Planning maternity leave: lump sum or gradual payout?
April 11, 2012 8:24 AM   Subscribe

Maternity leave: did you space yours out over a year (if your place of employment offers that option)? How did it go? Did you regret not taking it all up front, or were there real hidden benefits?

I'm trying to strategize my (generous) maternity leave and would love your opinions if you've been through this.

Technically, I can take 6 weeks recovery immediately following the birth (if I end up with a C-section it's 8 weeks) followed by 4 months of parental leave in the year after the birth.

My initial plan was simply to take my 6 weeks recovery followed immediately by 3.5 months full leave, about 2 weeks of work for a grant that has to go in at that time, then the remainder of my leave. (This will all begin mid-July so Christmas/New Years is theoretically in play, too, when we'll be visiting family across the country.)

My partner suggests I might want to space out my 4 months leave a bit more in order to enjoy time with the baby once she's a bit older and less sleep/eat/poop only.

I technically have a full year to take the 4 months off, which can be broken up. I've never known anyone who's done this, however, and while it seems like a nice idea, part of me is stuck on "MUST TAKE ALL LEAVE AT ONCE."

Do you have any experience with this? Did you take an extended/broken up leave in the first year of baby's life? Did you want to but couldn't? Advantages? Disadvantages?

Any thoughts appreciated, I'm really struggling with this (oh, and this is my first and only baby!).
posted by tristeza to Grab Bag (18 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I don't have any direct experience with this, but a few things to think about: Starting and stopping work can be really hard - if you take off more than a few days here and there, it will be really hard to get your groove back (and every time you leave and come back, your baby's schedule will get messed up). However, I would leave extra time to take a day here and there for doctors appointments, and special days - if you could arrange it so you only worked 4 days a week for a few months you could maintain a schedule but still have extra kid time.
posted by fermezporte at 8:32 AM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Not sure it's an option to get that granular, but my wife split up the last month of her leave so that she spent two months working 2.5 days a week. That worked great for us. The kid was eased into daycare 3 days a week and my wife had a half day of downtime to herself. One of the days she was off work she would knock out a couple of tasks she could do with the baby, like grocery shopping, that used to be weekend jobs, so I got to spend more off my leisure time with the kid too.
posted by IanMorr at 8:33 AM on April 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

Not sure it's an option to get that granular...

Thank you, I should have made this clearer - yes, this IS an option for me, I can really granulate the crap out of it, assuming my (ultra great, worked with her for 15 years boss) approves which I have no reason to believe she wouldn't.
posted by tristeza at 8:41 AM on April 11, 2012

Breastfeeding isn't typically established until 6 weeks, and that is on average. For some mother-baby dyads, it can take longer. There's also the sleep factor. Some babies, like my daughter, sleep practically through the night from birth. Some babies, like my son, don't sleep for close to a year.

If you don't need to commit to how you want to divide your maternity leave for awhile, maybe see how things are with the baby during your 6-8 weeks off and then decide once the baby is here what you want to do.

For what it's worth, I took the standard US 12 weeks of FMLA which for me was also short term disability. My employer closes for the week between Christmas and New Years and that is holiday pay for us. I was supposed to return to work on December 5th, but asked my boss if I could return on January 3rd and use vacation time for those three weeks. He was fine with that, and so that's what I did. And it's a good thing I did because it was about that time that our care provider believed my daughter was having weight gain issues so it gave me nearly an extra month to sort things out with an LC and, as it would turn out, we just have a small baby. But if I had returned to work earlier, I likely would have been in the pitfall of thinking I had supply issues when in fact I had a baby who just doesn't gain a ton of weight all at once.

So, to me, it was worth it to have those extra weeks immediately after my leave, but I didn't know that I would need them as much as I did until we had an issue that made it easier to have that time off both on me emotionally and physically.

I think that maybe you should consider taking 12 - 20 weeks off in one go because it can make such a difference in breastfeeding and sleep for both you and the baby and then decide the rest sometime during your leave.
posted by zizzle at 8:53 AM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

I didn't have a lot of maternity leave (I went back full-time when my son was 9.5 weeks) but if I had the choice I would have worked part-time for a while. The thing is, if you're breastfeeding, you really need most of your togetherness to happen at the start, or you'll spend a lot of time pumping and washing pump parts. When I went back to work, I was pumping four times a DAY -- this gradually went to three, then two, then one over the next ten months but you probably want to take feeding plans into consideration when you're planning this.

