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The Modern Guide to Parental Leave



When you discover that you're expecting a new child, it's much more exciting to spend time prepping baby names and nurseries than the logistics of your office parental leave policy. But even as companies such as Google and Netflix have made headlines in recent years for radical changes expanding paid parental leave, for many Americans, time away to raise a new child is still only a luxury.


Only 12 percent of workers in the private sector have access to paid family leave from their employer, according to the Department of Labor. Both women and men feel they face professional disadvantages in putting their families first. For a new generation of expecting parents, many don't know what questions need to be asked when preparing the next step for their family. Here are some tactics for approaching parental leave in the modern workplace.


1. Know the baseline policies.


There's a lot to cover before planning to become a parent – here are the nitty-gritty details you need to know about as you prepare to welcome a new child into your life.


What parental leave protections are guaranteed by law?


The U.S. lags far behind most other developed countries when it comes to paid parental leave, but federal and state laws do mandate some employment protections for new parents. The Family and Medical Leave Act provides up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for employees welcoming a new child, but only if they meet certain conditions.


The glaring shortcomings of this are that there's no compensation and it doesn't apply to everyone. Employees can only receive this protection if they have worked at the company for a year, if they have worked at least 1,250 hours in that year and if the company has at least 50 employees who work within 75 miles of the business. States haven't done much to ease the burden for parents either, leaving new parents to rely on short disability, sick leave or vacation time or the generosity of employer benefits to supplement their income while away from the office.


What benefits are offered through your employer?


Aside from what you are legally guaranteed, the most important question you need to know before planning out your family leave is the type of benefits your employer will offer. There really is no set standard, but human resources can provide a detailed rundown of your options to give you a better understanding as you look at how many weeks you plan to be away and more.

As beneficial as it would be, employers are not usually willing to negotiate family leave benefits. It's not necessarily that they don't want to, but rather that it creates an unfair work environment where one employee may receive preferential benefits over another. That said, many expecting parents work within what their employer offers to create a custom plan, which may include provisions like flexible work hours, job-sharing or telecommuting.


What is the company culture around parental leave?


Figuring out how your employer really feels about time away from the office to raise a child may require a more tactful approach. Even companies with awesome policies on paper have had horror stories involving parents who faced bullying or betrayal when returning to work. As egregious as it sounds, some businesses have denied parents important projects, rearranged their teams or even restructured their role altogether.


These might be extreme examples, but in order to find out for sure, you need to do some digging. One way to get past the company lines is to ask trusted co-workers who are also parents. Every person and situation is different, but chatting with a colleague may give you unfettered insight into how the family leave process actually plays out. If you're looking at joining a new company, you can subtly pick up cues about the culture by using tools such as Glassdoor, or asking a thoughtful follow-up question when an interviewer mentions his or her children.


2. Decide how (and when) to tell your boss.


There is no perfect formula for when to let you boss know you're expecting, but it is important they hear it from you first (so be careful about telling a friendly colleague first). Set aside a formal meeting, don't just simply break the news in passing in the kitchen or on the elevator. Prepare a script of the details you want to share and be deliberate about addressing how much time you plan to take away.


It isn't necessary to let your boss know your entire life plan – and you certainly don't need to let him or her know before anything is confirmed – but it is helpful to provide some advance notice. For most employers, six months is more than enough time to come up with a plan of action for when you are gone.


3. Figure out when (if ever) to head back to work.


In the era of hyper job hopping, companies are more cognizant than ever about retaining great workers. With that in mind, businesses are thinking about parental leave benefits as a way to attract and hold onto star talent.


You might be tempted to deviate from your plan and jump back into work early, offering to telecommute, but that isn't necessary. Employers allot you so much family leave time for a reason, and want you to take the time you need to come back ready to work (as opposed to playing the balance game with a new child). Some businesses are also experimenting with flexible hours and new part-time programs that slowly reintroduce employees back into the office to help parents have a healthy transition back into working life.


While every company has unique policies when it comes to family leave, you should feel comfortable taking the time and compensation you are allotted (if you don't, ask yourself why). But when it comes to something as important as having a family, you shouldn't let a subpar company policy dictate how much time you spend with your new child. There aren't many greater joys in life than welcoming a new member to your family, so don't stress about work and enjoy those important early moments.


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