Working Parents

A Working Mother’s Guide to Maternity Leave in the U.S.

There is no question that having a baby requires a ton of preparation. As someone who can be annoyingly over-prepared, I did everything to be ready for my first baby’s arrival: Nursery? Check. Hospital registration forms? Completed, mailed, and verified receipt. Hospital bag? Packed and by the door. I thought I had it all figured out.

What I wasn’t prepared for was arriving home from the hospital dazed, in pain, overwhelmed, and being thrown into months long battles to ensure I received the benefits I deserved in the process. Because here’s the deal – if you work, want to take maternity leave, and can’t afford to live without pay – you have a lot work ahead of you.

After going through it twice in two years (I had two babies back to back), I couldn’t believe the piles of paperwork, documentation, and confusing questions I had to pour through in one of the most beautiful but also difficult periods in my life. So, in an effort to help other women in this position, here’s a guide to the major things women should consider when contemplating maternity leave in the United States.

Because here’s the deal – if you work, want to take maternity leave, and can’t afford to live without pay – you have a lot work ahead of you.

It’s important to note that most companies can be governed by federal or state law (or both), different laws apply to different kinds of employees, and companies have different parental leave policies. As such, this is meant to be a general guide (as I can’t actually cover everyone’s specific situation). I hope this will create a good starting point so women don’t have to start from scratch!

1. Understand The Benefits Available to You

There are ways to get financial assistance while on maternity leave. The first step to understanding how long you can take is understanding the benefit programs that apply to you. Here are a few main ones to consider:

Disability Programs

After child birth, a woman is considered to be temporarily disabled from the physical toll that childbirth takes on the body. As such, financial assistance through disability programs usually only apply to the child bearing parent. The amount of time you are considered disabled will depend on the type of delivery you have. For example, you may get six weeks of disability assistance for a vaginal birth or eight weeks for a c-section. Here are two main types of disability programs:

  • State Disability Programs. State disability is a program that should partially replace wages in the event an employee can’t work and earn money due to a disability. State disability programs usually include short term disability coverage for new mothers. Check your state for the applicable program to understand how to apply. In some states, you may have to put the claim through your company’s insurance – the insurance company that insures your company as a whole. This is a different insurance company than the health insurance you get individually through work.
  • Disability Insurance. If your company provides the option to pay extra for disability insurance, consider enrolling if you can. In order to get disability insurance you need to sign up during your company’s open enrollment period. Like many insurances, you have to fill out an extensive medical history. They will review any preexisting conditions and determine whether they want to insure you. Since pregnancy can be categorized as a preexisting condition, you may be denied access to this benefit if you are already pregnant. As such, having disability insurance established before you become pregnant is the best situation.
    • Tip: If accepted into disability insurance, you can renew your plan every year without going through a medical history check again. You will be given options to choose from, each of them costs slightly more each month as the percentage goes up. For example:
      • 40% of your pay during disability period
      • 50% of your pay during disability period
      • 60% of your pay during disability period

Note: If you enroll for 40% one year and decide to raise your insurance to 50% or 60% the next year, you may be required to go through a medical history check again and can be denied the raise in percentage if any preexisting conditions arise.

Any other medical complications that may arise that do not fall into vaginal or c-section categories may require sending updated forms from your doctor with the state disability and private disability insurance carrier.

  • Tip: Print multiple copies of forms as you may need your doctor fill them out many times.
  • Tip: If you go on leave prior to the child’s birth, make sure your doctor provides a qualifying medical reason. This is important because once you’ve been on leave for a non-medical reason for a certain period of time, you may not be considered employed and may lose eligibility for state disability.

Your Company’s Paid Parental Leave

In the U.S., there is no law that requires a company to provide paid parental leave of any kind. While the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) requires companies with 50+ employees provide 12 weeks of unpaid leave, it does not require paid leave. If the company is less than 50 employees, they are not federally required to provide any unpaid leave however many states have state laws that require smaller companies to provide unpaid leave for new parents. Because of this, certain companies will provide a paid parental leave program as a benefit to their employees. Check with your company to see if they have a paid parental leave program.

