Parental Leave: A Primer

L. Schmoele 2016 (2)

Liisa Schmoele

By: Liisa Schmoele, ECPWG Treasurer and Wildlife Biologist (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

Like all of us, I am many things: wildlife biologist, federal employee, gardener, cyclist…you get the picture. I also recently became a mother. One thing that I am not is a human resources specialist, although I felt a little like one while I delved into the various leave policies when planningmy maternity leave. I want to share some of what I learned with you, fellow early career professional, who might be thinking you want to have, or adopt, children. This is meant to be a basic introduction to the Family and Medical Leave Act (available to most U.S. workers), and other types of leave available to federal employees. Unfortunately, I don’t have any specific information related to the additional policies provided by some states or private entities. However, if you live in California and do not work for the federal government, you pay into the state disability insurance program (check your pay stub) which provides paid leave to both mothers and their spouse/registered domestic partner.

The Fish and Wildlife Service didn’t have much information available online. I started “planning” my leave at least a year before I got pregnant, and at that point (and even early in my pregnancy), I wasn’t ready to let anyone know what a huge personal decision I was making. Luckily, other agencies had some information that was incredibly helpful: NOAA has a handy website with basic information, and the BLM has a leave guide. The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) came out with a parental leave handbook in 2015, which is a critical resource; it was released after I had already done a lot of research, but at least it confirmed that my interpretation of policy was correct.


Parental leave that exists in the U.S. for most workers (federal or civilian) is provided under the Family Medical Leave Act. The FMLA says that you can take up to 12 workweeks of unpaid leave for the birth or adoption of a child, and to care for that child. This means that even if you don’t have any annual leave or sick leave saved, you can still be gone from your job for 12 weeks (albeit with no pay) and not be fired from that position. The benefit to FMLA is that it is a job-protected entitlement that (most) everyone has the right to invoke.

A few details about invoking FMLA for the birth/adoption of a child, whether you are the mother or non-pregnant partner:

  • You have 1 year from the birth/adoption of your child to use leave under FMLA.
  • The 12 weeks of leave under FMLA do not need to be taken consecutively (this is a big deal!). You can spread those 12 weeks out and use it intermittently (for example, to work part-time during the first year).
  • The 12 weeks provided under FMLA does not need to be unpaid: you can substitute annual or sick leave, so that you get paid for that time.
  • FMLA leave is job protection: by invoking FMLA, your employer must grant you 12 weeks of leave and allow you to return to your job (or an equivalent position) when you have used it up.

Other Leave Options

That being said, you don’t actually have to invoke FMLA to take time off for the birth or adoption of your child. You can, and should, use accrued and advanced sick leave (yes, you can request advanced sick leave!), and accrued annual leave. Or you can combine all three. The OPM handbook provides numerous examples of leave combinations for parents; I highly suggest you take a look. Here is how I did it (please note that I had an uncomplicated pregnancy and delivery, and birthed a healthy baby; your potential scenario will depend on your individual circumstance):

I stayed home for 3.5 months (sick leave for the first 6 weeks, annual leave for the remaining 8 weeks), and worked an unofficial part-time schedule using leave without pay and annual leave 2 days per week under FMLA for 4.5 months (until my son was 8 months old).

There are quite a few caveats to all of this, such as how much sick leave you can take to recover from childbirth (and also, for your non-pregnant partner to care for you during your recovery), getting supervisory approval to use FMLA intermittently, and so on.

If I can give you one piece of advice, it is this: FMLA is your right and you need to be your own advocate. Even though the maternity leave schedule I took was well within the leave policy framework, I had to work very hard to get it approved. Different people in my agency had different “interpretations” of policy, and had I not done my research, I would have ended up with a less than satisfying maternity leave (to put it mildly).

Finally, here are the underlying federal regulations for leave and FMLA:

Definitions for annual and sick leave: 5 CFR § 630.201

Definition of “serious medical condition” (which includes pregnancy and childbirth): 5 CFR § 630.1202

Sick Leave: 5 CFR § 630.401

Annual Leave: 5 CFR § 630.301

FMLA: 29 CFR § 825.120

Author’s note: Liisa is not an expert in FMLA or general leave policy. This article was written based on her own experience within her own agency. Please do your own research and check with your human resources department to ensure what you are proposing for your parental leave is allowable.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, and do not represent the views of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.