Kids don't come with instruction manuals, and neither do most parental leave policies.
So how do you make the most of your time at home with your new family member?
"This is the most overlooked yet richest time in your adult life," said Amy Beacom, founder and CEO of the Center for Parental Leave Leadership in Portland, Ore. "Starting to think about these things way before you have children is going to set you up for success."
In the United States, one of just a handful of countries in the world without guaranteed paid parental leave, time off to care for a child depends on where you live and work.
Minnesota has not joined the few states that mandate paid leave, nor have any cities or counties passed rules specifically for parental leave. So for working Minnesotans looking to grow their families, figuring out parental leave comes down to navigating employer benefits.
The patchwork of company policies — and the different needs among parents — makes every situation unique. But there are a few pointers that can be applied universally, including an obvious but underutilized one: thorough planning.
That goes for employers as well as the employees taking leave.
"Well-planned and well-supported parental leave is an organization's best opportunity for that employee to stay," Beacom said.
The federal Family and Medical Leave Act, or FMLA, guarantees employees who have worked at least a year at a company with 50 or more employees will not lose their jobs for taking up to three months of unpaid parental leave. This accounts for about 60% of the U.S. workforce.
"FMLA is not paid leave. It is unpaid job protection for a subset of workers for 12 weeks," Beacom said. "That can be a shock for many many people, especially with all the talk of paid leave lately."
Just 23% of civilian employees in all industries have access to paid family leave, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. About 90% have unpaid family leave.
In Minnesota, the Pregnancy and Parental Leave Act extends the FMLA's unpaid job protection to employees at companies with 21 or more employees — which still leaves many workers without a legal guarantee a pregnancy won't cost them their job.
Minneapolis, St. Paul and Duluth guarantee some paid sick and safe leave, which could be used to cover time off for birth and the days after.
An employer's short-term disability benefits may also provide some paid time off.
"Know your rights, what you fall under, and what pay, if any, you have," Beacom said. "That's where you want to start — what is your policy, what is your unique set of circumstances?"
Beacom and Sue Campbell wrote the book on navigating parental leave, "The Parental Leave Playbook," which was released last fall.
The 10 "touchpoints" common to each leave experience, according to the book: announcement; assess; action plan; acknowledge transition to parent; appropriately keep in touch; advocate; arrangements for return; acknowledge transition to working parent; adjustment; and access to career development.
Once employees know their policy situation, Beacom said she recommends parents plan their leave over three equally important phases: before leave; during leave; and returning to work.
"If you can think of it that way, it becomes a time-based process you're working through," she said. "That's much more manageable."
From there, a few key questions need answering:
- How do you plan to announce the new family member and impending time off to care for them?
- What support do you have at work, and what needs to be communicated? "You're doing this in partnership with your team and your manager," Beacom said.
- What, if any, communication with work will occur or be expected during leave?
- How will you move back into your role at work and continue career development?
- What contingency plans do you have, such as different routes to get to the same goal?
- What adjustments or flexible arrangements need to be made to transition into a working parent?
Involving managers is vital, Beacom said, because they can make each phase easier to navigate.
"Have your company bring in manager training, because the manager piece is key," she said. "We train our managers in everything but this most important thing."
What success feels like
Beacom said that well-planned and well-supported leave means being able to "consciously craft your future" as a working parent.
"The best way to plan your leave is to plan your return," she said. "If you are set up poorly for your return, it creates ripple effects of problems."
It doesn't have to be stressful, either.
"Come into your parental leave with a spirit of excitement," she said. "'Oh, I'm reaching a moment in my professional and personal life where I get to choose my path forward.'"