When You’re Not Going Back
Okay. So I’ve been reading up on this topic for a couple weeks now. It’s an annoying topic to read up on, by the way, because there are no super-handy definitive how-to guides or even just a general consensus. There’s a lot of bad advice and bad behavior and sweeping generalized vitriol being slung at innocent pregnant bystanders BECAUSE of that bad behavior. Mostly, though, it’s a lot of families grappling with a complicated financial AND ethical AND personal issue: When do I tell my boss I’m not coming back to work? When do I make the decision not to go back to work? HOW do I make the decision not to go back to work?
PERFECT WORLD OPTION: You tell them as soon as you know you plan to stay home, with as much advance notice as possible. Because of course you just *know* that staying home is the right decision, probably right as your pregnancy tips into third trimester, leaving your employer with the perfect three-month window to hire and train your replacement.
Pros: Definitely the option that leaves your professional reputation most intact, since you will not be one of “those” pregnant women who take advantage of the company’s leave benefits. And also, OH YEAH, you’re not actually taking advantage of the company’s leave benefits.
Cons: You may lose out on ANY paid maternity leave benefits, as your baby’s birth would likely officially be your last day of employment, unless you arrange some part-time/freelance work afterward to tie up loose ends. You also run the risk of losing your health insurance, if the company decides to let you go ahead of time. (They can’t fire you for being pregnant, but they CAN lay you off once you’ve announced your intention to leave.) That can leave you shelling out a fortune for COBRA or having to change plans and providers in the middle of a very medical-claim intensive time. This could cause some premature financial hardship, or the fear that you’re burning your bridges BEFORE you cross them, especially if your situation changes after the baby is born (i.e. your partner loses their job and/or health insurance or some other financial crisis). And also, OH YEAH, not every woman can honestly make the decision “for sure” before the baby arrives.
Is It For You? If you have already made up your mind 100% to stay home, then legally and ethically, this is your option. Anything else veers into a muddy gray area of insurance scamming — not to mention mega-unprofessional behavior. If you KNOW, your job should should know too. (And if you’re hoping to keep the door open for freelance work or a return to the workforce some day, this is the best way to keep your company’s trust.)
At my office, my boss asked for a meeting about two months before I was due to “discuss my plans.” While I was planning to return to work, this would have been the perfect time to volunteer any plans to stay home (or desire to drop to part-time). Then I could have laid out some major projects and goals from my to-do list that I would like to finish, and offered to interview and train a replacement, positioning myself as a valuable team member for the next few months, greatly reducing the chances that they would have preemptively laid me off right then and there.
NOT-SO-PERFECT-WORLD OPTION: Tell them while you’re still on leave that you won’t be coming back as planned.
Pros: Benefits! Paid time off! No disruption in your health care through the birth and multiple well-baby visits! A chance to actually live the life of a SAHM before committing to it full-time! Plus, if you really hadn’t made up your mind, you’re not REALLY leaving them in the lurch and defrauding the system, right? Right?
Cons: Professional ire, disbelief at your claim that you simply changed your mind. Adding to the crap about pregnant women gaming the system and raising benefit premiums and no respect for their bosses and coworkers grumble grumble. Possibility of having to pay benefits back or even legal action, if your company is litigious or extremely strict about their leave policies.
Is It For You? Have you made up your mind for sure? Then: No. Maternity leave is, really, more of a retention benefit. It’s not something they owe you, like a bank of unused vacation days. It’s designed for women who DO plan to return to the workplace (however crappy of a design it is in this country).
But if you haven’t made up your mind, you’re not a terrible person for keeping the option of returning around. It’s a HUGE decision — life-changing, with life-long repercussions for your career and earnings power and retirement — and I’m not sure the third trimester, before the reality of motherhood really hits you, is a fair time to expect every woman to know for sure. Plenty of women change their minds during maternity leave.
However, this is still different than say…waiting until week 11-and-a-half to tell them you aren’t coming back. You should always, ALWAYS try to give them as much notice as you possibly can. Otherwise you’re veering into a moral, ethical and legal gray area. It’s also short-sighted to assume that you will be a SAHM forever and ever AMEN, and will never regret robbing your bridges at gunpoint before setting them on fire.
Internet message boards are full of people figuring out how to squeeze every last paid option before quitting, while others argue that hey, that’s really not cool. Any discussion of a maternity leave overhaul in this country — having companies provide longer leave, more generous leave times in hopes of upping retention — brings out the folk who have a bitter story to tell about how a woman totally screwed their office over with her sneaky leave-taking when she clearly never had any intention of returning. Hey, I’ve got one of those stories too: A friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend of mine worked for a particularly troubled company that shuddered through round after round of layoffs. Late in her pregnancy, she was offered a severance package in order to save someone else’s job, on the off chance she was planning to quit anyway. She turned it down, kept her job, went on leave…and then quit right before her scheduled return, as was her plan all along.
HOWEVER, of course, real life rarely sticks to schedule. If your baby was a preemie, or has health problems, or you were on bedrest and it all mucked with your leave time and nothing is what you expected it to be like six to 12 weeks later, then you may not have a choice. Similarly if your daycare falls through or your baby still won’t take a bottle or your office announces it’s moving four exits up your area’s most congested highway.
If you do decide to stay home AFTER your baby is born: quit in person, with your HR person and your boss present. Offer to do WHATEVER YOU CAN to help with the transition — working from home, coming in for interviews and meetings, organizing your files and to-do lists and job description. Anything to offset the perception of being all, “Thanks for the money, suckers!” before flouncing out the door.
I probably promised a good 25 different people on a good 25 different occasions that yes, I would be coming back to work after my leave. I don’t think they believed me. So it was tempting to assume that quitting as soon as the short-term disability payments dried up was an okay option, because it’s just “what everybody did.” And despite all my promises, I WAS unsure about the decision. We were waitlisted at half a dozen daycares with no sure-fire spot in sight. I didn’t know whether my salary would be worth the expense of childcare and commuting and even whether I was honestly all that interested in my job anymore, as freelance writing opportunities seemed like something possibly within my grasp. But I also didn’t know if I’d like being home with a newborn day in and day out, whether I’d be breastfeeding or bottlefeeding or suffering from PPD or so madly in love with motherhood that I was willing to do whatever it took to soak up every second of it. I just wasn’t ready to make the decision before the baby was born or even during my leave — so I went back. Because I’d promised, and because I wasn’t sure. A few months in and suddenly I was sure. Luckily, by that point, maternity leave benefits were a thing of the past, and I was able to quit like any other employee: two weeks’ notice, letter of resignation, a contract arrangement to continue a slew of my duties from home until a replacement could be found and/or I was no longer interested in the work.
It remains the best — and BY FAR, the toughest — decision I’ve ever made.
Those of you who genuinely grappled with the decision of whether or not to return: What were the details behind YOUR decision, when and how did you tell your job, and how did it go? Any regrets? Anybody do anything as remotely awesome as this?
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