By Alaina Trivax, WCI Columnist

Preparing for maternity (or paternity) leave can be challenging—not only are you getting ready to take care of a brand new baby, but you also need to figure out how this time off will impact your family’s finances. Is the leave paid or unpaid? Will your job be protected for your return? Will you remain eligible for healthcare and other benefits? It’s a lot to manage.

I’ve written a few other columns about how my family manages our finances. Here, I share my experience planning for maternity leave and highlight the stories of two physician friends who are doing the same. Welcoming a new baby is exciting, but read on to learn how our families are navigating the financial aspects of this milestone.


How to Prepare for Maternity Leave Financially


Alaina’s Maternity Leave

Tell us a little about yourself and your family.

I am a middle school teacher and am married to a PM&R attending. My husband, Brandon, and I live with our young son in southeast Michigan; we’re expecting another baby boy in early 2022. Though it was never the only factor, we have certainly planned the growth of our family around a few key stages of his training and career. Even before getting married, we knew that we would likely be living apart for his fellowship training, so we held off on having kids for a few years longer than we might have otherwise.

What was your maternity leave like?

My employer, an independent school, offers teachers a combination of short-term disability leave and FMLA time for maternity leave. Our first baby arrived on the very last day of the school year. I stayed home with our son for the duration of my summer vacation. The paychecks that I receive each summer are actually retroactive payments from work completed during that previous school year, so I received full pay for those months. My school does offer short-term disability for those out on maternity leave, but it is only applicable for the first 60 days after delivery. Since I was already receiving full compensation all summer, it didn’t make sense to apply for that. Once the new school year started, I then took 12 weeks of unpaid FMLA time. In total, I spent a little more than five months at home with our new baby.

We’re expecting another baby boy this coming March. The timing should work out fairly well again—it looks like he’ll arrive 12-14 weeks before the end of the school year. I will use the short-term disability insurance this time, which will make me eligible for 60% pay for the first six weeks of my leave. This time will count toward my FMLA days, so I’ll have an additional six weeks of unpaid leave after that. I might need to go back to work for a week or two before summer vacation begins, though historically, my employer has been pretty flexible in these situations. Once the school year ends, my leave will end, too. Over our summer vacation, I’ll again receive full compensation. I should be home with this baby for about five months, too.

Did your spouse take any leave from their job? How did that play into things?

With our first baby, the timing worked out fairly well for my husband to be home. He was about halfway through the last month of his out-of-state fellowship but he got home in time for the delivery. Excluding one quick trip back to wrap up things at work, he used vacation days for the last two weeks of his fellowship. The start date at his new attending position wasn’t until mid-July, so, in all, he had about four weeks at home with the baby and me.

This time around, we’re thinking he’ll take about a week off. His employer does not have a formal paternity leave policy—he’ll have to use vacation days and the other staff will just cover for him.

What did this maternity leave mean for your family financially?

I am not the primary earner in my family. However, we are enrolled in the healthcare plan offered by my employer, an expense to which I contribute each paycheck. I also contribute to my retirement account, an HSA, and an FSA with each paycheck. These pre-tax benefits are what we miss most when I am on unpaid maternity leave.

With our first baby, the loss of my salary coincided with a dramatic increase in my husband’s income, so we really didn’t notice much of a change. We had maintained a low cost of living throughout his fellowship year and just continued that lifestyle into the first few months of his attending career. Since then, our obligations and expenses have increased. We are now maxing out my 403(b) contributions and are sending a pretty large sum to student loans (at least $6,000 per month). We’ve also added daycare and other expenses for our older son—part of which is offset by the FSA to which I contribute. When I take an unpaid leave this coming spring, I think we’ll feel it a little more.

We’ve been lucky that both of my maternity leaves have lined up with my school’s summer vacation, giving me two extra months of paid time at home. With our first baby, I did consider going right back to school after summer break—he would have been about 8 weeks old—but at the encouragement of some coworkers, I took the full 12 weeks of FMLA time. That was absolutely the right choice for me and for our family, so I plan to maximize my time at home with our second baby as well.

The unpaid time off is annoying, but we’re fortunate to make it work with just a little extra monitoring of our finances. And honestly, the childcare logistics of me returning to work any earlier would likely have negated any income I’d make. We love our daycare, but the wait to get in is incredibly long. We joined the waitlist in January 2020 for our first child, and a spot didn’t open up until October, just a few weeks before I returned to work; our second baby will be entering daycare in August 2022, almost a year after we signed up for his spot. If we needed to make it work, there are obviously other options—a different daycare, a short-term nanny, help from family—but having me stay home as long as possible is the easiest solution.

