Maternity leave: Expectant moms wait 'til the last minute

With no US laws requiring paid leave, more mothers stay on the job longer, saving time off until after the baby arrives.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    'Til the end: Sarah Francomano, a publicist in Boston, planned to work within a week of her delivery. She miscalculated and went into labor during a business meeting.
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    Inspiration: Pictures of Jack Francomano (now 1 year old) decorate his mom's office.
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Melanie Davis knew from the beginning of her pregnancy that she needed to work as long as possible. She achieved that goal, staying until the day before her son's birth.

"It would have been nice to have some time off before he was born, but I would rather have more time at home with him," says Ms. Davis, a vice president of the Birmingham (Ala.) Regional Chamber of Commerce. She concedes that she was tired at work near the end of her pregnancy. Other mothers tell similar stories of staying on the job until a few days – or hours – before heading to the delivery room.

Call it the American way of maternity. Eighty percent of pregnant women who work remained on the job until one month or less before their child's birth, according to newly released Census data for 2003. In 1965 that figure was 35 percent.

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Most women work until close to their due date for two reasons: They need the income and they want to use their maternity leave after the baby arrives.

Davis, for example, received no paid maternity leave. She stockpiled vacation time for a year and a half, accumulating 33 days. She returned to the office when her son was 6-weeks-old, partly to take the load off her co-workers. "I also had to think about paying for day care, so I needed that paycheck," Davis says.

"Women are making the best decisions they can with the constraints they're operating under," says Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute in New York.

Those constraints include a lack of paid leave. The federal Family and Medical Leave Act allows for 12 weeks of unpaid leave during pregnancy or after the birth of a child. This applies to expectant fathers as well as mothers. The law, however, excludes companies with fewer than 50 employees.

"We think of needing 12 weeks to get over this event," Ms. Galinsky says. "But we don't think of the time before as part of the transition."

Europeans take a different approach. In France, expectant mothers receive six weeks of maternity leave before the birth and 10 weeks after. They are required to take at least two weeks before and six after. In Finland, women receive 17.5 weeks of maternity leave. They can begin as early as eight weeks before their due date or as late as two weeks before the expected date. Other European countries offer similar policies.

Not everyone wants time off beforehand. "I chose to continue working because keeping my head in my job actually kept me calm, knowing I had control over my day-to-day work," says Elise Bogdan, a vice president of Newman Communications in Brighton, Mass., who worked until the day of her son's birth. "I also love my job."

Aimee Grove, vice president of Allison & Partners, a public-relations firm in San Francisco, stayed at the office until 8 p.m. on a Friday, crafting a business proposal, then gave birth to her son on Monday.

"My colleagues, who all think I am a workaholic anyway, thought I was crazy, but I think it's normal," she says. "My best friend went into labor in her office and had to have a colleague drive her to the delivery room. We all want the maximum maternity leave. Who needs more time to stew and fiddle with the nursery?"

Office pressure

Monica Samuels, coauthor of "Comeback Moms," emphasizes the importance of following obstetricians' instructions. "If your doctor says you need to stop working and rest, you need to follow what your doctor says. A lot of women don't. They feel the pressure of the job."

Some pregnant workers face "a lot of resentment" from other employees, Ms. Samuels says. When she and coauthor J.C. Conklin interviewed more than 100 women for their book, she says, "We would get stories behind a pregnant woman's back. Colleagues would say, 'We noticed she's been leaving a little early.' "

Although some women face pressure from their bosses, others praise employers for being compassionate and flexible. "I've seen managers be concerned that a mom may be working too hard and suggest she work at home," says Cali Williams Yost, a workplace flexibility consultant in Madison, N.J.

Ms. Bogdan was allowed to work from home the last two weeks before delivery to avoid a long commute.

A supportive manager also helped Sarah Francomano, a publicist at Manning Salvage & Lee in Boston. Because she had worked for the firm less than a year, she was only eligible for six weeks off. But her boss gave her another six weeks to make it the full three-month maternity leave. "I needed every second of it," she says. Now she works from home two days a week.

In a world of e-mail and cellphones, even women whose doctors put them on bed rest during pregnancy continue to work. Samuels, who spent two months on bed rest during her first pregnancy, was a practicing attorney. "I lay in bed and did work. To show a commitment to their job, professional women often feel they have to go above and beyond what the ordinary person would do."

That attitude extends beyond pregnancy. "Particularly in big law firms, a lot of women would be on conference calls and sending out e-mails and faxes right after giving birth," Samuels says. "People would laud that. Others think that's nuts."

Know the law, find a balance

To make a new mother's leave easier for other employees, Yost says, managers like to know who will be doing what.

Employers also need to be aware of laws regarding pregnant workers. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act requires that employers not treat pregnant women any differently. "If an employer had a policy that pregnant employees cannot do certain aspects of their job, that would be illegal," says Kim Flanagan, an attorney with Littler Mendelson in Houston.

The law also requires employers to accommodate any special needs a pregnancy might require. They cannot fire a woman for pregnancy-related reasons. They cannot force a woman to take maternity leave earlier than she had planned or deny her leave. And they cannot refuse to hire an applicant because she is pregnant.

For women planning a leave, Yost cautions against cutting the timing too close. "I hear young moms asking, 'What's that date I can safely make, where I have as much leave as I possibly can and as much pay?' The part that's missing is, you don't really hear anybody say, 'But am I going to be rested enough and have enough time to transition to be ready to have the baby?' "

As one way of achieving better balance, Galinsky favors a new benefit called future leave, which some companies are starting to adopt. "You work full time but you put aside a portion of your money – 10 or 20 percent," she says. "That gives you some pay during a leave. It doesn't cost the company anymore money. It's a win for the company, a win for the employee."

As women grapple with their choices, Yost takes a pragmatic view, saying, "Being pregnant is a fact of life, a temporary condition. You just have to evaluate your own situation and decide what's best."

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