Preparing for Maternity Leave Amid COVID and Unexpected News

I'll come right out and say it: I am not an "expert" on preparing for maternity leave. This is my first time doing it!


And before we get into the article, let's do the Airing of Privileges: I have a job that pays above the median income for my area. I reasonably expect that job to exist at least through August 2021 and probably beyond then. I'm married and my husband also has steady employment. We have medical insurance and a healthy emergency fund. Our families are supportive and close by. This pregnancy is 1000% planned and wanted.


Now for this article! I'll share the bullet points up front before starting my two-thousand word diatribe.... These are some steps I'm suggesting from my current experience as a first-time mom-to-be, in an effort to lessen the financial stress of maternity leave and get some other important things taken care of.



Before Becoming Pregnant (If Possible)

  • Get familiar with your employer's maternity leave policy.

  • Find out if your employer is covered by the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), and if they have to give FMLA leave to you. Generally, workplaces with 50 or more employees are required to provide it -- if an employee has worked at least twelve months for the company (including seasonal work) and at least 1250 hours in the twelve months prior to the requested leave.

  • If you find that your company's leave is unpaid, your company doesn't have to provide you with FMLA leave, or the amount of paid leave will not meet your needs, find a short term disability policy that covers childbirth. This may be available through your employer, or you can purchase one on your own.

  • Go over your health insurance coverage, including deductibles, copays, coinsurance, and the out of pocket max. If you have an high-deductible plan with an health savings account (HSA), this is a good time to start throwing cash in it. Read this article for more details on getting health insurance if you don't currently have it -- Medicaid or CHIP may be options to get coverage while you're pregnant because you can enroll at any time during the year.

  • If you happen to be reading this blog post around the date it was published (November 2020,) it's open enrollment time in the ACA Marketplace until December 15th for 2021 coverage! Visit here to preview plans. But keep in mind that the Supreme Court is currently hearing arguments against the ACA. Should ACA be changed or eliminated, that will surely change the healthcare landscape -- read more on NPR in this November 10th article.

While You Are Pregnant -- Health-Related Finances

  • Stay on top of prenatal checkups. No insurance? Getting married is an open enrollment event but becoming pregnant unfortunately is not -- so check with your workplace to find out when you can enroll in their plan, or check out ACA coverage from 11/1-12/15 for coverage the following year. (Assuming that ACA continues to exist.) Get more information on pregnancy and insurance from Healthcare.gov. Also, you can reach out to Planned Parenthood or community health centers for free or low cost prenatal care.

  • Go to the dentist. The CDC explains, "Nearly 60 to 75% of pregnant women have gingivitis, an early stage of periodontal disease that occurs when the gums become red and swollen from inflammation that may be aggravated by changing hormones during pregnancy. [...] Periodontitis has been associated with poor pregnancy outcomes, including preterm birth and low birth weight." In the course of eight or nine months, everyone will be due for at least one routine cleaning. According to Cigna and my assorted Google searches, an adult cleaning ranges from $90-200 without insurance depending on location.

  • Sign up for WIC food assistance if you are eligible. Eligibility will vary based on income, location, and household size, so Google WIC and your state to find out if you qualify. You can sign up as soon as you know you are pregnant.

While You Are Pregnant -- Other Finances

  • Revisit your household budget with maternity leave in mind. How much time off are you taking, and how much will you be getting paid during that time -- if at all? If you have a partner who earns income, how much of the monthly expenses will that person be able to cover?

  • Reduce fixed expenses. This could mean small tasks like making that phone call to your car insurance company, or larger considerations like refinancing a loan if that makes sense in your "grand scheme."

  • Plan for the loss of income. Reallocate current savings (aside from HSA money) to your maternity fund, whether you just add extra money to your emergency fund or create a separate account. If you don't have a lot of wiggle room, make the minimum payments on debts so you can build up your cash savings.

  • Secure term life insurance for you and your partner. The gurus recommend 10x your annual salary in coverage -- but if those monthly premiums are too expensive, just get *something.* See if any discounted rates are available to you through union membership, veteran status, etc. Even if you already have life insurance through your employer, you may want to supplement that with an another policy; in addition to medical and funeral costs, life insurance can give the surviving person breathing room to sort out the loss of income and childcare. (And if you need any extra convincing, read this article which includes a state-by-state chart of typical end of life expenses.)

  • Get a will made up if you don't already have one, including designations for guardianship of children, power of attorney, and a healthcare proxy; if you already have these documents, update the will with guardianship of children. This might not be "fun," but there's no time like the present. Again, see if any discounted legal services are available to you while shopping around.

Some More Ideas

  • Bolster your passive income streams. I'm not saying drive yourself nuts, but it can't hurt to have money appearing in your bank account or Paypal every so often during your luxurious unpaid U-S-of-A maternity leave.

  • Open a credit card with a no-interest introductory period. That way, you can make larger baby purchases and pay them off at your own pace -- as long as you're confident that you can pay the full balance before the introductory period ends.

  • Keep an eye on Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace for local deals on used baby gear. Anything except a car seat is fair game and your baby will puke all over it anyways.

