Paid? Unpaid? 4 weeks? 12 weeks? 6 months? Will you be expected to do some work, or can you really just turn off your cell phone and ignore work email for your entire leave?
Maternity leave policies can be as varied as the employers who offer them. No matter what your employer offers, actually taking maternity leave can be a challenge in and of itself. I’ve taken maternity leave twice, in 2011 and 2014, both before I became a partner at my firm. While each experience has been different, I hope that I can lend some insight to those of you preparing for leaves of your own.
I am a mom of two little ones, aged four and seven. I am also an attorney at a firm that is small by industry standards (and well below the FMLA cap), but is the largest in my small city. I’m have just finished a seven year term on the Texas Young Lawyers Association Board of Directors, where I served as a Director, Secretary, Treasurer, President-Elect, President, and Immediate Past President.
When I announced my first pregnancy in 2011, I soon realized that I was the first associate in a very long time (and probably the second in the history of the firm) to have a baby. Between my big firm friends who had seemingly unending maternity leave, and my small firm friends who had virtually none, I was unsure what kind of arrangement I would work out with my firm. In the end, my maternity leave arrangement was definitely more creative than most, but I was very thankful that my firm was willing to work with me to come up with a plan that fit my situation very well.
When my first child was born, I was living an hour from my office and working from home a few days a week. For my maternity leave, I took one month off completely and then worked part time for one month (from home). Once I transitioned to full time, I continued to work from home a few days a week (with part time childcare). Working from home with a little one worked well, even if it meant handing him off to my husband in the evenings so that I could work another hour or two.
Fast forward to the birth of my second child- by then, we had moved back to the city where my firm was located. I no longer worked from home, and my older son was in full time daycare. Despite these changes, we worked out a very similar arrangement—no work for a month, part time for a month and then full time (from home) for another month.
Although my two leaves were structured very similarly, in practice, I found them to be very different. The first time around, I did not have trouble disengaging and simply not working during the first part of my leave. I think that this was in large part due to the fact that as a third-year associate, I provided support on other people’s cases but had very few that were my own. It was not a problem to assign discrete tasks to other attorneys at my firm while I was gone, and pick them back up when I returned.
Three years later, it was very difficult for me to disengage. My practice is primarily comprised of family law and employment law—two areas that require a significant amount of attorney/client interaction. Additionally, I handled more of my own caseload, and I have a number of clients for whom I am their only point of contact. As a result, I remained more “available” throughout my leave (which I am sure those I work with most closely will tell you made this leave a bit easier on them!) But this time around, I didn’t mind remaining on call—I just wanted to maximize my time at home with my little one, even if it meant doing some work while I was on leave.
Working from home was also more challenging the second time around. I couldn’t just hand the baby off when my husband got home from work because the three-year-old needed attention too! As a result, once I transitioned back to full time, I found myself ready to spend some time in the office. The sight of me coming down the hall with the baby in tow became a regular occurrence at our office. Even when she began childcare, my coworkers would pop by my office to see if she just might be here for a visit. A baby in the office might not work for many, but for me it was the perfect way to get a few more weeks with my little one.
If you are given the opportunity to have input in structuring your own leave, I think it is important to consider what elements are the most important to you—is it that you continue to be paid? That you have no work responsibilities during your leave? Or is simply that you have time with your little one regardless of whether or not you are working? I find it encouraging that employers are willing to look outside the confines of traditional maternity leave to accommodate employees. For me, it helped insure that my transition back to full time practice was smooth.
Now that I am five years removed from taking maternity leave, I look back and consider the time I took, and my return to the office. Should I have done things differently? For me, the answer is no. I didn’t want to go radio silent in any aspect of my life. I remained very involved in young lawyer activities during that time, and it worked for me. Not that it is “wrong” but it was not right for me. In my opinion, there is no cookie cutter approach that works for every firm or every person. The challenges that small firms face when an attorney takes leave are different than those of a larger practice. If we want to support new parents and their continuation in the practice of law, we should foster open dialogues between attorneys and their firms about expectations – from both sides. While I don’t think true work-life balance can ever be achieved, our best chance at accomplishing it is through open communication between all parties involved.