How did you prepare for these financial impacts? What advice do you have for others preparing for maternity or other family leave?

I calculated the income and benefit contributions that will be lost during my unpaid leave this spring, and we have been saving up for them in advance. We also plan to adjust the contributions to our FSA, HSA, and my retirement account on the checks before and after my leave to contribute as much as possible. I met with my work’s payroll department and asked them to prioritize these pre-tax benefits—even if it means my net paycheck is fairly small.

If you are preparing for an unpaid leave, I encourage you to consider your total compensation package when evaluating the loss of income. It’s easy to look at your direct deposit amounts in your bank and to add up how much money you’ll be losing. Be sure to review your paystubs, too, to account for retirement and other benefit contributions. Look over these with your partner and consider your family’s financial plan. Obviously, you’re taking the leave to support the best interests of your family. So consider, what are your financial priorities during this time? We will be prioritizing the contributions to my retirement account and hope to maintain our aggressive student loan repayment plan, but your family’s goals might be different.


Dr. Megan’s Maternity Leave

Tell us a little about yourself and your family.

I am a hospital-employed OB-GYN attending in southeast Michigan. My husband is a pulmonology and critical care fellow at another system in the area. We live in Royal Oak, Michigan, and just had our first child in June 2021. We did not get married until we finished residency and, at that point, finances did not play a role in considering when to have children. We were both anxious to get started growing our family.

What was your maternity leave like?

I took maternity leave one year into being an attending. My employer offers six weeks of paid leave for a vaginal delivery and eight weeks for a Cesarean delivery. I am offered up to 12 weeks total of “bonding time,” though those additional weeks would be unpaid. I ended up having a vaginal delivery and therefore had six weeks of paid and six weeks of unpaid leave. I actually went back two days before the full 12 weeks so that I could start in the middle of a week, which seemed a little more palatable than diving back in on a Monday.

There is an interesting caveat to my hospital’s leave policy: if an employee has used less than half of their 20 vacation days before starting leave, their remaining days will automatically be reduced to 10 upon returning to work. So, whether I'd taken three or nine vacation days before my maternity leave, I’d have only ten days remaining when I came back. These days would not be added onto my leave, but just considered a part of the leave. This just meant that I made sure I took exactly 10 days of vacation prior to my delivery. I didn’t want to “lose” any vacation days!

Did your spouse take any leave from their job? How did that play into things?

preparing financially for maternity leave

My husband is in fellowship, so this was a little tricky. He was on the second week of a two-week stretch of overnight shifts covering the ICU during the time I had to be induced for medical reasons. Luckily, his co-fellows worked it out to cover the rest of the week for him so he could be with me. He had about a week off before going back to work. Like most fellows, he has to request vacation time pretty far in advance. Since we weren’t sure when the baby would come, he had requested his vacation time to be about a month after the due date so he would be sure to get time home with the baby. We knew that his schedule would not be the most flexible in fellowship, but we made things work.

What did this maternity leave mean for your family financially?

I am currently the primary breadwinner for our family. We devote a majority of my husband’s fellowship salary to his student loans (which are higher than mine), while also maxing out our retirement funds. As part of my job, I am paid an additional moonlighting wage to cover labor and delivery on nights and weekends in addition to my salary. On average, I am doing two or three of these shifts per month, which gives us a decent amount of extra income. We had a significant amount of savings (living like a resident with an attending salary!), so the six weeks without a paycheck from me did not affect us too much. The missed wages were quickly recovered when I returned to work and had a large number of call shifts right away.

How did you prepare for these financial impacts? What advice do you have for others preparing for maternity or other family leave?

Since we consistently save and max out our retirement funds, we did not need to make any big changes to plan for my maternity leave. My biggest advice is to be consistent with your finances and budget before thinking about family leave so that you don’t have any surprises—especially if you are in a position without paid leave. You may also want to explore options for some additional income to help offset any lost wages.

In my case, the extra shifts happened to already be part of my job; for others, this may mean some additional moonlighting at your hospital. It is also important to know your employer’s policy on family leave before you actually need to use it, so you are aware of the expectations and potential loss of income. When interviewing for jobs, this is always something to get clearly stated. Another important question to ask is how long you need to be employed before you are eligible for their leave benefits. Along with a few other qualifications, FMLA generally becomes an option after one year of employment; there may be other leave options if you need the time sooner than that. Knowing these policies in advance could impact your decision-making.


Dr. Mariah Burnell’s Maternity Leave

Tell us a little about yourself and your family.

