Long parental leaves like those available in many European countries are becoming more common even in the United States, where there’s still no national law mandating paid leave. To fill the gap, several cities and states have stepped up, and companies—particularly those with lots of valuable professional workers—have been responding to pressure by increasing their offerings for both moms and dads: Netflix offers unlimited leave for a full year after a birth or adoption, and Bank of America, Deloitte, and Ernst & Young LLP all offer 16 weeks of fully paid time off to mothers, fathers, and employees who are adopting, so prepping for a long leave isn’t just an issue for pregnant women anymore.
Here are the most basic steps to handing off your work pre-baby in a way that will let you jump back in several months down the road without losing career momentum.
Find out how much time you can take
This is obvious, but even before you’re ready to start sharing your big news with people at work, find your company handbook. It won’t answer all your questions, but it should help you figure out whether to plan for a significant block of paid time off. If your company hasn’t joined the bandwagon on paid parental leave yet, consider whether your savings or another source of income will let you take unpaid time off. In the United States, the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act guarantees anyone who’s worked for at least a year at a business with 50-plus employees 12 weeks of job-protected leave. If you work in one of the cities or states with special rules (the National Partnership for Women and Families keeps an updated fact sheet on local laws), make a note of that.
If you’ve started moving through the adoption process, don’t put off looking into leave options. Although it can sometimes take years to be matched with a child, when it happens you don’t want to be caught off-guard at work. If you’re comfortable discussing your adoption plans with your manager before a timeline is clear, it will diminish the chance of disruption if a placement call comes suddenly.
Talk to your manager and HR
Hopefully, everyone you work with will be overjoyed about your new baby. But no matter how genuinely happy they feel, there’s zero chance they won’t secretly fret about getting by without you. Going into the conversation with some ideas about how to divvy up your work might put your manager at ease, and you should definitely let him or her know that you’re already working on detailed documents showing what you do, how you do it, when it needs to be done, and contact information for everybody who needs to be involved.
Men should prepare for a little blowback. A study by the Boston College Center for Work and Family showed that 99 percent of working fathers feel like their managers don’t expect parenthood to cause any changes to their working patterns. If you feel this way, don’t let it stop you from taking paternity leave—those first few weeks can help establish parenting patterns that will be hard to change later.
Set up a conversation with an HR representative so they can explain the details of the parental leave policy to you. Moms preparing to give birth in the U.S. need to find out how much leave will be fully paid through company payroll versus through short-term disability insurance, and exactly what the checks will look like; sometimes you’re required to take some vacation or sick time before disability insurance kicks in, so make sure you have all the forms you’ll need.
Write down everything you do
If you try to make a list of your responsibilities in one sitting, you won’t think of them all. But if you keep a document open on your desktop where you can make quick notes for a couple of weeks, you’ll capture the stuff that would otherwise slip your mind. While you’re at it, pay attention to whether materials you use regularly are saved where other people can access them (on a shared server or the cloud, for example), or if you need to share databases or documents before you go.
Work with your manager to figure out who will take ownership of your duties while you’re out
If you have high-value clients who depend on you, make sure somebody in the office is prepared to give them the attention they require. If you have a choice, bring in a junior coworker who wants to step up his or her responsibilities—filling in for a colleague on leave is a great way to learn the ropes and get attention, so he or she will hopefully appreciate the opportunity rather than resenting the extra work. Make sure everyone knows you’ll want your clients back when you return, but don’t plan on taking their calls from the labor and delivery room. Instead, schedule visits or calls ahead of time to introduce them to the team members who will cover for you.
Because a temp might come in to handle administrative and organizational tasks, leave instructions that someone who’s never worked in your office can follow. If there are scheduled communications on the calendar, create a master document with all the template emails in one place.
Should I stay in touch while I’m on maternity leave?
Slow down a month ahead of your baby’s arrival
Even if your (or your spouse’s) pregnancy has gone smoothly for the first several months, things sometimes get weird at the end. You might just be really tired and swollen, or your doctor might tell you to stay in bed for the last few weeks, or your baby might even make an early appearance. Figure out what you’ll need to work from home, because you’ll almost certainly want to (if it’s acceptable in your position). Plus, if you’ve got the technology set up before the baby arrives, you’ll be in a better spot to request some work-at-home days afterward.
Plan for your return to work
For new moms, especially, cutting-edge companies offer phase-back periods, where you work part-time for a certain number of weeks after your leave ends. Other companies that offer many weeks of parental leave allow employees to break it up during the year after their baby comes along. If you’re a dad with access to 12 weeks, for example, you might be able to take six weeks when the baby’s born and then stay home again when your spouse returns to work (thus putting off the commitment to childcare).
Speaking of childcare, try to figure it out in advance. Talk to everyone you know who might have recommendations and then interview nannies, get on some daycare waiting lists, and check in with your Aunt Bee about her availability.
If you can negotiate to work from home a few days a week, you’ll save yourself some commuting and primping time, but you should not plan to work while caring for your new kid on a regular basis. Babies will absolutely cry during client calls, every time. Your coworkers and manager might act delighted to hear the little one cooing in the background, but they’ll (consciously or unconsciously) think of you as less available and reliable than pre-baby if you seem distracted.