A Growing Conflict
No matter what part of the US you are from, or what your salary is, chances are you have had a child while working or know someone who has. In America, maternity leave has become a growing conflict in the workplace, as well as in women's personal lives, instead of the joyous, quiet, and restful time a woman should experience after giving birth or adopting a child. Many women feel torn between returning to the careers they love and leaving their sweet children, sometimes merely weeks old, to be raised by others.
In other countries, maternity leaves are much longer and allow for better recuperation and mental preparedness for the return to the workforce. Because of all of these reasons, many women nowadays are opting to take an extended maternity leave of more than the allotted six weeks. Some take twelve weeks or even four months.
How Does One Manage Unpaid Leave Here in America?
But how does a person afford to take so much unpaid time off in America? Certainly, the people who choose to take it do so because they feel that the value of staying home with their baby is unsurpassed by returning to work to complete projects and get a paycheck. But just because they prefer caring for their children to getting paid does not mean they do not need an income. Something has got to pay the bills while they are out!
Below I share my experience with maternity leave in Spain, how I awakened to the problem of affording maternity in the US, and what I am doing now to prepare for my next baby's arrival. I hope my suggestions will help you as you start prepping for your extended maternity leave.
5 Steps to Help You Afford Maternity Leave
- Find Out Where Your Money Goes and How Much You Need
- Reduce Bills
- Set Up Credit Deposits
- Prepare in Advance With a Side Hustle
- Consider Returning to Work (Very) Part-Time
My Maternity Leave Experience in Spain
When I became pregnant in Spain, which has a socialist-leaning democratic government, I went to all my visits with my midwife for free. My hospital birth was free, and they respected all my wishes as to how I wanted to birth. After my son was born, our village paid us over $1,000 as an incentive for helping to repopulate a rural town. We had businesses send us bottles, diapers, and all sorts of freebies. All of his pediatrician appointments were free, and I had free lactation support, which meant my baby ate for free. Our son cost us $0 to have and to raise for the first few months of his life.
At the time I became pregnant, I had a good job teaching English at the ILM, an academy of the University of Extremadura. This job paid every month for me to be in the social security system, meaning if I lost my job I would receive paro—roughly translated as unemployment, but without the shame that word brings in the US. In July, I taught my last class, and I was set to begin a new contract on October 1. I was due in November, and since my boss did not want to hire me back for just a few months and I was only a contract teacher, we amicably agreed that would be it for me. I did have a full month's vacation accumulated, so I got paid for the full month of August. Then, before my contract expired on October 1, I filed for an early maternity leave while 8 months pregnant.
I received four months straight of maternity payments of my full salary. No questions asked. The payments kept coming until January. All mothers in Spain receive 4 months of maternity leave from their jobs.
After the maternity leave dried up, I was placed on paro because my boss had not renewed my contract. I then received a check equal to a partial salary every month for six more months. So, all in all, I had a paid (one way or another) maternity leave until my son was 9 months old. When the money ran out, I went back to work teaching part-time.
The American Dream: A Cruel Reality for New Moms
Not long after, my husband and I moved back to the US with our little son. I incorporated as a teacher and saw women have babies and return to work after six to eight weeks. I could not fathom how they could return to work so quickly after such an ordeal. I may have been a weakling, but I did not feel normal for six months after the birth of my son. I had severe coccyx pain that would make it hard to sit. I felt postpartum depression and anxiety long after his birth. I was dead-tired at night, and, if I am completely honest, when the school called me when he was 9 months old asking me if I could help them by taking a job, my first instinct was I am so not ready. Other women may be ready after six weeks, but for me even 9 months was too short.
So there I was seeing women return to the workforce, and I asked some of them how they felt about having to come to work so soon. Here were some of their responses:
"I cried every day for two weeks because I missed my baby."
"My husband's salary is not enough to pay all the bills, so I had to come back."
"I didn't want to lose my job."
"I thought I would be ready, but I'm not."
"I feel exhausted all the time."
"I hate pumping at work."
"The hospital bills needed to be paid."
"If I could do something from home just to make ends meet and quit this place, I would."
Soon, it became clear to me that not all but many women were returning to work far before they were physically or mentally prepared, and they would much rather be at home raising their babies rather than dropping them off at daycare. Also, since babies prefer their own parents to other individuals, I'm sure the babies would much rather be with their mother than with anyone else.
Financing Your Own Maternity Leave
Knowing that 9 months was too soon for me to return and there is no paid maternity leave in the US, I became a little intimidated about whether or not I could afford to stay home with my future newborn and not break the bank. When my husband and I began to seriously think about having baby number two, we sat down and came up with a plan. Keep in mind, for this list below, you will need a little bit of time to plan—say, at least nine months, but preferably the same amount of time you want to take off after the birth. For example, if you want to take off a year, it's best to plan for a year in advance of when you want to take off. We decided that since this will probably be our last baby, I really want to do things right so I will have no regrets. We both agreed that two years would be the perfect time for me to be raising our second child.
Below are the ways we have been planning for the past year in order for me to take a full two years off after my 2nd child is born.
1. Find Out Where Your Money Goes and How Much You Need
The first step in planning your extended maternity leave is to sit down with your spouse and write down all your bills and expenses, all your income, and see exactly where your money goes. It is surprising how many couples do not do this, but there is so much success to be had by taking this one step. Budgeting (ugh—what a dreadful word!) may look different for every couple. Some may need to keep a running list of every little thing they spend, while others may need to look back at pay stubs, receipts, and past bills. Maybe you need to do this for a few months until you get an idea of a) what you make and b) what you spend.
