Years before having kids, my husband and I decided that once our family grew, I would no longer work full-time. Sure, we knew it would require adjusting our lifestyle. But we thought we were willing to make any sacrifices necessary to allow me to be the primary caregiver for our children.

Then I got pregnant.

It was time to tell my boss and coworkers our plans for parental leave. I was nervous. In my heart, I wanted to go back to work part-time after the baby. I wasn’t even sure though if that was an option.

Would I need to leave altogether? Could my husband and I really survive without my income?

Plus, my team at work was relatively small. I knew that as genuinely happy as they would be for the news of my pregnancy, my cutting back hours would also put a significant burden on them.

Who would cover my duties while I was out on parental leave? Then (ideally) who would pick up my extras when I returned in a reduced capacity? How would this affect my colleagues and our workflow? Would anything be lost in the shuffle? I cared about the organization and people I worked with. So I wanted the transition to be smooth for them, too.

Cost for the company

Decisions about work hours and career paths add to the thrilling but anxiety-ridden season of pregnancy. Really, determining maternity leave and postpartum work plans is just the beginning of the unavoidable tension all parents face. Balancing the responsibilities of home with the responsibilities of providing financially doesn’t have an exact formula.

This begs the question: How much leave should companies offer employees when a child is born or adopted? My heart and my head don’t agree on this issue.

My heart feels that new moms and dads should be given as much time as they need for parental leave. Family trumps everything! Time nurturing a newborn is priceless.

But my brain reasons that there actually is a cost for the the company when someone becomes a working mother. Like the burdens I knew my company was faced with when I became a mom. A company can only offset the new parent’s responsibilities and absorb their workload for so long. The needs and expectations of colleagues and clients must be taken into account as much as the needs of the new parent.

The Family Medical Leave Act requires employers of 50 more employees to guarantee job protection for new parents for up to 12 weeks. The law doesn’t specify pay regulations, though. Some argue that the government should mandate compensation during this time to prioritize and protect families. But what effects could that have on the companies’ well being?

While an employee is on leave, employers have to hire a temporary worker, require more of existing employees, or simply suffer losses in productivity during a parent’s absence. None of those are great options.

Cost for the family

This also begs the question of responsibility. Who is responsible for making ends meet when a new baby joins a family – the new parents, their employers, or the government?

Besides compensation, the other elephant in the room is the questionable future of the mom and new child. It’s impossible to know how you will feel or what you will want when your child is born.

In my case, I knew I wanted to come back part-time. But that assumed my baby girl and I were healthy. Besides health, other unknown factors like unexpected medical bills or the potential of postpartum depression can drastically shift the best laid maternity plans. A family and a company can never fully project how the ongoing work/life relationship will go.

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Flex is best

Simply put, the best postpartum work arrangements are flexible ones.

Some companies like PricewaterhouseCoopers and General Mills offer just that. Their phase-back programs, which seem beneficial for both the new parent and the employer, allow an employee to come back after leave in a part-time capacity but with full-time compensation. Executives have shared that, while there is a cost in this arrangement, giving the new parent time to adjust to responsibilities at work and at home is considered an investment in employee satisfaction and retention.

Ultimately, there is no one approach to parental leave that will work for every family or every company. Ideally, expectant parents have healthy conversations with each other and their supervisors to determine what’s sustainable for the new parent and the company. Then agree upon a flexible plan for all as the family prepares to grow. Be ready to make adjustments as needed to prioritize caring for your family.

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