If I had been able to work part-time for a while, so that I could minimize long stretches away from my baby when he was very little and not on solids yet, I totally would have done that. Maybe take two months off entirely, and then work half-time for the next four?
posted by rabbitrabbit at 8:58 AM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have to say that 4 months won't seem like as much as you think, mostly in terms of recovering. I took 6 months, and found that at 3 I was just starting to be capable of complex mental tasks again (and I had odd lapses, like not recognizing a social acquaintance when I ran into him in a business meeting context). Not only does it take a couple months for your body to recover from childbirth (of whatever kind), but then there's 1-2 months of chronic sleep deprivation, and the disorientation of reshaping your life around this overwhelming new component. Some people seem to bounce right back and seem all competent and functional at 2-3 months, but lots of people are basically sleepwalking through the first couple of months back at work, which is a drag.

My recommendation would be to take at least 12-14 weeks of continuous time at home (combining your automatic and additional leave) and then try coming back half time for the remainder of your leave time -- that will let you sort of ease back in, make the childcare problem less pressing, and give you a good mix of fun-baby time and relieved-adult time. If your workplace is flexible, you might just tell them that you'll have to see after a few weeks of half time, and then you can either raise or lower your work hours, depending on how you find yourself coping with the two halves of your life (and/or the crazed race from one to the other).

I loved being home for 6 months, although my survival was also highly dependent on finding a bunch of other moms to connect with. (Those days at home with a low-function baby can get long long long.) After that I went back to work in stages, and my spouse also took at least one day per week at home solo for much of the first 2 years, for reasons both of childcare coverage and to be equally connected with the experience of parenting and our child's changing nature. Does your partner have any parental leave to throw into the mix after month 3, at least?

Good luck! Nothing will be much like you expect, at any stage. :))
posted by acm at 9:16 AM on April 11, 2012

My husband broke up his paternity leave into one-day-per-week for the first year and it worked out wonderfully. We've actually kept it going the last few months by both taking half-days, and I've been enjoying that time a lot too.

Save a couple of weeks of time for the baby's inevitable illnesses.

You may want to look into your options with whatever you're planning for daycare; the place we go to is full enough right now that they wouldn't be able to take a child, have them leave, then come back, without paying for day care *while the child's not there* (there are people who leave for the summer and pay for the nonexistent childcare all summer, just to have a spot when they get back). So your back-to-work-then-out-again plan may not easily work with daycare.

I also did what IanMorr describes with my own maternity leave (past the 8 recovery weeks) and that was really useful too. I had a hell of a time with the newborn phase, and I LOVED being able to go back to work early and part time. LOVED. Give some thought as to what baby ages you really enjoy in that first year--some people love that early phase that I found so claustrophobic.

So that's one advantage of doing it all at once--enjoying the squish during the squishy phase. The other advantage, as mentioned upthread, is nursing, because pumping is kind of a pain in the butt and ideally everything is working well at the point that you start working.

One other disadvantage to doing a temporary part-time arrangement--my husband and I both found that the workload expectations were greater than the %time we were technically taking.
posted by tchemgrrl at 9:16 AM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

I took my full 16 weeks of leave right after the baby was born and I definitely would not have wanted to go back to work or leave the baby with anyone else before that time. After that, my boyfriend took 3 weeks off from work, and then the rest of his time off was spread over the next couple months. I was lucky enough to have a boss who let me work from home two days/week once I returned I from my maternity leave, and I was happy with that schedule. If you don't have the option of working from home, then using the rest of your leave to take a few days off a week might be a good plan. I will say though that breastfeeding dwindled down to once or twice a day once I returned to work.
In your shoes, one of my biggest considerations would be who was watching the baby once I returned to work. I had my in-laws watching him, so I knew he was with someone awesome who loved him and knew what they were doing. If I had to take him to a daycare center or someone I didn't know and trust as well, I'm not sure what I would have done because I definitely wouldn't have been ready for that by four or five months.
posted by logic vs love at 9:19 AM on April 11, 2012

God, I'm ALREADY cognitively impaired by this - should ALSO have noted my partner will be a full time SAHD beginning at birth.