I am a family medicine attending in central Michigan and just completed my first year out after residency. I am married with two children (boys, 3 years and 6 months old), and my husband is a self-employed mortgage broker. He is also the primary caregiver for our children, so his job, and subsequently his income, has been put on the backburner. The timing of starting our family was 100% influenced by my career and stage in training.

What was your maternity leave like?

We had our first son when I was starting my second year of FM residency. At the time, my husband was working for a finance company so we had both his income and my residency income. I took eight weeks off. For the first three weeks, I was required to use up all of my PTO days. The next three weeks were covered with FMLA, and I received 60% of my pay. Then, we decided to have me take an additional two weeks off completely unpaid. My hospital’s policy was technically six weeks for a vaginal delivery and eight weeks for a C-section delivery. I had the former.

We decided to add to our family during the first year of my job as an attending. I started work in September and we had our son in May the next year. As an attending, I am technically employed by the same hospital system that trained me—just at a different location. This meant that I was again eligible for FMLA coverage even if I delivered less than one year into my new role. I was told by HR that if I was a true first-year employee, I may not have been eligible for FMLA protection. The benefits for my second maternity leave were slightly better than with my firstborn. I took 9 1/2 weeks off this time. The first two weeks were covered by PTO. The next four weeks, I again received 60% of my pay. The last 3 1/2 weeks were unpaid. My PTO was given to me on an accrual basis—being a newer employee, I didn’t have all that much accrued prior to my leave. If I did, I could have used more to make up for lost income or to extend my leave.

Did your spouse take any leave from their job? How did that play into things?

After our first son was born, my husband was able to take two weeks of paid paternity leave. We ultimately decided for him to leave his job to stay at home as the primary caregiver after my maternity leave was up.

My husband was already working from home once we had our second son. He decided to put building his business on the backburner to help care for our children.

What did this maternity leave mean for your family financially?

Our first maternity leave did not impact our family in a significant financial way. At the time, I wasn’t contributing to any retirement, and my student loan payment was pretty insignificant being on a residency salary. (During residency, I had refinanced my student loans with SoFi and just had a $100 minimum monthly payment during this time.) We continued adding to our savings and worked on paying off small debts—like my car, for example. Our goal at the time was to reduce our monthly expenditures as much as possible because we were on a fairly limited income.

My second maternity leave was definitely more noticeable to us financially. But our expenses have also changed pretty significantly. Our new house has a higher mortgage payment. My student loan payment is significantly higher. And I had started (finally!) contributing to my retirement. We adjusted a few things to account for the reduced income, including pausing my retirement savings during this time.

How did you prepare for these financial impacts? What advice do you have for others preparing for maternity or other family leave?

To prepare for both of my maternity leaves, my husband and I reviewed our overall finances and tried to identify areas where we had a little flexibility. Whether preparing for a paid or unpaid leave, I would recommend that others work with their partner to prepare for all of the additional expenses of having children. My husband and I worked together to decide how we would manage the demands of childcare after our leaves ended. For now, this has meant putting his career on the backburner, and we’re both grateful to be in a position to make that choice.


Planning Your Own Maternity (or Paternity) Leave

At the end of the day, our families are our priority. The three of us (and our husbands) were thrilled to welcome healthy babies, and we are having an absolute blast watching them grow. I’m writing this now with my 18-month-old snuggled next to me looking through a book.

In the grand scheme of things, that initial maternity or paternity leave is such a short period. Still, those first few weeks or months are incredibly important—time is needed to adjust to a new family dynamic, to physically heal, and to figure out how to take care of a tiny baby. For the three of us, our maternity leave options weren’t great, and we each made different choices based on our family’s priorities and needs. I maximized my time at home while also maintaining my benefit contributions; Dr. Megan balanced her unpaid maternity leave with a plan to make up the lost income through additional call shifts; Dr. Mariah, as the primary earner in her family, had to prioritize her family’s financial stability over an unpaid extended leave. These were difficult and personal decisions.

If you’re preparing for an upcoming maternity or paternity leave, do your research and know your priorities. Get as much information from your employer as you can—meet with HR and payroll, review your contract and employee handbook, talk to colleagues about their experiences. Then, with your partner, figure out your personal and financial priorities. It’s beyond frustrating to have to choose between your family and your career, but that’s the decision many folks have to make when preparing for a new baby. Hopefully, you can find a solution that works well for you and your family.

What do you think? How did you prepare for maternity or paternity leave? Did you have to make any major financial sacrifices? Comment below!