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MAKING THE MOST OF MATERNITY LEAVE

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by Wendy Marquez

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When Betty Holcomb began planning her first maternity leave, she searched for a book with answers to questions that sometimes seemed overwhelming. How long could she take? Would she get paid? What would happen when she returned to work? Could she breastfeed on the job? And most of all, would there be any time left to enjoy the baby?

Holcomb found helpful information piecemeal, from articles and friends who already had children. But she couldn't find a book that explained how to merge a job and a family.

So she wrote one.

The Best Friend's Guide to Maternity Leave, (Perseus Publishing, copyright 2001), due out on bookshelves this month, provides working mothers-to-be with guidance and wisdom compiled from over 200 working moms. "There are so many shocks along the way," says Holcomb, now the veteran of two maternity leaves. "I wanted to help other women get through an incredible transition with as much ease as possible."

While you're expecting, says Holcomb, expect the unexpected. You're entering a totally new, unknown phase of your life. Even if friends share their experiences, yours will most likely be different. Every woman is unique. So is every pregnancy. And company maternity benefits vary, depending on size and business sector.

The Family Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA) guarantees that people who work for companies with 50 or more employees can take up to 12 weeks unpaid leave a year to care for a newborn or newly adopted child. Many large companies will allow employees to add accumulated sick time to their leave and earn full pay for days accrued. Smaller companies, however, can write their own rules. When discussing your leave with your supervisor or human resources department, Holcomb recommends expectant moms ask for the maximum time their employer allows - then ask for more. Time with your newborn will go faster than you think.

Despite your company's benefits, if money is an issue for you, it will probably be the deciding factor in how long a leave you'll feel comfortable taking. If finances aren't a concern, consider yourself extremely fortunate.

Mary Weidler, a government employment counselor and mother of four, took eight weeks off for each of her children. But if she had it to do over, she'd definitely take more time. "The work will always be there," says Mary, but your little ones won't. If I were to have another baby, I'd insist on six months to a year off. We can always eat more macaroni and cheese."

But the financial impact is just one of the jolts along the way. For some women, loss of contact with other adults is an even greater challenge.

The appreciation of co-workers for a job well done was what Marnie Holmes, a former IBM technical solutions manager, missed the most. "My baby needed me 24 hours a day," says Marnie, "but she didn't give me the same immediate response of 'thank you.'"

"For me," says Holcomb, who hopes her book will be a roadmap for expectant moms, "the major transition was discovering who I was and integrating my mother self with my old self to create someone new. There was a lot of joy, but also a lot of turmoil."

"I cried when I left my office," says Ginny Hermann, a former public relations professional. "I knew when I returned I would be a completely different person. Things would never be the same. I was happy to be embarking on parenthood, but a part of my life was ending. I felt sad."

Dr. Pamela Zimmer, Director of the Human Relations Center for Women in Briarwood, Queens, works with many women facing these challenges. "Fear of the unknown and guilt are two major issues that come up for women in every phase of the process," says Zimmer, a psychospiritual therapist who founded the center in 1989.

"Many women on leave feel their world has become so small, they've forgotten how to speak to people," says Zimmer. "They lose confidence and self-esteem because they were used to a whole other way of living."

"On the job, I was usually in control," says Ginny. "I decided when things happened and how the day progressed. At home with a newborn, all ideas I had about planning and control went out the window. I'm the type of person who likes to work on a task until it's finished. That aspect of my personality was tested, and continues to be tested daily, sometimes hourly."

"Life on maternity leave is almost a recipe for depression," says Holcomb, "so it's important to connect with new mothers, particularly if you're planning a short leave. It's essential to your mental health."

So is learning to transform the guilt, says Zimmer, whose holistic approach takes into account a woman's mental, emotional, and spiritual needs. "Even a woman who's truly committed to her career feels torn between her two lives," says Zimmer. "She's brought this soul into the world and it's the most important thing in her life, and yet she's chosen to put her priorities elsewhere." Zimmer helps women look at themselves honestly and decide how they envision being the best mother they can, while loving and taking care of themselves at the same time.

"Coming back to work was like crossing some Great Divide," says Holcomb. "It was as if I'd stepped through a mirror and found on the other side a world familiar on the surface, yet strangely changed. As I came to see, I had changed."

Expect your feelings to be ambivalent the first few weeks. "You don't stop being a mom when you walk through the office door," says Holcomb. "Being torn between work and the baby is a key part of reentry, a way to acknowledge that maternity leave is over and you're moving on."

So savor every minute of your leave. As hectic as it may be with its 'round-the-clock feedings, sleepless nights, and endless diapers, you'll look back on this precious time with your infant as an experience unlike any other.


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