Thinking about starting a family is exciting—and a little scary. Parenthood can be unpredictable, and it’s hard to know in advance how much a new baby will affect your energy level, your finances, your schedule, and your career plans. In a demanding field like accounting, you’re right to carefully consider what effect having a child will have on your job.
But having a little advance knowledge about your firm’s policies and what to expect can make the decision to start a family a little less daunting. Here are some of the key questions to ask yourself before taking the plunge:
What does my firm offer in terms of family leave? Check with your HR department to understand your firm’s family-leave and paid-time-off policies. Get acquainted with the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which many companies use as their maternity leave policy, advises Paul Ingui, founder of Sterling HR Solutions in Durham, N.C. Check with your regional office of the Labor Department’s Women’s Bureau as well, because your state may have parental-leave laws that go beyond the FMLA.
Should I change my health insurance? Review your and your partner’s benefits to determine whose insurance should cover the new arrival. Take both costs and coverage into account, as some insurance plans offer better maternity coverage than others.
Does my firm offer other benefits that could be helpful? Your firm may offer benefits such as flex plans (pretax dependent care and medical savings accounts), life insurance, and long-term disability that can be useful when you’re starting a family. Flex plans, for instance, allow you to tailor benefits specifically for your situation with pretax dollars. You can use the money for medical care, dependent care, or both.
Do I have a good financial plan in place? Draw up a sample monthly budget to get a clearer picture of what your finances will look like post-baby. Expect child care to be a major expense: In some states, it can cost as much as college. Your budget should also include such items as any increases in your health insurance, the cost of prenatal care and labor and delivery, and essential supplies such as formula, breastfeeding equipment, and diapers. Adding to or starting an emergency fund is also a good idea, as it can give you a cushion in the event that hospital costs are greater than expected.
When will I (or my partner) will return to work after the birth? “CPAs have very cyclical schedules so returning to work in the middle of busy season is a very different experience from returning when it is a slower time of year,” says Trisha Nomura, CPA, chief operating officer at Hawaii Human Resources Inc. and a mother of two. Depending on when the baby is born and your firm’s leave policies, you may be able to time your return for a slower time of year. “It’s all about making choices and knowing how to best structure your time based on what works for you and your employer,” Nomura says.
Going back to work full time right away might not be the only option. If your boss and HR department agree, you may be able to work remotely, at least part of the time. Or try going back to work in increments, advises Kamilah Mitchell-Thomas, vice president of human resources for A+E Networks: first two days a week, then three, then four.
Does my firm offer any options for career flexibility? Some parents want to work less when their children are small but, understandably, worry about the impact this will have on their career. Many CPAs, for instance, wonder whether accepting a part-time or flexible working arrangement will keep them on a partner track.
Experts say the thing to do if this is a concern is to have an open and frank discussion with your boss. It also helps to show that you can get the job done no matter what. Last spring, Mitchell-Thomas found out just after taking a high-profile new job that she was pregnant—with twins. “I worked really hard and delivered on some key deliverables. I made a conscious decision to deliver on an extremely high level,” she says. Thomas believes that this has set the stage for her continued rise in the company even when she returns from maternity leave and works a more flexible schedule. “If you build credibility and deliver results, your career should stay on track,” she says.
How will the physical demands of pregnancy affect my work? During pregnancy, many women suffer symptoms such as morning sickness and exhaustion, which can disrupt work schedules. You may need to approach your boss and see if working from home or using flexible hours is an option during the times you are feeling tired or have other issues in play during your pregnancy.
How will prenatal care affect my work schedule? Prenatal checkups usually occur about once a month in the first two trimesters of pregnancy, and increase in frequency as the baby’s due date approaches. (And, even if you’re not the one who’s pregnant, you may want to join your partner at these visits to see how she and your baby are doing.) When you’re ready to announce your pregnancy, and have a clearer idea of the time you’ll need to take off, meet with your supervisor to discuss options.
Lucinda Harper is a freelance writer based in Durham, N.C.