Tips on managing parental leave and return to work from three accomplished FSO moms.
BY ANNE COLEMAN-HONN, LAURA HOCHLA, AND ISABEL RIOJA-SCOTT
Your family is expanding! Congratulations! Both moms and dads have considerations to bear in mind as they prepare for these unforgettable changes coming their way. Here we offer some practical suggestions on planning for parental leave and setting yourself up for a smooth return to the office after your family welcomes a new baby.
As federal employees, we are eligible to take up to 12 weeks of paid parental leave at any time within a 12-month period beginning with the birth or adoption of a child or children (employees must have at least 12 months of qualifying federal government service to be deemed eligible). Before this monumental and long overdue development—passage of the Federal Employee Paid Leave Act, effective Oct. 1, 2020—we were also privileged among American workers in having the possibility to take a block of time off from work following the birth of a baby—cobbled together from sick leave, annual leave, and leave without pay—without losing our jobs.
Other new parents in the United States are not so lucky. A recent report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed more than three in four private sector employees do not have access to paid family leave and nearly three in four fathers take less than 10 days of parental leave after adding a child to the family.
Our suggestions are based on observations, conversations with colleagues about their experiences, and on our own personal experiences, having welcomed seven babies into our respective families over the past 10 years. (Note: Some of the recommendations we offer could also apply to situations in which people are preparing to be out of the office for medical leave or other extended leave.)
Once you share the news that you or your partner is expecting a baby, it will spread like wildfire. If informing people yourself is important to you, try to share it on the same day with all important people on your team and in your chain of command, starting with your immediate supervisor. Your happy news may also create a management puzzle as your team grapples with the prospect of your upcoming absence, given there is not yet an immediately available float of officers to cover short-term gaps.
Do your homework so that you can pair the news with some possible next steps, helping your office navigate your absence. How long will you be out? How might your portfolio be covered? For birth mothers, do you want to telework before the birth, and if so, what options are there? It is also useful to speak with your supervisor in advance about medical appointment timing and other requests for flexibility you may require. Fathers should not shy away from asking for this time as well, as these experiences are equally applicable to either parent. For those adopting, to the extent possible, identify in advance your anticipated appointments to allow the office to plan around your absence.
Know what you can ask for within regulations. The Bureau of Global Talent Management’s (GTM) “New Parent Guide” and the Office of Personnel Management’s (OPM) “Handbook on Flexibilities for Childbirth, Adoption, and Foster Care” are helpful resources. There are other considerations to include as you plan.
Being prepared with information and options can help make this process easier and can lead to a better outcome while you are away from the office.
Proposed leave length. Will you be out 12 weeks, 16 weeks, or longer? Will you work up to the delivery date? One of our colleagues was surprised to run into her supervisor’s assumptions about when she would go on leave, which were based on old rules. Also, give yourself room to change your mind.
Another colleague, having worked up until the day of delivery with baby number one, assumed she would do the same with baby number two, and she did—but he was a much heavier baby, and she found it more difficult than she anticipated to stay mobile in the last weeks of pregnancy the second time around. A first-time father received pushback from his supervisor when he gave notice that he was taking 12 weeks of leave. The supervisor was not aware of the then-new policy. Bottom line: know the policy and communicate your plans early.
Delivery location. Your plans regarding the location for the delivery will determine when you plan to be out of the office. If you are overseas and plan to medevac to deliver your baby, the department, with post concurrence, will allow you to telework in the U.S. or at post for the time between your departure from post and your baby’s arrival. This makes it possible to keep working from the delivery location while saving your leave for after the baby’s arrival. You may also be able to work remotely for a domestic office. If you choose to stay at post to have your baby, you may be planning to work until the day the baby arrives or just shortly before.
Dealing with varying reactions. Sadly, some parents have faced reprisals—from subtle sarcasm to offenses on an equal employment opportunity (EEO) level—when they announce, plan for, and take leave after the birth of a child. One colleague advises: “Be prepared to advocate for your continued inclusion in travel and leading important issues in your portfolio.” Pregnancy is an EEO-covered status. (See more about the definition of pregnancy discrimination at www.eeoc.gov/pregnancy-discrimination.)