State Paid Family Leave Laws

In addition to disability benefits, some states provide bonding time with your child for a certain period of time. You can view a great comparative chart of paid family leave and medical leave here. It’s important to note that that some cities will have paid leave statutes that the state does not have so look at your city laws too. In addition, some paid leave policies will cover both parents, including adoptive and foster parents, while others may only cover child-bearing parents. Be sure to read closely to understand what applies to you.

  • For example: New York’s Paid Family Leave Act provides both parents bonding time for the first year of the child’s life. This bonding time can be used any time in the first year and does not have to be consecutive. You should review your state laws to see if your state has an act that applies to you.

2. Know the Order You Can Use These Benefits

The order you use support systems is super important because there are strict rules about not overlapping benefits. For example, I couldn’t be on disability and use my company’s paid parental leave benefit at the same time. There are exceptions to this rule, however. For me, I was able to overlap state disability and my disability insurance at the same time.

Because short term disability through the state is given to the mother during the time she is disabled from giving birth, you should activate your state disability and disability insurance benefits as soon as you can after giving birth because there may be a waiting period before the benefits begin to kick in. In some cases, if you encounter complications before you give birth and become disabled, you may be able to activate your state disability and disability insurance earlier.

Here is the order that I used my benefits:

  1. State Disability & Disability Insurance (used immediately after giving birth)
  2. My company’s paid Parental Leave Policy (used after disability ended)
  3. My State’s Paid Family Leave Act (used after disability and within first year after child’s birth)

3. Prepare for Changes to Your Existing Benefits

Another thing to be prepared for are changes to any existing benefits you have that may change during your maternity leave. Although this will vary again based on your state, company, and insurance – here are a few things to look out for:

Health Benefits

Benefits coverage (medical, dental, vision, commuter, 401k, FSA, vacation days, and Payroll) could change during your leave.

  • For example: Some companies may keep benefits unchanged during the first 30 days of leave.  Following that 30 day period, you may lose your health benefits unless you enroll for the COBRA program within a certain period of time. COBRA packages usually try to closely match the cost of your insurance now + administrative fees, however, If your healthcare is subsidized by your company, they may not continue to subsidize it during your leave period so you may have to pay more for insurance than you normally do!

Commuting benefits

Check to see if any commuting benefits you use remain in effect during your leave.

401k Contributions & Matching

This one can get complicated so if you have a 401k and matching, make sure to understand it carefully. 401k distributions and matching may not occur while on leave and it’s also important to note that in some instances you must be working a minimum number of hours in that calendar year to be eligible for 401k match. If the duration of your leave precludes you from working at least that many hours annually, you may not be eligible for 401k matching that year. 

Flexible Spending Account (FSA)

Generally speaking, your FSA card will be on hold during your leave, so you will not be able to use it to make approved purchases directly. In my situation, I couldn’t even submit for reimbursement during those periods so any copays, prescriptions, and other medical purchases during maternity leave were not FSA eligible. Another important thing to note was that although an FSA is usually fully funded to the amount you elect at open enrollment, you will likely see an increase in the paycheck deductions when you return to work, as the amount must be deducted from fewer paychecks. This means your paychecks will most likely be less than expected when you return from work.

  • Note on Dependent Day Care FSA: This is the only kind of FSA you may adjust in between open enrollment based on a change in circumstances (i.e. paying less or more for childcare than expected) so depending on your situation you may want to adjust accordingly depending on your circumstances.

Vacation and PTO

If you accrue vacation hours at your company, check to see whether accrual continues while you are on leave. In some cases you may accrue during some periods and not others so be mindful of this when planning for the rest of the year upon your return.


The timing of your return from leave in conjunction with your company’s payroll schedule is another thing to consider.

  • For example: Some companies cannot mark an employee returned until the day that they actually return to work. This could impact when you get paid because if you return right before a pay period and the payroll department hasn’t had enough time to process your paycheck, you may have to wait until the next pay period to get your pay for that pay period.

4. Deep Breaths & Take it Step by Step

Preparation for baby requires so much. Review this list and take it step by step. I hope these few guidelines helped provide a little bit of a head start so the road to the benefits we deserve are slightly less painful!

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