able to take three weeks of paid maternity leave. It certainly was shorter than I would have liked, but when you have a company to run it can be very difficult to step away for a long period of time — especially considering that the income of our entire family depended upon the success of our business.
Even during my maternity leave, I checked in with my employees periodically and continued to manage the business remotely. I had planned to have a family member provide full-time care for Nate when I went back to work. But I hadn’t realized how hard it would be to leave him, and I just wasn’t ready to separate that soon.
We had an empty office in the building, so I put a crib, bouncy chair, and changing table in there, and my son accompanied me to work until he was four months old. My mom came in every other day to help, and when she wasn’t there, my husband would cover for me if I had to be in a meeting. Nate slept a lot during the day, so it worked out well. Once he got a bit older and more active, we went ahead with our original child care plan.
When Gaby was born things were a little complicated because two key employees quit shortly before her due date. I could take only a two-week maternity leave. Thankfully, I was able to bring her to work with me for another four months. Because I was nursing, having her there was demanding, so my mom came in more often.
While I would have loved to unplug completely and spend more exclusive time (ideally at least 60 days!) disconnected from the rest of the world with my new bundles of joy, I also know how incredibly blessed I was to have been able to take them into the office in the first place.
Deborah Sweeney, 40, Attorney and Owner of MyCorporation, Calabasas, CA
When I went on maternity leave, I was the general manager of the company I would eventually buy. I took about six weeks off — two weeks of paid maternity leave, plus four weeks of unpaid disability. I hadn’t specified a return date in advance (my boss agreed to give me flexibility about that), but I ended up having a C-section, which can take between six to eight weeks to recover from.
I was fortunate to have a ton of family support — my husband, mom, etc. — who pitched in with child care while our kids were young. Between all of us we juggled work, our babies, and our sanity!
While my employer had a policy to limit connectivity for new moms (they discourage employees from contacting women on maternity leave), I was determined to remain in touch. I retained email access and was able to stay on top of any issues. In fact, because I’m very close to my work friends, I called the office when I was in the delivery room to let everyone know the news.
My goal was to remain in tune with what was going on, and I’m glad I did. The notion of going back to work after being totally MIA for so long was daunting to me. At one point my employer even jokingly threatened to shut off my email — but honestly, I felt like I was just sitting around a lot while the baby was sleeping or nursing. Working kept me feeling useful. I enjoy what I do.
When I did start working again, I transitioned gradually. I went in three and a half days a week for the first few months. When I wasn’t physically in the office, I’d commit to spending a couple of hours in dial-in meetings, and otherwise I worked while my kids napped or after they went to bed. My company was so good to me — they even put a curtain on my window and a lock on my door so that I would feel comfortable enough to pump. I felt completely supported, and in return I wanted to give them my all.
Ultimately, I was able to acquire the business from its parent company, and to this day I focus on building a strong, family-based work environment for my team, such as letting parents leave early to pick their kids up from school. My two boys are now nine and 10, and I find it even more important to have flexibility to be with them than when they were newborns. I value my employees so deeply, and if their heads are elsewhere, it’s not good for anybody. It makes business sense to work with them to keep them happy.
Jody Vandergriff, 39, CEO of WebDAM, San Francisco
I have two kids, ages five and two. My maternity leave with my son coincided with the depths of the recession, in 2009. I took two months of unpaid time off and used it as an opportunity to step away from the day-to-day business operations and think strategically about our long-term plans as a company.
Stepping out of the office gave me a chance to clear my head, which wasn’t possible on a daily basis when dealing with clients, making calls, and going to meetings. I found that the longer I was away, the more the ideas started flowing.
I realized we needed to completely pivot. I spent the rest of my absence planning big-picture changes: reworking our product strategy, tweaking our pricing, and researching our audience base. It was a huge success, and our business has doubled year over year since then.
A month into my leave, I hired a nanny but continued working from home so I could nurse. At the two-month mark, I started going into the office a few days a week and then staying home the other two days, which got me comfortable with the idea of someone else caring for him. When my son was four months old, I was back full-time with a typical schedule.
I had my daughter three years later. I planned to take off two months unpaid again. But when Ava was 10 days old, I brought her into the office to introduce her to everybody — and basically never left!
Being back at work was so energizing to me, and I realized then that I couldn’t unplug for months. I know that a lot of women need to rest because it can be difficult and draining to work and care for a newborn simultaneously. But Ava was an amazing sleeper — honestly, I got bored sitting at home while she napped.
After that, I started going into work with her nearly every day. We had just expanded, so there was a spare office that I set up as a nursery, and I hired a nanny. I was able to nurse Ava, which was really important to me. I felt connected with her while also being involved in the business.
Once Ava turned two months old, the nanny gradually transitioned to watching her at home more and more often. By three months, she was very active and alert and stopped coming in with me altogether. She started daycare at five months old.
Becoming a mother while running a business was definitely an internal struggle, and there were competing forces pulling me in different directions. Part of me wishes I could spend every moment with my kids, while another part would love to devote all my time to my company. As an entrepreneur, my job isn’t just a job — it’s a lifestyle, a hobby, everything.
After my son’s birth, I did a lot of soul searching about how to manage the work-life balance: overseeing my company while also getting involved in mom groups and play dates, and coming home at 5 pm. I eventually had an epiphany that I had to stop trying to do it all, and that being a traditional mother wasn’t the path for me.
Instead of striving to balance my work life and my home life, I chose to integrate them. I’ll answer emails during vacations and weekends, but I’ll also bring my kids to work, such as when we have a big pizza party for a new product release. My job is my passion, and unplugging just wasn’t an option for me.
More On Maternity Leave:
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These Fortune 500 Companies Make Millions — But Won’t Pay for Your Maternity Leave