Althea,* an account manager at a digital advertising firm, describes herself as a planner. “As soon as I found out I was pregnant with Emma (her 1½-year-old daughter), I started making lists of what I needed to do to be ready at home and at work,” she says. “I wanted to have the perfect maternity leave.”

Althea had planned to take a full year off, but her sense of isolation being at home with the baby and the pressure of tighter financial circumstances prompted her to return to work after just six months. “As much I adored Emma, I was glad to be back, but I still feel like I failed at my maternity leave, since it didn’t go to plan,” she says.

Althea’s experience is a common one, I discovered while doing the research for my upcoming book, The MomShift: Finding the Opportunity In Maternity.

Sort out the legalities

A smooth maternity leave starts with understanding your legal rights. When I was pregnant with my second son, I was working full-time as a consultant among three different organizations and had just moved back to Canada. What I didn’t realize until fairly late in my pregnancy was that this arrangement meant I didn’t qualify for any paid maternity leave. In Canada, birth or surrogate mothers are entitled to 15 weeks of maternity benefits. Biological or adoptive parents can then tap into up to 35 weeks of available parental benefits. In Quebec, which has its own parental benefits program, mothers can receive up to 18 weeks of benefits, and parents, up to 32 weeks. (More information on maternity and parental benefits is available from the Government of Canada.)

To qualify, you must have worked 600 hours over the past 52 weeks. Self-employed parents can also collect parental benefits provided they have paid into the Employment Insurance program for the 12 months before their child is born. (See the Quebec Parental Insurance Plan for the regulations applicable there.)

Sort out the financials

In most of Canada, government maternity leave benefits equal approximately 55% of earnings, with a maximum payment of about $501 per week. In Quebec, maternity benefits can equal as much as 75% of earnings, with a weekly maximum payment of about $973.

Depending on the income to which your family is accustomed, a smooth maternity leave might require some saving in advance.

Some companies top up the basic government benefits. Check with your human resources department to see how much you might receive; keep in mind that if your employer has topped up your benefit payments, you may be required to reimburse the difference if you don’t return to your old job.

For my research, I interviewed more than 500 women who all achieved greater career success after starting their families. I asked two questions: “What would you advise other women about having an enjoyable and successful maternity leave?” And if they had more than one child, “What did you do differently the second or third time around?”

“We had money set aside to top up my maternity payments, but it wasn’t nearly enough,” said Carla, a hair colourist and mother of twins. “With the two boys, I ended up spending more [than I planned] on baby items. And then we were both so tired that we ended up ordering in four or five times a week and it all added up to more than we planned for.”

Find the work option that works for you

It’s not just women such as Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer who are judged for their maternity leave decisions.

I interviewed women from a diverse range of professional and personal backgrounds who expressed their frustration at having had a neighbour, colleague, friend or relative judge their maternity leave choices.

One of the most contentious issues was the question of whether to check in with the office during your maternity leave or disconnect completely.

“My mother-in-law was only able to take two weeks when my husband was born and so she kept criticizing my decision to take the full year,” said Angela, an accountant and mother of two boys.

Zoe, who runs her own consulting business, had the opposite experience: “I continued working until the day my son was born and then from my hospital bed afterwards. I felt judged by everyone from the nurses to my friends, but I’m a small business owner and this was only way to do it.”

Each woman’s work, family and baby scenario is unique, so what’s more helpful than dogmatic advice is to consider the following when planning your own leave:

  • How much time are you taking? The longer you are away, the stronger the case is to stay at least somewhat engaged (even if it’s just checking but not responding to emails), since it can make transitioning back much easier.
  • What you plan to do and what you actually do may differ. Much depends on how you’re feeling and what your baby is like. If you have an “easy” baby, responding to emails or reviewing documents might be possible.
  • Will you have help with the baby?
  • How has your role been dealt with while you away? If your employer has hired a replacement or temporarily re-juggled your responsibilities, offering to be available to deal with any urgent questions can help with any transition issues and create a sense of greater confidence for your team.

Ultimately, only you know what’s right for your career and family when it comes to maternity leave, so the best approach is to stay focused on what matters to you the most – and then be flexible in how it comes together.

* Last names omitted for privacy.