Under FMLA (the U.S. federal law guaranteeing you 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave if you qualify), you can take your maternity leave at any time during your pregnancy or up to 1 year after the birth of your child. Yep, this means it’s a personal decision!
Of course, some of us work for companies where maternity leave or short-term disability starts after the birth of a child. In these cases, you may not have a choice unless your employer’s policy provides flexibility.
If you do have a choice about when to start maternity leave, what should you do? What do most women do?
While we don’t know of any definitive statistics about this topic, from what we’ve gathered, most women take a look at their estimated due date (that guesstimate from your doctor about when you’ll go into labor) and make a decision from there.
Unless you have pregnancy complications that require bed rest or your doctor tells you to take time off, many women we know decide to work up until their actual due date. Some women even go beyond their due date and continue going to work so long as they haven’t gone into labor. Others prefer to decompress from work and have a last week or two at home, getting physically and mentally ready for baby’s arrival.
Factors such as finances, whether this is your first child, whether you have a physically intense job, how you feel, whether you’re having twins, and of course, your personality, matter as well!
Since there’s no right answer about when to start your maternity leave, here are some personal anecdotes alongside the pros and cons of the 3 choices you have:
What the "work-until-birthers" say
On her water breaking at work: Luckily, I kept pads and a change of clothes in the car. My water didn't break in a huge gush though, so it was just on me, it didn't spill onto the floor or anything like that. I ended up getting an employee to go to my car to get my pads and clothes for me while I hung out in the bathroom. After I was cleaned up a bit, I drove myself to the hospital. I hadn't had any contractions though, so they sent me home.
I worked until day of delivery with all three of my pregnancies. It would certainly depend on what kind of work you do, but as a banker I was glad to work to help pass the time. And, I was motivated to have all my time off available after my baby was born.
- You are truly and literally maximizing the time you have for your maternity leave to bond with your baby and physically recover from childbirth,
- Financially, you are maximizing your earnings, particularly if your maternity leave is unpaid,
- And you can get a lot of stuff done at work while you’re waiting for baby to arrive.
- It can be stressful not knowing whether you will go into labor at the workplace or in a work environment,
- The last few days can be a bit nerve-wracking and you may be distracted, even if you’re at the office,
- And your manager and colleagues may also feel like it’s difficult to plan if your maternity leave start date is not set in stone.
What the "due date starters" say
"My last day at work was my due date. I went into labor the next day and didn't go in. I didn't want to lose a single day with my baby!"
My company sends people on maternity leave before their due date by policy. If you are looking for negotiating points for maternity leave, it’s beneficial to your company for you to have a set leave date (versus whenever you go into labor). This forces a transition plan for your work, ensuring you aren't emailing colleagues from the delivery room. It also avoids you going into labor at the office. (Of course this all assumes you don't go into labor extremely early).
- As Blue Bonnet describes, you’re giving your colleagues and team predictability in terms of when you start your leave. The due date may be a guesstimate, but at least it’s a clear date and helps you plan and negotiate.
- Setting your due date as your start of maternity leave can help you mentally and physically shut off work so you can prepare to have a baby under more peaceful and private circumstances.
- If your baby comes late, then you may feel like you’re wasting time you could have spent on maternity leave with your baby.
- You may feel like you’re leaving money on the table at work, particularly if your maternity leave is unpaid.
- If your baby comes before your due date, your plans and certainty go out the window and you still may end up going into labor at work or in a work environment.
What the "take-the-last-few-weeks-off" moms say
“I am a hairstylist so I am on my feet all day (part-time) but at 26 weeks and having scoliosis it's starting to tire me out after about 4 hours of work. So I am taking off at 29 weeks and going to play it by ear when or if i decide to go back. It seems like most people take off about 1-4 weeks before their due date but if you're feeling good then by all means keep going!”
“I had 5 weeks off before DD and it was bliss! I wasn't bored at all! It'll be the last free time you'll get for about 18 years, so make the most of it. Sleep whenever you feel like it (it was lovely to sleep in a pattern which suited me rather than be constrained by work), read the newspaper, read books, etc.”
"I thought I picked a good time to start mine... OH! How wrong I was. Here I am, bored and waiting for this little one to arrive, I feel like I could have been at work all this week!"
My baby surprised me by arriving 15 days early. I actually went into labor in a client meeting! I still had a full schedule of meetings and was not finished wrapping up important projects. Just know that you may go early and you should prepare for it — either by starting leave early, working from home or just being ready to go when the time comes.
- You can take time for self-care — something that will be harder after your baby arrives!
- You and your team have clarity about when you can mentally and physically shut off from work and can prepare to have a baby with more peace-of-mind.
- It becomes a lot less likely that you’ll go into labor or your water will break while you’re at work.
- We’ve heard a few moms say they regret going on maternity leave early because they felt anxious and bored, especially if their babies came late,
- And it’s hard to plan for the unplannable, which means you still may have the baby earlier than you think.