How to Afford to Take the Parental Leave You Want

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Wealthsimple is a whole new kind of investing service. This is the latest installment of our “How To” series, where we lay out smart and easy-to-understand advice on navigating the financial world.

Part One: Six Months

In retrospect, I'm almost glad that I didn't have time to dig into the research on maternity leave back when I was having my own kids. I was too busy cycling through the routine of "sleep, eat, chill" (throwing a load of laundry and an identity crisis into the mix when I could find time). But years—and many personal and work epiphanies—later, when I was reading the science and interviewing more than 800 women for my book The Fifth Trimester, I found out something interesting: The right amount of paid maternity leave—the magic number that protects mom's mental health and baby's physical health—is probably about six months.

Part Two: Six Months!?

Six months is impossible for almost all of us. Why? The United States government doesn't provide (or require companies to provide) any paid parental leave at all. That puts it dead last among the 183 industrialized countries in the world. The United Kingdom lets parents share 52 weeks of partially paid leave. Serbia grants moms 20 weeks fully paid. Stick with me through these numbers because this is important: In the United States, only 56% of new moms even qualify for the 12 weeks of unpaid leave from their jobs that the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) allows. (You need to have been a full-time employee for at least a year, and your company must have more than 50 employees to be subject to the regulation.) Far fewer can afford to take it.

Think about this: 25% of working American mothers take less than two weeks leave after having a baby. Or this: Apple recently built a $5 billion campus with a reported 100,000 square foot gym...but no day care.

If parents want to maximize their leave in the United States, it’s sadly on them to do it themselves. And it’ll require some planning, financial and otherwise, as soon as that little spatula thing turns to a plus sign.

Here’s how to do it.

Part Three: Get the Best Deal Possible from Your Job

There’s research that shows many Millennials don’t even know their own companies’ policies when it comes to parental leave. Find out (and ask if you’re interviewing for a new job, even if you don’t plan on having kids; it’s important for businesses to realize this matters to people). Ask your HR person specific questions: Do I qualify for FMLA? Do you provide any paid parental leave? Do I have accrued paid vacation or vacation days that have carried over, unused, from previous years? Can I borrow vacation time from upcoming months? Are there company-wide holidays that will fall when I’m on leave, and can I make those count toward my leave? Do my benefits include disability insurance, and if so, how many weeks are covered under that and at what percentage of my pay (it's not necessarily 100%)?

And about compensation: If you get yearly bonuses, or if you work on commission, especially in a seasonal business, how does your company make that equitable for employees who are out on leave? If annual reviews and raises are scheduled for while you're out, how is that handled? If you don’t ask, you won’t have a say. And that’s something you want a say about.

Another good trick: Ask around to find out about the precedents that have been set by other colleagues who needed time away from their jobs for personal reasons. Often, managers and benefits leaders will feel obliged to offer you at least the same, lest they be accused of biased treatment.

Next, look up your city's and state's laws to make sure your workplace is compliant and to see what other local benefits you could be entitled to receive. It’s not necessarily that your HR department is trying to pull a fast one: These laws can change over the course of a pregnancy (or adoption process), so keep checking back.

If you’re asking for more than what your company typically offers, come armed with info on the benefits given by competing companies and make the case for how your employer can benefit from being a leader in this area—bolstering recruitment, retention, and the company's reputation (and, ergo, the bottom line). This KPMG study for Vodafone could help.

Part Four: We’re Maximizing Parental Leave for the Father, Too, Right?

Fun fact: For every month of parental leave that a father takes, the mother’s earnings increase by 7%? Why? Probably because she can better focus on her work knowing that baby is in Dad’s care, and because the couple is more likely to take a 50/50 approach to household duties when Dad has that early hand’s-on experience.

Part Five: Make Your Plan

Now for the long (so, so long) list of ingredients that you can use to build your own maximized parental leave, since Lord knows that no one is going to do it for you:

  • unpaid FMLA leave

  • employer-paid leave

  • employer-provided unpaid leave beyond the 12 weeks granted by FMLA

  • a partner's parental leave (to cut down on childcare costs initially)

  • accrued paid time off

  • borrowed-ahead paid time off

  • comp time

  • temporary part-time pay for a gradual return to work

  • disability pay (offered by the employer, the state, or paid for privately)

  • state-mandated leave (available in California, Rhode Island, Washington state, New Jersey, Washington, D.C., and soon, New York)

  • Americans with Disabilities Act leave for diagnosed cases of postpartum mood disorders that arise or continue after the 12-week FMLA mark

  • free family-provided care (having Grandma in for a week or two can save money)

  • crowdfunded parental leave money (I met parents who did Kickstarters to fund their leave)

  • baby registries that include one crucial item: cash

Part Six: The Money Part. As in, How Much Will I Need?

You may not think the math is going to be hard. You’re just doing your best to replicate the salary you’d be earning for as much of your leave as will be unpaid, right?


But welcome to the world of “Holy cow, kids cost a lot.” Because having a baby is going to include some additional costs. This is a quick guide to some big-ticket items.

Childbirth expenses: If you have health insurance, call your provider to find out what portion of your care (and the baby's) will be covered—it will depend on the length of your hospital stay, so find out those possibilities, too. It might be a simple $20 copay, or it might be a deductible of several thousand dollars. Good to know going in. If you don’t have health insurance, ask your doctor what a vaginal or C-section birth costs out of pocket at the hospital at which you'll be delivering.