  • Read "Hacking My Unpaid Maternity Leave" from A Dimed Saved for tips on stocking the fridge and finding income in unexpected places.

That's all the advice I've got, since I'm still in the "While You Are Pregnant" phase! Stay tuned for a future article tentatively titled "Kids Are Expensive."


Now for the long version... Here are the details of how I'm approaching my own upcoming maternity leave from a financial standpoint. This is also where the "unexpected news" comes in.


I got a new job in 2018, and although I wasn't anywhere near pregnant yet, I hoped that having kids would be on the horizon. So the first thing I did when I got my contract was flip to the maternity section..... And the second thing I did, at least once the job began, was to start hoarding my sick days. Childbirth was referred to as a temporary disability for which I could take a six-week leave, using sick days to get paid during that time -- if I had them. The contract provided 15 sick days per year that rolled over, so I couldn't take too many "mental health days" if I wanted to get a paycheck during a future maternity leave.


I had worked in my previous school district for nine years (not counting a two-year leave of absence to teach at a charter school) and had accrued around sixty sick days there. An older, wiser coworker told me when I was just getting started not to burn my sick time, because it would become my de facto short term disability coverage. But now that I had changed districts and my stockpile was wiped out, I looked into the Aflac short term disability plan that my new job offered. For $37 a paycheck, I would have about two-thirds of my salary covered in case of accident or illness -- plus, a guaranteed childbirth payout of several thousand dollars. Sign me up! (Note that most short-term disability policies will not cover pre-existing conditions -- mine had the caveat that the childbirth payout was not available until ten months after the policy began.)


By November of 2019, my boyfriend had become the Heavy Metal Husband. We'd considered pushing the wedding off until April 2020 when I had school vacation, but thankfully we made things happen in the fall.... Who knew a pandemic would sweep the globe just months later? My doctor said not to wait out the pandemic before trying to get pregnant; he was more concerned about my age resulting in a high risk of birth defects than all the coronavirus unknowns.


Let's just say we followed the doctor's orders. In May 2020, a few weeks shy of my 36th birthday, we were delighted to find out that we were expecting! My delight, however, came with a sidecar (main car?) of crushing anxiety. I'd read the statistics on first trimester miscarriages and I was determined to guard the news of this pregnancy like it was a nuclear detonation code. I didn't want to get too "attached" to the baby if the worst should happen.... And then have to rehash the outcome to every family member and friend. I probably spent more time during those three months being worried than excited.


And finally we passed the three-month marker! Our assorted screenings came back normal, I felt great, and everything seemed to be going swimmingly. We didn't share the news on social media, but we couldn't wait to tell our friends and extended (or in some cases, immediate) family the good news. Baby Heavy Metal will be a first grandchild on both sides and everyone was thrilled. Personally, I felt like I could finally let myself be happy. This was really happening!


I still felt anxiety, but now it was mostly related to catching COVID while pregnant; a conversation with my HR department where the words "coronavirus" and "take the baby away" were used in the same sentence put me instantly through the roof. If you can't tell by now, it's part of my personality to find something to be nervous about...


Then came the 18-week anatomy scan.


What I expected to be a routine visit on the Friday before the new school year became a day that's still difficult to write about two months later. The ultrasound showed that Baby Heavy Metal has a cleft lip and palate. This birth defect occurs in 1 in 700 children and it's completely fixable -- but in some cases, it can accompany any number of permanent conditions ranging from "doesn't sound too bad" to "doesn't survive outside the hospital."


So cue another round of screenings and a nerve-wracking month of waiting for results. If I thought I was nervous before.... During this time, I had a lot of not-so-productive thoughts, both about myself as a mother and about all the adorable babies that were appearing in my newsfeed. Who did those parents think they were, showing off their healthy, carefree offspring?? Why did my kid get the short end of the stick? Was it because I dared to be happy about his existence after three months of pregnancy? Was it because we bought a used stroller on Craigslist? Which of my past transgressions was my baby being punished for?


I can't describe the relief we felt when Baby Heavy Metal's chromosome analysis and microarray came back normal at the end of September, as well as his fetal echocardiogram. As far as the doctors can tell, we are dealing with an isolated cleft.


So I started going down the cleft information rabbit hole, but that quickly became too upsetting. After reading a post in a Facebook cleft support group about an inconsolable baby being forcefed Tylenol by Nurse Ratchet after his palate repair surgery -- which still makes me cry, btw -- I figured that reading every single internet horror story was counterproductive. (What's wrong with giving the kid some Tylenol, one might ask? Mom thought it should be a suppository, so the baby wouldn't become adverse to eating because of the force feeding and have to get a stomach tube in order to eat.... #jesuschrist)


The group wasn't all doom and gloom; the before/after pictures were encouraging and I got some good advice on breast pumps. But I think I'll wait for my cleft parenting book to arrive from Amazon before diving in again....


