What mother wouldn’t want to have the luxury of time off after giving birth to recuperate and revel in the wonder of her baby? If you plan to return to your career after your baby arrives, you will need to plan ahead to protect your position at work and to ensure that your postpartum days can be devoted to your new family.

While the United States is far behind most countries in providing comprehensive parental leave, there are two federal laws in place that can protect your job during pregnancy and after birth, along with state laws that vary across the country. Even though the term “maternity leave” (and recently, “paternity leave”) is most often used for the leave of absence from work after a baby is born, any kind of “parental leave” falls under the umbrella of Family Leave.

The Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978

This amendment to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, protects women from losing their job due to pregnancy or time off due to a pregnancy related absence.

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), 1993

The FMLA benefits not only parents who take time off after the birth (or adoption) of a child, but those who need to take time from work to care for a sick relative – or to tend to their own illness.

Under the FMLA, workers have the right to 12 weeks off after giving birth. However, the act does not guarantee you will be paid for those weeks.

To qualify, you need to have worked at the company for a defined amount of time, and the company needs to employ a certain number of people.

Next, make sure you can answer the following questions:

Do I Qualify for FMLA?

To be covered, you must work for a company with at least 50 employees who work within a 75-mile radius. You need to have worked at your job for the previous 12 months, for at least 1,250 hours.

If you qualify for FMLA, your company is required to grant you 12 weeks of unpaid time off. Your company also must continue any prior insurance coverage during the time you are on leave, and your employer must guarantee that you can return to the same or equivalent job when you return. You should note that a company may require you to use your accumulated vacation, sick, and personal days as part of the twelve weeks off. Refer to your company’s employee handbook, or talk with someone in the Human Resources department, to find out your company’s particular policy.

I Don’t Qualify for FMLA; What Can I Do?

Even though you may not be able to bargain for paid time off, if your company has at least 15 employees — and has at any time in its history held a job for another employee due to medical issues —you have the right to ask for the same. (If you hit any resistance, point your employer toward the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978.)

If your company offers sick leave, vacation days or personal days, you may combine these to comprise your time off. However, sick leave policies differ from one company to the next. Some companies do not allow workers to take sick days to care for others, even a newborn. Part-time workers fare worse, with the majority enjoying few benefits.

How Can I Find Out What Benefits My State Offers?

Each state has its own provisions for maternity leave. While they vary, they might be more generous than the FMLA. It also pays to know your company’s policies. Some offer maternity paid leave as a benefit; others carry temporary disability insurance which can be used toward maternity leave. If your company goes the insurance route, you will most likely be paid 60% of your salary during the weeks you are off.

If you live in Hawaii, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, California or Puerto Rico, you can take advantage of temporary disability insurance. These states have plans in place that will pay a certain amount for maternity leave but only for the weeks mom is physically recuperating from giving birth.

To find out your state’s provisions, contact your state’s department of labor. Or read this report by the National Partnership for Women and Families, for a state-by-state analysis on parental leave programs.

Your Next Steps

Well before your due date arrives (federal guidelines require at least 30 days notice before you plan to take your leave), approach your boss or manager with your wishes. Find out what laws protect you, ask other employees how similar situations were handled, and learn your company’s specific policies.

Offer to be a consultant for your fill-in, or provide training for a short period of time. Consider whether working from home would be possible and sketch out a plan to present to your boss. When you return to your job you may be able to work out a more flexible schedule or work from home part of the time. Whichever scenario works for you and your company, make sure to set realistic expectations for yourself… and your company. While some women can jump right back into work, don’t be discouraged if the transition is a little more difficult than you anticipated.

Although we all hope for smooth, complication-free pregnancies, you should consider the possibility that your pregnancy may not go perfectly. You may develop complications requiring bed rest (in which your weeks off will be eaten up) or you may deliver prematurely (requiring you to care for a newborn for a longer period of time).

Approach your boss with professionalism, honesty and a friendly tone. Get straight to the point.

If you need a little leverage and have a solid track record, you might want to bring this up to your manager. Point out that replacing you could take just as long as the time off you are requesting. Bargain with your boss, but be reasonable. When you come to an agreement, get it in writing.

If your boss is unwilling to accommodate what you feel you are legally entitled to, you can appeal to the regional office of the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour division. But save this step as a last resort. Making demands and resorting to such drastic measures might alienate your boss. Your goal is to draft a plan to satisfy your company and ensure that you get the time you need with your new baby.