It’s no surprise that parental leave, like so many other issues related to women and healthcare, in the U.S. is a disaster. Fewer than half of women who take a maternity leave in this country are paid for it, and even the beauty that is unpaid FMLA is tarnished by the list of requirements one and their employer have to meet in order to qualify. And now that we know that fewer than 40% of American families can afford a $1000 emergency, thinking about income replacement for even a six week leave leaves most families in the dirt.
This is a crime.
The policy in my workplace is very average, especially in the education field—6 weeks unpaid. I’m lucky in the sense that my primary concern was not money, but time. Even if they wouldn’t pay me, I know we can fall back on family for support. This involves a tremendous degree of privilege that I recognize is not normal—it certainly would not be in my life had I not married into a much more financially stable family than my one of origin.
My issue was time. Six weeks assumes everything goes perfectly physically, and it also leaves a tiny baby at five weeks and change before mom goes back to work. I couldn’t imagine doing that. So, I had two options: try to get a better deal, or suck it up.
I tried for a better deal and got it. Here’s my advice for having that conversation.
First: ask. You can’t know what they’ll offer you if you’re afraid to ask for it. My approach was delicate but direct—“I know what the policy is, but I’m hoping we can talk about me taking a little more time.”
Second, plan. I went into this conversation with a calendar in mind—a start date and a return date, where my paid time off would kick in and end, where federal holidays and other days off would kick in, as a way to send the message that even though I was asking for more than standard, it really doesn’t amount to all that much time once you figure in the PTO, which most employers will require you to take first, and other days off. I also came in with a gameplan for who would take over my responsibilities (in my case, a long term sub and friend with a lot of experience and great rapport with kids), a sense of what I would ask her to do while I’m gone, and how I would get her up to speed (a couple days of job shadowing, complete lesson plans for two months, etc.). Part of this, too, is arming yourself with knowing your value to the organization and being willing to speak to it.
Lastly, appreciate. Know that your boss is bound by policy as much as you are. If they go out of their way to advocate and fight for something better for you, let them know that you appreciate that advocacy, even if it doesn’t work. In my case, it did work. My original request for 11 weeks off is now 12 because of medical advice to stop earlier. I’ve made sure, probably to the point of overkill, that my boss knows how incredibly grateful I am that she was willing to make it happen for me.
In short, I can’t think that it hurts to try. The worst case scenario is being slapped down, but one might be able to mitigate that possibility by approaching the conversation thoughtfully and confidently.
Now that mine has started, I feel super weird. More on that soon.