Although you are not solely responsible for helping your office figure out how to cover your absence, being prepared with information and options can help make this process easier and can lead to a better outcome while you are away from the office. If you are in a supervisory position, your absence can also give your deputy or others on your team an opportunity to step up and cover different aspects of your job. Here are some possible options.
• State Department employees on temporary duty (TDY) status: A Foreign Service or Civil Service colleague in temporary duty status may be available to cover the length of your absence, budget permitting (normally the bureau covers TDY expenses). This could be a Washington, D.C.–based individual or a colleague at a neighboring post. Also consider colleagues currently on leave without pay (LWOP) who may be in a position to accept a short TDY assignment.
• Retired Foreign Service officers on contract with State (known as reemployed annuitants, or REAs): With deep knowledge of the State Department, and pending available funding, these employees may be able to come to post for a short-term rotation. Your home bureau would have to fund the position, travel, per diem, and housing.
• Presidential Management Fellows (PMFs): Participants in this program are allowed to work temporarily at other agencies, including overseas, for short periods. Coordinate with the PMF office in GTM. If you are leaving post, consider making your housing available to the person who will cover your position during the time you are away; this can reduce the cost to your post and make a PMF an easier sell.
• Employees on detail from other agencies: This option may work only for those covering certain very specific portfolios (for example, energy) to make a detail from another agency attractive.
• Remote coverage of your job: If there is no funding for a physical-presence TDYer, perhaps there is someone in D.C. or another post who would want to work remotely conducting some of your duties. There is precedent for this, even for office management specialists!
A well-crafted handoff memo—covering ongoing projects and listing key points of contact and timelines for the issues likely to emerge during your absence—can ensure that no balls are dropped during your absence. It also reduces the chances of receiving a panicked phone call in the hospital or while you are bonding with your new baby.
Plan final handoff meetings with your backup, your supervisor, and the rest of your team to discuss your handoff memo and coverage plan and to answer any questions before you depart. If you have a work evaluation (for yourself or those you supervise) coming due during your planned absence, try to complete it well before your planned departure. Submitting all vouchers early can also ease the administrative burden while you are on leave.
Think about how much contact you want to have with your office during your time away—including zero!—and be clear about your approach with your team. Designating one person (possibly a deputy or the person filling in for the bulk of the work during your absence) as a point of contact and setting up a call with that person every few weeks to check in can cut down on the emails and questions received while on leave and still ensure that what’s necessary gets done. Some may find this option stressful and prefer to be completely disconnected while on leave.
If you choose to stay in touch, this approach could also help you stay connected enough to what is happening in the office so that you have an easier time reentering the office when your leave concludes.
Thinking about, and drafting, your out-of-office message in advance is also important, especially if you are planning to work right up until the birth of your baby.
In the overwhelming, (sometimes) delightful, sleep-deprived first days of parenthood, the return to the office may seem another world away. We found there were a few things that, if done in the final weeks of post-baby leave and then during the first weeks back in the office, smoothed reentry to the office and made it easier to embrace the new normal of being a working parent.
Connecting with Your Team. Setting up calls with your supervisor and direct reports in the week or two before the first day back in the office can give you a chance to begin slowly refocusing on the office, get more up to speed on any personnel or other policy developments during your time away, and put your approaching return on your supervisor and colleagues’ radar.
We won’t sugarcoat it—the return to work can be rough, even when you love your job.
As always in Foreign Service life, it is possible you will find yourself getting a new supervisor either shortly before you depart or during your parental leave. Share the transition memo you prepared with the new supervisor. Request a meeting with them a few weeks before your formal return to work to clarify the exact date for your return to the office, develop a direct relationship with your future supervisor, and make your future boss aware of your subject matter expertise and previous supervisory role in the office, if you had one.
You may also want to reach out via phone before you go on leave, even if the new boss has not yet arrived, to introduce yourself. The goal is to reestablish your role now so that you can fully reintegrate when you return to the office.
First Weeks Back. We won’t sugarcoat it—the return to work can be rough, even when you love your job. You may feel bone-tired and off your game. Sleep deprivation, combined with the need to establish a whole new rhythm for you, your partner, and your baby can make the whole process seem impossible. Here are a few practical tips.
