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What is Maternity Leave?

Tricia Christensen
Updated Feb 17, 2024
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Maternity leave is the time one takes slightly before and/or after the birth of a child to recover from birth and to care for the new child. People may also take maternity leave if they are adopting a child. Often, in the US, the term maternity leave is now replaced with family leave, as either a mother or father may be eligible to take time off, according to the 1993 Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

Under FMLA a person who has worked for a company full-time for at least one year, and works for an employer with 50 or more employees is entitled to maternity leave or family leave of 12 weeks in a year. Generally one must apply for leave 30 days prior to taking the leave, though arrangements can be made if a premature birth occurs. It is just easier in most cases, to apply for the leave sooner, so one is not bothered with paperwork after the birth of a child.

Maternity leave taken under FMLA means that the person taking the leave cannot lose his or her job during the 12 weeks. Upon returning to work, the person may resume his or her present position without taking a lower salary or a demotion. Additionally, in some states, during maternity leave some may be able to have a portion of their salary paid by short-term disability leave. This is a relatively new option and is only available in some states.

Most people cover the financial loss of maternity leave by taking a combination of vacation and sick time, before resorting to short-term disability, which may be a far cry from normal pay. However, some pay is better than no pay and may help tide over a person with a new baby until she can return to work.

In some cases, a company may pay for maternity leave. Some companies offer six weeks of paid maternity leave as part of an employment package. This is not exactly common, and more likely, since FMLA provides for job security during maternity leave, no such package may be offered.

Some are able to take maternity leave as part of a sabbatical, if they are teachers, or in a few other professions. This means they receive either all or part of their pay for six months to a year. They may also continue to receive health benefits.

Most companies will also continue to pay health benefits during family leave, but the employee must still contribute his or her share. In rare cases, maternity leave or family leave may result in paying the full cost of one’s health benefits, in COBRA programs. This is relatively rare.

Some teachers are able to plan to take maternity leave as the last part of a teaching year. This allows the teacher to extend the time one can be with a new baby. If maternity leave begins with the birth of the baby in March, for example, the mother might have until August or September when the new school year begins, before returning to work.

While many are glad to see that maternity leave does not now result in job loss when covered by FMLA, some advocates feel that maternity leave does not extend far enough in its scope. Most point to the rather poor results of sending children to daycare at an early age. As well, most members of the American Academy of Pediatricians feel babies benefit most from being breastfed for the first six months. 12 weeks of leave may mean a woman must pump breastmilk or give up breastfeeding when she returns to work, although some states now give mothers the right to pumping breaks and private facilities.

Some point to the revolutionary achievement in France of offering women 12 months of fully paid maternity leave upon the birth of a child. Advocates for longer paid leave suggest that this would help parent and child bond more successfully, encourage breastfeeding for a longer period of time, and help unburden the packed daycare centers in the US. Others argue it is unfair and financially prohibitive to require companies to pay for such a leave and hold jobs open for women who have, by choice, had a child.

WiseGEEK is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGEEK contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By MissDaphne — On May 27, 2011

@jennythelib - First of all, congratulations on your new "niephew." Hope mom and baby are both healthy.

It's against the law to discriminate against a pregnant woman. They can't fire her when they find out she's pregnant. Whether they can fire her for not being able to come to work for six weeks is trickier, because it depends on how they would treat another employee with a medical condition.

So if they had a guy break his wrist last year and they fired him, yeah, they can fire your sister. But if they let someone (with less than a year of service) take off to have gallbladder surgery, than they would be in legal trouble if they fired your sister.

Just tell her to do such a good job that they can't imagine the office without her! Good luck to her!

By jennythelib — On May 25, 2011

What are the maternity leave regulations if you have NOT worked for a company for at least a year? Can they just fire you? My sister just started a new job and then--happy surprise--found out she's pregnant. She's terrified of telling her boss and is afraid she'll just get fired and then have to find a new job with a newborn at home.

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen


With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a WiseGEEK contributor, Tricia...
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