Adulting-up expenses: If you don't yet have a will or life insurance, this is the time to make that move, and to budget for it. According to LegalZoom, costs to have a basic will drawn up by a lawyer run from $100 to $1,500. For a good overview of how much life insurance you need (beyond what your job may already offer in your benefits package), check out this Forbes story. And, of course, adoptive parents should factor in the legal expenses of that process.

Childcare expenses (the doozy): Yes, you’ll probably need childcare when you go back to work. But a lot of people want some help before they go back to work as well. A baby nurse in the first days or weeks after birth, a doula, even a babysitter so you have time to take a shower—these are all legitimate expenses if you can shoulder them. In the United States, it’s mostly considered a luxury, but in the rest of the world, in-home care while you're healing is pretty standard. The cost of these services varies wildly depending on where you live, but $200 to $300 per day for overnight care (less for daytime only) is at the higher end of the spectrum. A doula during childbirth can cost $1,000 or more in urban areas (less in rural parts of the country).

When it’s time to go back to work, it’s great to have a little overlap with your childcare if you can afford it—a couple of weeks will help you (and baby) get used to the new routine. What that’s going to cost will also vary wildly. I interviewed a lot of moms in Los Angeles who considered in-home day care with a handful of children to be the gold standard. In the wealthier parts of New York City, the nanny rules supreme—there are families with chiefs of staff overseeing multiple nannies. In Chicago, nanny shares (two families split the cost of a nanny; the nanny makes a bit more than for a solo family but both families pay less than if they were going it alone) are popular. Moms’ groups on Facebook are a good starting point for finding out what people are paying for childcare where you live.

Actual baby stuff expenses: The good news is that it’s a common misconception that baby stuff is expensive. First, much of it is typically a one-time sunk cost, as cribs and car seats are passed down sibling to sibling. Second, most gear simply isn’t necessary, especially in the first six months. (Google “small house parenting” for proof.) You do not need a baby-food maker, or a wipe warmer, or a top-of-the-line baby monitor that measures your baby's breathing. What you might need: a CPR course (figure $150), someone to help you sleep train ($500 and up), and more than one breast pump, plus accessories. A typical pumping set up costs about $300, or rent a hospital-grade deluxe version (retail cost: $2,000) for about $100 a month.

Self-care expenses: Please, if you can afford it, baby yourself a little, too. Your kid, your partner (and you, yourself) will be a whole lot happier. Budget in whatever self-care you value most: fitness classes, new clothes that fit your new body, beauty appointments if they make you feel good, or even concert tickets—and of course, childcare for every minute that your partner can't cover your me-time. My advice: Do not feel guilty, as long as you’re not going into debt to pay for this stuff. The ROI really can outweigh the cost. Figure out what self-care expenses give you the most bang for your buck (a $100 haircut can save you precious time in the morning) and budget for them as best you can.

Remember: Cheaper can also be better

Just because it’s the highest-priced option doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best. In my research, parents who chose a more conveniently located day care were happier than those who opted for the most expensive, coveted place that required a longer drive (and therefore a lot of stress getting out of work early enough to collect the kid). And there’s this: A multidecade study of more than 1,000 children showed that the biggest predictor of children’s success in whatever childcare situation you choose is the parents’ comfort with that choice. If you’re scraping by to afford a nanny, it’s going to show in your stress level and impact your kids.

Part Seven: Find Your Number and Figure Out How to Get There

The simplest equation is SALARY LOST + NEW EXPENSES = YOUR BUDGET.

Let’s assume that you have an income of $52,000 per year (the average, in 2015, for American women in full-time management or professional jobs), and you anticipate being unpaid for four weeks of leave (roughly $4,000). You have good health insurance but will need to cover about $1,000 of care. Add to that: $2,000 in adulting-up expenses, $1,000 for some help right after the birth and $1,500 in childcare before you return to work, $3,000 in baby gear, and $500 for self care. That's $13,000 total (or $1,444 set aside during each of the nine months of pregnancy—a huge percentage of your take-home pay). Obviously, the sooner you start saving the better.

Here’s a bonus, though. While your child is an extra expense, who keeps getting more expensive, you yourself are going to become cheaper. It may be easier to save when your travel budget and your bar tab keep going down. And as new parents, you will eat in more and do all kinds of otherwise unexpectedly domestic things, like doubling the chili recipe and freezing half for a Netflix night in.

Your future earnings may also get a boost—and fight the so-called mom penalty—if you are able to use parental leave for a bit of networking (it's a hidden perk of those dog days of colic). Often, having babies the same age is all it takes to bond with another parent, and bond you will—over your offspring but also over your respective work benefits. It’s eye-opening to learn about what’s normal in other fields, and this can embolden you as you make decisions about what to negotiate for as your career moves forward.

Most importantly, when you go back to work, return realizing what a valuable asset you are, not just to your company but to our ever-evolving country. This transition is hard and expensive, but it is finite, and it can set you up for lifelong security.

Lauren Smith Brody is the founder of The Fifth Trimester, a movement and consultancy that helps companies and parents work together to improve workplace culture. Her bestselling book The Fifth Trimester: The Working Mom’s Guide to Style, Sanity, and Big Success After Baby was published this spring by Doubleday.

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