How to navigate maternity leave during COVID-19, from women who did it

No matter if it’s your first or your fifth, welcoming a child into the world changes our routines. And for those women who gave birth right before or during COVID-19 began rapidly spreading, they had an extra hurdle to overcome: maternity leave during a pandemic. 

Already, the United States is far beyond established nations in terms of what they offer for parental benefits. Under the Family and Medical Leave Act established in 1993, only those professionals who qualify are entitled to unpaid absence. This means that there is no nationally-mandated clause that pays new mothers or fathers to take time off to adjust to their new family. Some employers will go the extra mile to offer these benefits, but the latest data suggests only 16 percent do

If you are trying to figure out how to prepare for maternity leave, but your job is anything but steady, you may find these tips from two women helpful. Not only did they give birth as the world around them shifted, but they learned invaluable lessons along the way that could make your transition smoother:

Be flexible. 

On April 2, Amanda Greenberg and her husband celebrated the happy arrival of their second son. As the co-founders of Ballon, they knew taking space away from their company would be difficult. In the beginning, Greenberg planned on distancing herself from the brand’s day-to-day activities for two weeks. Though this period may seem short, since it was her second kiddo, she knew more of what to expect. 

Then, of course, the pandemic became more severe, and all businesses had to adapt on the fly. Since, like everyone else, they were weeding through unchartered territory, maternity leave didn’t go quite as planned. “We knew we needed to step up even more as leaders, as the people who are responsible for the safety of our team and the health of our company. We also needed to be there for our customers, who were navigating this period of great uncertainty and turbulence alongside us,” she explained. 

So, Greenberg remained as flexible as she could be, while also taking time to adjust to being a mom to two children. Though definitely not easy, she allowed herself to still be present for check-ins, calls and other aspects of running the company that she could do post-labor. 

Take your time to transition. 

Because she was the first salaried woman to become pregnant at the company, the marketing director for Playa Bowls, Erin McGreggor, was able to help set guidelines. She was offered 18 weeks to focus on her family and then was given a transition plan to slowly re-acclimate to working as a mother of three. For the first month ‘back to work’, she visited the office twice a week, the second month, three times a week, and the following month, four times a week. “With the pandemic, this has given me ample time to figure out how to find safe childcare for my kids if schools do not re-open as planned and still have time to bond with them at home,”. 

She went on leave on March 3 to give birth to her twin daughters and returned June 9. While much had changed—90+ stories temporarily shut down, new safety and diversity protocols, and so on—the long transition allowed her to get through leave and the pandemic easier. 

Process how you’re feeling—and try to be optimistic. 

If you ask Greenberg what it was like to give birth during the middle of a pandemic, she describes it as surreal. In the days leading up, COVID-19 infection rates were skyrocketing, and hospital protocols were changing daily. Given she was previously a public health researcher in Washington, D.C., Greenberg started paying attention right from the start, and her family quarantines before most. And though they had planned to fly in their parents to help them with their five-year-old in the beginning, they cancelled those plans. “That lack of community and support was one of the hardest parts about the whole experience. At times, I felt like I was in shock; other times, I felt very, very sad. One night in particular, just before our son arrived, I was really struggling with the fact that this was the world that we were bringing new life into, a world that was being shaped by stress, panic, and loss,” she shared.

Not all was lost though. Greenberg held onto her optimistic attitude and encourages other expectant parents to do the same. For her, silver linings could be found if she looked for them. “I expected to be traveling a lot just a few weeks after my ‘maternity leave,’ but because I was almost permanently at home, I was able to nurse with more freedom and fewer restrictions,” she continues. “We were also able to tightly bond as a family in new and beautiful ways.”

Talk to your company early. 

As soon as your comfortable, McGregor recommends having the maternity leave the discussion with your employer. And more importantly: asking for what you want and need during this challenging, stressful time. “So often as moms, we feel guilty about asking for what we need in fear of how we will be seen at our jobs, but the only way to truly make it work is to be honest and real about your expectations,” she continues. “The pandemic will continue to change the way we do things, so also having ideas on how you can work from home effectively and have your kids taken care of will be essential to mom survival.”

Remember you’re strong—and not alone. 

Under ‘normal’ conditions, the birth of a child joins together two families. It makes two people parents for the first, second or whatever time. But during COVID-19, it can feel as if you’re the only couple or woman expecting since so many aspects have gone solo. From check-up exams to who is allowed in the delivery room, big groups have not only been discouraged but also banned in most hospitals. However, Greenberg says it can be encouraging to remember that millions of babies were born during the pandemic around the world. And, if all of those mothers can do it, you can too. 

“I had never imagined getting dropped off at the hospital or giving birth by myself, and I had definitely never imagined getting through those weeks without all of the support that we thought we’d have,” she shares. “But, we did it, and we’re stronger as a family for it.”

Lean on people who want to help. 

When Greenberg returned home from the hospital, the house was empty. It was just them, and she described the feeling as overwhelmingly sad. “Up until that point, I had been so focused on getting to the end of this pregnancy with both the baby and me healthy and safe, and any brain space I had left was aimed at the company and our team,” she shared. “But when I first got home, the weight of it all hit me, and it was a hard night.”

In those early days and weeks, connecting with others is so incredibly important. And though it may look different now—asking for a delivery service for meals, rather than having someone over to meet the baby—it still matters. “We aren’t meant to birth and raise children on our own, but right now, we are all without community and distant from each other,” she adds. “So any way you find that helps you feel connected and supported as a parent and a person, pursue it. Because connection is all we’ve got. And hug those babies : they are the future.”