Excellent, thought-provoking answers so far, thanks so much.
posted by tristeza at 9:20 AM on April 11, 2012

Oh, in that case, yes! Spread out your time! One-year-olds are about a thousand times more fun to hang around with than one-month-olds.
posted by logic vs love at 9:29 AM on April 11, 2012 [3 favorites]

I took 5 months off with my first (8 weeks disability, plus however much the CA FMLA is, then took PTO for the rest). With my second I was low on PTO so I only stretched it out to 4 months and a bit.

I definitely think that you need a good long block of 3 months at the start, just to cope with the nursing, sleep deprivation, bonding etc. Being able to completely forget about work and concentrate on your baby and yourself is priceless too!

Switching to part-time at the end would be pretty nice if possible, so I think that sounds like a plan.
posted by Joh at 9:36 AM on April 11, 2012

Breastfeeding is the big thing, especially if you'll be exclusively breastfeeding at night--that will limit the amount of night parenting your partner can do and significantly lower your cognitive function when the baby is smaller.
posted by the young rope-rider at 9:47 AM on April 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

As a full-time stay-at-home parent of a 5-month-old, I think spreading it out is the way to go. For your sake, I guess, but mostly I'm answering for your partner. The transition to staying at home is kind of fraught anyway, and jumping into 5-days-a-week with a premobile, just-smiling, can't-play-much baby -- well, it's brutal. And I've mostly kept my mood up, am here by choice, have an easy baby, etc. If I could have started out at 3 months with being at home alone for only MWF? Would have been a godsend.

Oh, and I was okay being away from the baby for 7ish hours (pumping during the time away) at 6 weeks. (Not that I had a ton of opportunity to do so.)
posted by purpleclover at 10:12 AM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

With both my kids, I took 6 weeks off completely & then worked 1/2 time for the next 12 weeks. I think it helped both me & the kids to be able to ease back into me being back at work, and I liked being able to spend more time with them as they got more interactive.
posted by belladonna at 10:18 AM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

I would definitely say to check out some part-time options. I did twelve weeks at home (unpaid), and while it was great, jumping right back into full-time was pretty miserable. But if you did the twelve weeks, that would leave you with another five months at half-time, for example. You could even start with one day a week, then two, etc.
posted by woodvine at 11:16 AM on April 11, 2012

I agree on 3 months at the start.

Where is your family? Many of my colleagues saved the leftover maternity/paternity leave for a 4 week trip to visit far flung family (eg USA->India), often over the holidays.
posted by crazycanuck at 12:29 PM on April 11, 2012

My wife was only able to take of 6 weeks with our little guy. There was a lot to get used to in terms of being parents and what to expect in the range of "normal" for a newborn, but my wife seemed to survive. I stayed another two weeks, and we were lucky enough to have my wife's parents stay with us as live-in babysitters.

Our little guy is now 7.5 months old, and he's more of a little person than a goo baby, responding to smiles and sounds, playing with people and things, and almost crawling. The first months were about keeping him going, making sure he ate enough and didn't oversleep. We had a lactation consultant and my wife went to breastfeeding classes, which were great, but 6 weeks was enough to get that all sorted out for our little guy.

Depending on your work obligations and workloads, I agree with others on spreading out your maternity leave throughout the year, especially with your husband as SAHD. Also, if you stay at home more with him, he'll get more breaks and it'll lighten his load. Being a solo caretaker of a less-than-1 year old can be a handful.
posted by filthy light thief at 1:20 PM on April 11, 2012

None of us know how your birth, recovery and baby will be doing - so you will have to play it out and see how it goes. I went back to work part time at 3 weeks after the birth (about 15 hours a week) and then went part time (30 hours a week) at 3 months for the rest of the year (more hours certain weeks and less others depending on demands). My partner was the other primary care taker and it helpful and supportive for everyone. Congrats.
posted by mutt.cyberspace at 2:53 PM on April 14, 2012

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