Consider a phased return to work. If you have enough leave accumulated and your office is supportive, consider scheduling regular annual leave days in your first month back.
Avoid sudden changes. One wise friend cautions against making rash decisions in the first month following the return to work. “No matter how miserable you are, stick with the new routine for 30 days. You may come home the first day vowing to quit the Foreign Service and become an organic goat farmer in Oregon, but give it time and don’t make any big decisions (about work schedules, jobs, hours, etc.) for the first month,” she suggests.
Start on a Friday. Make your first day in the office a Friday so you can get through a full day with the weekend immediately ahead. One colleague notes that she “started baby in daycare on a Friday and used that day to adjust to having her away, including working out a pumping schedule for myself. It also gave me a full workday to complete paperwork/emails for my new position.”
Finally, be kind to yourself. Working and taking care of a baby can be exhausting, and you will do yourself and your baby no favors by taking care of everyone but yourself.
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Foreign Service moms have pumped milk all over the world—while staffing VIP visits, helping American citizens in trouble, visiting foreign assistance projects in remote locations, observing foreign elections, and beyond. And we have found colleagues, supervisors, and foreign counterparts across multiple posts to be remarkably supportive in this endeavor, both helping identify private spaces to pump or accommodating pumping needs in the course of Foreign Service work.
Partners take note: Enabling support for your nursing partner is critical. Not all working moms will choose to pump. A whole book could be written (and many are) about the choices we make to continue pumping versus using formula and making it all work. But for those who do choose to pump, here’s what we found to be useful:
• If you plan to continue breastfeeding after returning to work, begin planning a schedule and approach for pumping during the workday. Many find it helpful to begin pumping at least a few weeks before heading back to work, both to build experience and comfort with pumping itself and to begin building a freezer reserve of milk.
• Well in advance of your return to work, identify where you can pump and obtain necessary door codes and access to the sign-up SharePoint. In Washington, you can reserve lactation rooms in advance by searching in the general room reservation system, “ReserveIt”; GTM cautions that availability can be limited if you’re reserving same-day, so plan ahead.
• Use calendar alerts to remind you to pump, which is especially helpful on packed days.
• Consider hiring a lactation consultant if you are having difficulties pumping or to support your planning to continue breastfeeding after returning to work. (This is covered by many federal insurance plans.)
• The breastfeeding support group in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs is open to all nursing moms and has excellent tips for pumping at work, as does the FSO Moms page on Facebook. There are also great tips on pumping while on official travel, pumping in classified space, and even tips on the best brands of pumps to buy.
• Health insurance covers the cost of one pump per pregnancy.
• Have an up-front conversation with your supervisor once you return to the office about the fact that you are pumping and the time commitment involved.
• Know your rights as a nursing mother in case there is pushback. The new PUMP Act, passed in 2022, provides protection for nursing mothers for two years after birth, mandates certain characteristics for pumping spaces, and guarantees employers allow enough daily times to pump. In addition, if there is no dedicated lactation space available during the times you need to pump, please be aware that legally your management must help you find a suitable location.
• The Breastfeeding Center of Greater Washington offers great resources for nursing moms, including sessions focused on preparing for the transition back to work, setting up a pumping schedule, and a pumping space near Main State.
The State Department’s intensive initial Foreign Service orientation training class or long-term training courses can be tricky because for the most part you are not the master of your time or your space. Here are a few tips from those who have found a way.
• Email your course coordinators to let them know you’re a nursing mother, so they can give you up-to-date information about lactation facilities and other resources. The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) has a large lactation room in the newly built B building (with three private pumping areas, a fridge, and sterile microwave), as well as other lactation areas in, for instance, the F building. The FSI Registrar and orientation staff have the door code you need to enter.
Many breaks in FSI courses are 15 minutes, which may be insufficient time to pump. In that case, check with coordinators, who may advise that it is better and less distracting to quietly leave at the end of a session than to come in late. In the first week, request to be seated in the back row for the duration of a large course.
• On days at sites other than FSI, consider using the health unit at your destination—many have accommodations for nursing mothers. Work with the coordinator in charge of the field trip ahead of time.