E.V. moms try to plan ahead for maternity leave - East Valley Tribune: Get Out

E.V. moms try to plan ahead for maternity leave

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Posted: Monday, August 20, 2007 11:36 am | Updated: 5:53 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

Rachel Streiff doesn’t skip a beat. The Chandler engineer is explaining the semiconductor industry when the baby in her lap wakes and cries. “I’m going to breast feed. Do you mind?” she asks. In a few deft seconds, 4-month-old Jeannine is happily feeding beneath a blanket. “It’s just motherhood,” Streiff says with a chuckle, and the mother of four is back on track.

Rachel Streiff doesn’t skip a beat. The Chandler engineer is explaining the semiconductor industry when the baby in her lap wakes and cries. “I’m going to breast feed. Do you mind?” she asks. In a few deft seconds, 4-month-old Jeannine is happily feeding beneath a blanket. “It’s just motherhood,” Streiff says with a chuckle, and the mother of four is back on track.

Megan Thiel has been back in her office at Snell & Wilmer for a few months, now. In January, the Phoenix attorney added a tiny client named Drew, who grins toothlessly from pictures on her wall. “I’m very much a planner,” says Thiel, smiling at the pictures, “Drew is teaching me that things don’t always go as planned.”

Working moms are forever switching hats. But their hardest transition may be their first, weaning themselves away from the job to manage birth and early infancy. So how does one build a maternity leave? What legal and company resources are out there? And what helps working moms solvent and sane as they hop between nurturing and networking?

Ramping up...

Maternity leaves require advance planning, but don’t jump the gun. “Most miscarriages happen in the first three months,” says Thiel. “So, it’s good to wait until you’re out of the woods before you start making arrangements.” Arrangements begin with the Family Medical Leave Act. The 1993 law requires large companies to allow employees up to 12 weeks for maternity leave. An employee who has a baby and returns in that time cannot legally lose her job.

“But that’s just basic, unpaid leave,” says Streiff. Families often struggle to offset the lost income. Many employers cover pregnancy under short-term disability: “Six weeks is the standard short-term disability period for a vaginal birth,” she says. “Eight weeks for a C-section.” These make up a portion of the lost earnings, and working mothers cobble sick, personal and vacation days together to fill out the rest.

Some companies, like Thiel’s, offer paid maternity leave. Her challenge was scheduling. “I wanted to work right up until I had Drew,” she says. “If you can do it that way, it means more time with the baby after he’s born.” Most babies don’t call ahead. So moms must build a plan that identifies upcoming tasks, delegates them responsibly and allows for abrupt departure.

Barb Dawson, a partner at Thiel’s law firm, says maternity leaves are case-specific. But they all require extensive consultation. “The working parts are sorted out between you, your supervisor and co-workers,” she says. “You need a plan that will satisfy their needs, and work with everyone’s schedule.”

Other working moms were Theil’s most valuable resource. “I talked to them to get a sense of what they’d gone through,” she says. Her plan balanced frequent updates with smaller tasks as her due date neared. “About a month out, I took on more short-term projects, that only required a few days’ time. At our weekly group meeting, I let (co-workers) know where I was on each one.”

Communication and scheduling are valuable tools. So is technology. “When I found out I was pregnant with this one, I made it a priority to get really good at telecommuting,” says Streiff. Her job had many tasks that could be performed off-site. So she lobbied for a home computer. “There’s a stigma when people hear you’re working from home, like you’re not really working,” she says. “I made it my mission to prove I could be effective, and I started during my pregnancy.”

Home computers, e-mail and Blackberries allow new mother to touch base on their own terms.

“We get daily e-mail updates on my area of the law,” says Thiel. “I didn’t want all of those hanging over my head when I got back. So I’d check e-mail from home, just 10-15 minutes a day.”

Occasional check-ins can also be a welcome diversion. “Being home with a baby is physically challenging, but your head can go soft,” says Streiff with a laugh. “It can be tough to get back to interacting with the real world.”

... And rolling back

Few things are trickier than leaving the workplace for the nursery. But going back might be one of them.

“It’s hard,” says Thiel. “That first week, I was always calling: 'When did he get up?’ 'What did he eat?’” Many return to work gradually. “I came in for three days, the week before my leave was up. I did that for two reasons: I wanted some time away from the baby, so I wouldn’t be all of a sudden 'gone.’ And I wanted to get back to getting myself up in the morning and out the door.”

“With your first child, going back is the hardest part,” says Streiff. “After a few kids, staying away can be harder. I remember going to an employee lunch, about halfway through my first maternity leave. Everybody there seemed to be talking so fast.”

Strieff spent five months after Jeannine’s birth working 20 hours a week, mostly from home. She returned to Motorola/Freescale full-time in June. “If you can personalize a plan, that’s great,” she says. “I’m lucky I have an employer that allows me to be flexible.”

She has learned that planning doesn’t stop when mom returns to work. “You need a strategy for that entire first year: What provisions can you make if you breast feed? What are you doing about day care? If the kids get sick and you have to leave, do you have backup? At the same time, new mothers have to take care of themselves. Sleep, nutrition, vitamins. Because if Mom falls apart, it’s the end of the world.”

Sound daunting? “It is totally doable,” says Streiff, holding her baby on her hip. “I tell employers, 'That’s the benefit of working moms. We are superior multi-taskers. My day is bounded by child care, I may not work the late hours other people do. But I am a multi-tasker by necessity.”

National Nurturing Next to Nil

While maternity leaves have gotten considerably easier since the passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act in 1993, our country still has a long way to go. A recent study by Harvard and McGill universities surveyed 173 countries and found only five did not guarantee some kind of paid maternity leave. The United States brings up the rear in maternal and parental leave policies, sharing the honor with Lesotho, Swaziland, Liberia and Papua New Guinea.

Some other family amenities, available over the border or across the pond:

Canada: Our neighbors to the North pay expectant mothers 55 percent of their salary (up to $413 a week) for 15 weeks. Expectant mothers (or partners) are also eligible for an additional 35 weeks of paid parental leave.

Mexico: For all the furor over working conditions and wages, the Mexican government’s policy pays workers 100 percent of salary for a 12-week maternity leave.

France: Sixteen weeks of full-salaried maternity leave; rising to 26 week for the third child.

Italy: Twenty-two weeks (two before birth) at 80 percent of salary.

Democratic Republic of the Congo: 14 weeks at 67 percent of salary.

Sources: National Partnership for Women and Families, Associated Press, Wikipedia

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