Seven Tips for Navigating Parental Leave

Updated: Jul 19

Transitioning in and out of parental leave periods is a challenge for any parent. We are currently in what I like to call an "employees market" where, in most industries, the workforce has the upper hand in terms of negotiating pay, benefits, etc. If you are an employer looking to step up your game in the parental leave department, on behalf of soon-to-be-parents everywhere, we thank you. Be sure to check out the Marshal Plan for Moms "Playbook" which contains a data-driven, multi-pronged approach to caring adequately and equitably for the parents on your staff.


If you are thinking of becoming a parent for the first time, the fifth time, or if you are currently navigating a parental leave journey of any scope, this post is for you.


Note: This article was largely composed prior to the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe V. Wade on June 24, 2022. I do not go into the depths of how American society has it all wrong when it comes to women's rights and support for parents and young children.


I am not one to push the "enjoy those newborn cuddles" narrative and will save where I think society has it all wrong for another post. I write this largely from my perspective as an American, married, hetero, cis, birth mother of two under two. I've both paid for my leave and enjoyed a paid leave period, and am currently preparing for my second transition back to the office. With help from my husband, my toddler is home from daycare, everyone is fed, both kids are in bed, the dog is walked and I have a couple of hours to sit and write. I write this while I pump and listen to my two month old on the monitor, praying she doesn't wake up and yes, refusing to catch up on months of missed sleep instead.


I often refer to "mama" in this post and while I hope to capture the perspective of parents as a whole, I also recognize there are a host of challenges out there that I do not have the experience to speak to, like, how same-sex couples and adopting parents must navigate this space differently, how transgender men and some non-binary parents are perceived by their employers (as "mothers" or otherwise), or strategies about returning to work after staying home for several years.


No matter where you fit into the space of "parent", the following tips will no doubt give you a few tools to add to your toolbox when it comes to navigating parental leave:


  • ONE. Know your employer's policies.

Ideally when you are in the family planning stages, both you and your partner should get an understanding of the paid leave benefits you are both offered and ask questions. Something I learned too late with my first pregnancy is that Short Term Disability is not the same thing as parental leave however, it can be used to supplement PTO and unpaid time off. Knowing what you are working with will help you plan (and if needed, budget) for your upcoming leave period.


Note that it is common for employers to offer a more lucrative maternity leave policy than paternity leave. More progressive companies expand on this to be a more inclusive, parental leave policy and specify any differences in benefits for birthing parents and non-birthing parents.

"...Short Term Disability is not the same thing as parental leave however, it can be used to supplement PTO and unpaid time off."
  • TWO. Know your rights.

In the United States, we have something called FMLA or, the Family Medical Leave Act which protects approximately half of US workers with the right to take unpaid time off for qualified medical reasons (like the birth of a child). Many states and organizations offer an expanded version of medical leave - both paid, unpaid or a combination - and in most cases, employees need to be with their employer for at least 12 months in order to qualify for the benefit.


In addition, it is important to have a high-level understanding of employment rights. For instance, something that is not common knowledge is that employers must guarantee the same, or an equivalent, role upon an employee's return from leave. Firms like Delvaux Law, publish fantastic, easy to understand content to help educate parents on employment rights.


Remember that it is in your employer's best interest to ensure they are adhering to the appropriate laws and regulations and it is in the best interest of your health and your family to ensure they do so, when something is unclear, do not be afraid to ask.

  • THREE. Plan in advance.

Once you have an idea of your benefits and your rights, sit down with your partner to decide on the preferred plan for leave as well as what you can afford. Take note that when both parents take leave, it is proven to strengthen the relationship of the family, and reduce postpartum depression, among plenty of other benefits.


**A message to men and non-birthing parents: U.S. women and mothers need you in the fight for paid leave for all. Please consider taking as much leave as you can - not only for the health of your family but to help us break out of current, societal norms.**

"Take note that when both parents take leave, it is proven to strengthen the relationship of the family, and reduce postpartum depression, among plenty of other benefits."
  • FOUR. Communicate with your boss.

As early as you are comfortable, let your immediate manager know you are expecting. This may be before you are comfortable telling family and friends, especially if you need time off for those initial sonograms and other first trimester appointments.


For most organizations you'll want to confirm your plan for time off at least 30 days prior to the expected delivery date. Similarly, it is also a good idea to check-in about halfway through the leave period to confirm or adjust the plan accordingly.


Some organizations offer ramp up programs to help employees get acclimated back into the workforce after a leave period. If yours does not offer this, consider creating your own. One option is by using the available leave or PTO time to start back slowly. Lots of people recommend starting back to work mid-week which is also a solid goal to include in the strategy.

  • FIVE. Communicate with your partner.

Particularly for the birthing parent, the pregnancy and postpartum periods can be a whip, physically, mentally and emotionally. Just like you work with your partner to set the plan of attack, be sure to provide a temperature check regularly as well. For some of us, this is easier said than done - consider asking your partner in advance to instigate the check-ins.


Depending on your relationship and current family structure, consider proactively redistributing some household responsibilities. For example, maybe you typically take the lead on grocery shopping and Sunday meal prep for your family, but it would be better for your partner to take that on for the next few months. If you're not sure where to start, Fair Play has a list of typical household responsibilities that can be downloaded or purchased, playing card style - you may be surprised just how much "invisible work" goes into managing a household.

  • SIX. (Breastfeeding and pumping mamas) Build up your stash.

Listen up, FED is best. I've breastfed, pumped, formula fed and every combination of the three there is and I'm here to tell you, the right way to feed your child is the way that works for BOTH of you. For the breastfeeding and pumping mamas out there, it is a must to get used to your pump, and baby used to taking a bottle, prior to your return to work.


For starters, most insurance plans will provide you with a new, hospital-grade breast pump for free, with your provider's consent. I loved having mine as a back-up and urge all working, pumping, mamas to consider splurging on a handsfree pump like the Willow or the Elvie.

"For the breastfeeding and pumping mamas out there, it is a must to get used to your pump, and baby used to taking a bottle, prior to your return to work."

Whichever pump you choose, be sure to have different flange sizes and back up parts on hand as you'll want to change them out frequently (every 3-4 months) to ensure the best possible pumping outcomes.


Note: If you decide to purchase an Elvie Pump or Elvie Trainer, enter "Nicole Ellis" at checkout for $25 off your purchase.

  • SEVEN. Check-in with yourself early and often.

This is a great to time to make time to reflect on your prior identity, embark on some goal setting (SWOT Analysis, anyone?), listen to a book, subscribe to a new podcast, and start easing back into a workout or other important self-care routines.


Give yourself and your partner grace during this incredibly challenging time and know that everything is a phase. Just as soon as you start getting used to things, they will inevitably shift - the bittersweet joy of parenthood.


As my current leave period comes to a close and I prepare to return to work, I reflect on the past 9-weeks and think ahead to how I want to feel after 3 more - energized, excited and confident about the next chapter.


Thank you for reading and as always, I would love to hear your thoughts and feedback in the comments.

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