Having a baby can be an emotional, physical, hormonal, and, in the United States, really expensive experience. Currently, under U.S. law, women get up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a newborn child, and only 20% of U.S. companies offer paid maternity leave.

“We have definitely talked to a lot of people who were surprised to find out they had no right to a paid maternity leave,” says Elizabeth Gedmark, a Senior Staff Attorney at Better Balance who frequently helps women negotiate for maternity benefits. “They will call us and we have to be the bearer of bad news and they will be extremely surprised to find out they don’t have benefits.”

With this in mind, here is Gedmark’s advice on how to start this conversation with your employers.

Know your rights
Gedmark says the first step is to understand what you are entitled to — a list of federal and state rights are available on Better Balance’s website. You should also read your company’s handbook, check with the professional union, if applicable, and look at the sick day and disability policies. “You also want to ask around and ask a lot of friends,” Gedmark says. “You can do that without even disclosing you are pregnant, by saying you are curious or you have a friend in that situation.”

Do your homework
Gedmark encourages women to understand and monitor the market, which can provide data points for negotiations. For example, you can research the policies at competing companies and show those to your employer to make your case. “You can then show your employer it is really good for their bottom line to support this type of policy,” Gedmark says.

Go in with a plan
Before you start the conversation it may be helpful to decide what you want out of the conversation. Some women might want to make sure they will be paid while others want to make sure they have time off. “You want to think about what is most important to you,” Gedmark says. “If you say you want to have four months off, no matter what, but you are fortunate enough to have flexibility around payment, then you might be focusing on the length of time as opposed to the payment. Or you might want some combination of paid and unpaid leave.”

Build maternity leave into salary negotiations
If possible, Gedmark encourages women to build maternity leave into their contract discussions. Starting these conversations early might also help you decide if the company is a good fit. “If you are in a situation where you are interviewing for jobs, it could be part of the negotiation while you are interviewing,” Gedmark says. “This assumes you feel comfortable, but you are under no legal obligation to do so.”

Look at other forms of leave the company is offering
Make sure to monitor if the company makes other types of time off available to employees. “From a legal perspective look at other leaves that are not a parental leave,” Gedmark says. “If someone was given six months paid for a surgery or for a sabbatical and then they are trying to say you can’t get a paid maternity leave that could be sexist depending on the circumstances.”

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