And don't worry, I'm not sticking my head in the sand completely. HMH and I have met with the craniofacial team at our local hospital to get learn about Baby's treatment timeline: lip repair at 3-4 months and palate repair at 10-12 months. There will also be assorted hearing tests, speech therapy, feeding concerns... But the doctors say we are in good shape and not to get worked up about the day-to-day details until he is actually born and they see what's going on in there. In other words, "Don't go down the rabbit hole."


Which brings me back to something I have some semblance of control over: budgeting for maternity leave. Baby Heavy Metal is due at the end of January 2021. Before we found out about the palate issue, I figured I could stay home until the end of May, we could switch to HMH's health insurance when FMLA ran out, switch back to my insurance whenever my open enrollment came up... I'd go back to work for a couple weeks in June and be home for the summer. No prob, right?


Not when your kid will need face surgery right when FMLA runs out! The family deductible through HMH's employer plan is around $15,000, while my plan has a $4,000 deductible. If we were going to stay on my insurance and have me home, it would cost $2,700 per month for the coverage after I exhaust the twelve weeks of FMLA time. I racked my brain and Google for every health insurance solution -- even having Baby Heavy Metal on Husky, my state's low-income plan -- but at the end of the day, the most cost effective and least stressful solution is for me to go back to work.


(On that note, you'd be surprised how much money you can make and still qualify for some forms of assistance, depending on family size, housing/utility expenses, and cost of living in your area. Worth looking up! I've paid a lot of freakin' taxes in my life, I'd certainly take a little back from the government if circumstances called for it...)


Due to the coronavirus pandemic, my doctor and the school district both want me to leave in-person instruction two weeks before my due date -- and I'm more than happy to do so. The school district will start the FMLA clock when Baby Heavy Metal is born, so this won't cut into my time at home with him. (Which they don't *have* to do, so I'm grateful for this.) I have 35 sick days accrued over the three school years I've worked at this job, which I'll be able to start using right away.


Overall, I'm looking at 12-16 weeks out of work depending on when Baby Heavy Metal makes his appearance: seven weeks paid through my sick time, three unpaid but covered by my Aflac benefits, and the rest plain-old unpaid. I'm trying to "hack" prenatal appointments around the school district's hybrid learning schedule so I can save my three remaining personal days for when Baby goes for lip repair surgery.


So what's all this mean for the budget? During our brief time as a "DINK" couple (dual income, no kids), HMH and I made a lot of strides in Roth IRA savings. We have reallocated most of that money to a high yield savings account since September, but are still contributing to our respective workplace retirement plans. I've also stopped paying extra mortgage principal, and started putting most of my side hustle income in the maternity fund. The only non-cash savings we've increased is my HSA contribution.


After tallying our essential household expenses, we determined that our ramped-up savings should cover the shortfall for my unpaid leave without having to dip too far into the emergency fund. Hopefully our estimates for diapers and other baby supplies won't turn out to be laughable... (I'm sure they will, and you internet folks can have a good chuckle about it.) My parents are able to help us with childcare when I go back to work, in addition to HMH having his "weekend" during my workweek -- so we should be able to fully avoid daycare until the 2021-2022 school year begins.


We also completed the unexciting tasks of getting wills made up and finding HMH some additional life insurance. We now both have coverage that's at least double our annual salaries; it's not the recommended "10x," but better than what we had before. While the process was morbid, I could see these kind of things falling by the wayside once our energy is focused on taking care of our baby.


On a personal note, I've also begun talking with a therapist in an attempt to manage my anxiety. I've only had two appointments so far, so we'll see how it goes -- hopefully it will work better than Google's advice to wash away my worries with a nice bath and a cup of herbal tea. I want to be able to enjoy this time of anticipation rather than waste it being worried about things I can't control. (Like the COVID cases in my school district....) My concerns are valid, but letting them overcome the joy of starting our family isn't good for me, my very patient husband, or Baby Heavy Metal!


The process of working through maternity leave finances has also reminded me to count my blessings. Yes, the budget is going to be tight next year. Yes, our baby will need some unique care and there will be some tough days. However, our support network, health insurance, and income are as good as any middle class American family could hope for -- and in the midst of a pandemic, having a job and employer-provided health insurance is privilege enough in itself.


While my own situation is manageable and I can't account for every possible circumstance a person could encounter, the intent of this article is to offer ideas that apply to a range of scenarios (and to get some tough things off my chest). Federal employees recently were granted paid parental leave and some states are enacting it too (my state's leave act goes into effect in 2022, ironically), but overall the United States guarantees no paid maternity leave and offers only limited assistance for childcare and medical needs. This has many families facing less than ideal decisions -- and since The System is not providing an equal safety net at this time, individuals are left to figure out the best possible plan with whatever resources they have available.


It's clear that the United States needs universal paid maternity leave and an expansion of public health care options. With the presumptive election of Biden and Harris, this looks like more of a possibility than a pipe dream -- so let's keep reminding the oligarchs, er, elected officials to level the maternity leave playing field. If more than 120 countries on six continents have figured out how to value this irreplaceable time in a family's existence, why can't we?


What steps would you recommend to a person preparing for maternity leave? Leave a comment!


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