If you feel this is completely out of control, perhaps making a budget would be a good place to start. If you like cute stationery, I would recommend this budget planner because it has a daily expense section where you can write in everything you spend. I found this useful because I am really bad at not losing receipts, as well as writing notes in different spots and not remembering where I left them. I would just leave a bookmark in the page and write in my expenses every day.
At times, we have even used this envelope system before, which is great for anyone who is a little too swipe-happy. It made us feel responsible of our spending because we actually had to go to the envelopes and take out the amount of cash we needed if we wanted to buy something. If you are super frugal, skip both of these and make yourself a Google sheet, or scrawl it on a piece of notebook paper. However you do it, you need to figure out what comes in and what goes out so you can know exactly how much you need to recover each month.
2. Reduce Bills
Now that you have your list of expenses, highlight all bills. Call all these companies and ask what can be done to reduce your bill. Recently, we reduced our monthly internet bill from $49.99 to $19.99 just by switching companies. Also, by joining a phone plan with a friend, we reduced our cell phone bill from $80 a month to $35. By paying off 20% of our home, we called our bank and demanded that they cancel our PMI, which saved us $40 a month. Check to see if you have paid the 20%. You will have to jump through hoops to get the PMI canceled, but it is worth it at over $400 savings a year.
We kept our air conditioner on 74 during the summer and 65 during the winter. Sure, we had to use fans in summer or bundle up in winter, but our bodies really did acclimate. We set up a fixed energy bill from our power company that is $50 a month. If we use more or less than this amount total during a year, we will owe them or they will owe us. As of right now, they owe us. (To date, our most energy efficient month was only $14 of electricity). We also requested LED light bulbs from our power company and they sent them to us for free.
This all may sound really nerdy to you, but we are literally laughing ourselves to the bank. We live an extremely frugal and efficient life and are debt-free (except for the house) because of it.
Cancel any subscriptions you have that you don't use. If you are planning to take a long time off, I would say cancel all of them. $10 here and $6 there really add up. Also, make sure that any credit cards that you use (which you probably should pay off ASAP!) don't have hidden fees that are stealing money from you on a monthly or yearly basis.
Once your bills are lowered, recalculate exactly how much you need to live each month.
3. Set Up Credit Deposits
When you know how much you need to survive each month, subtract that amount from your partner's sole income. Whatever you are left with in negative is what you need to save each month now while you are working for however many months you plan on being out of work. For example, if you want to be out for 12 months, you need to save or put away your negative amount 12 times.
My husband came up with an innovative way to receive a monthly "paycheck" while I take off with our newborn. He decided that he would set up credit deposits to be paid each month of my extended maternity leave. Since CDs draw interest, we are receiving free money every month on my future maternity leave. CDs are set up 6, 12, 18, or 24 months in advance. We decided the ideal time for our baby to be born would be November 2020. So, starting in November 2018, my husband began taking $300–$500 from my paycheck (which was our negative amount that we needed) and putting it in a 24-month CD. So, if my child is born in November 2020, I will receive a "paycheck" not long after, and then another in December, and another in January, and so on until November 2022, at which time I will have to think about going back to work full time. (Or will I? See points 4 and 5).
Setting up credit deposits is not difficult, and you can earn hundreds in interest over several years. What this does require is commitment and diligence. You must make a credit deposit every month to be paid at the date you desire, or else be prepared to go without a payday during your self-planned and self-financed maternity leave.
4. Prepare in Advance With a Side Hustle
Before my 2nd child is even conceived, I have started two part-time side-hustles selling products I love. My two are Beautycounterand Plexus. With Beautycounter, I have earned up to $500 a month (usually more like $90) selling cleaner, safer beauty products. With Plexus, I have yet to earn money because I just started, but I love their products and they make me feel so energetic and healthy that I can't help but share. I do not intend to sell too much Plexus now because I am focused on Beautycounter, but when my 2nd little one comes along, I may get that ball rolling a bit more.
No matter what you choose to hustle on the side, be it homemade baked goods, makeup, skincare, clothing, etc., you can always find something moderately lucrative that takes little effort in an attempt to bring in extra cash. Start way before so you already have an established clientele and people who can recommend you. Starting a side business, especially an MLM, can be a rollercoaster of emotions, which is not ideal to get into when pregnant.
5. Consider Returning to Work (Very) Part-Time
Now, when you are in your extended maternity leave, you may see how tight things are financially and feel better and more ready than you thought you were to get back in the saddle. You can always pick up a very part-time job whenever you are ready to do so. When my son was 9 months old, I returned to work 30 hours a week. I still think working 10 to 15 hours a week would have suited me better at that stage.
When I have my next child, after the first year, I may pick up a few hours at a shop or cafe every week just to bring in some extra money. That way, I can still nurse my child and be with her during the day. If I only worked 15 hours a week for 4 weeks a month at $8 an hour, that is over $400 after taxes. All of that money would go to easing the burden on my provider husband and helping us save for other things. Going back to work does not mean you have to plunge headfirst back into your full-time career. It certainly will not mean that for me.
You Are Not Alone
Please know that you are not the only woman worried about this topic. You are not alone! There are hundreds if not thousands of women in your shoes right now. I dream of a day when four months of maternity leave are available in the US. I don't know how it would be afforded or paid for, but I know that there is nothing more important than a mother raising her children, and self-financing the opportunity to do so is a very smart thing to do.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
Liz Westwood from UK on May 17, 2019:
This is a fascinating insight and comparison between attitudes to maternity leave in Spain and America. I hope that your sensible tips will help others spend longer at home after having had a baby.