The question comes from an anonymous reader who is doing an industry postdoc, and is pregnant and figuring out how to arrange her maternity leave:
"[My] question is related to my "hireability". Specifically, how does my potential to get hired depend on how much leave I take? As I mentioned, I am a postdoc at a company. I really like my job and there is a non-zero probability that I would get hired as a full-time employee, but that probability is also not 100%, especially because there's quite a bit of uncertainty as to the company's budget and future so the decision about whether or not to hire me will not just be up to my boss and my team. Right now, the plan is to not look for a job if I don't have my contract extended; the plan is to look for one 4-6 or so months after baby is born, which will leave me 4-6 months (or more) in the uncomfortable "jobless and don't know when I'll have a job" state. How much do you think that 4-6 months of unemployment will hurt my future ability to get hired? Or, put another way, how do I estimate my unemployability vs time off curve? How much time off will drop my employability to 10 % of its current value? (I'm not asking you to answer this, just maybe give me some ideas for how to think about it :). That is just how I posed the question to my husband, who said the question was unanswerable.)
The other information in all of this that may be relevant is that my husband has a stable, highly-paying job that he really enjoys, and we have quite a bit of savings, so child care and my job aren't really limited by money. In order to maintain our current lifestyle, he would need to keep working; I don't. It also means that I'm not really attracted by the idea of doing an academic postdoc, where between taxes and child care costs we would end up with less income than if I were to not work and take care of baby, though its something I might consider if the fear of being unable to financially support myself and my if something happened to my husband turned out to be too debilitating for me. We have a pretty equal division of housework at home, btw, and my husband supportive of my career and would even be ok with my taking an academic postdoc if that's what I wanted to do."
This is a tough question to answer, because a lot depends on luck. It is sad to say that, but it is true. There is luck in what the job market is like when you try to get back in, and luck in whether the managers who consider hiring you are biased against mothers (sadly, research shows that there is still a lot of anti-mother bias out there.) I'm going to answer assuming moderately good luck, but I also recommend that you have a plan in mind for what you'll do if your luck turns out to be rotten. That is, make your plans assuming that your job search will take an average amount of time and the managers you meet have their anti-mother bias under control, but also think about how you would react to a worst case scenario, and based on how much that scenario bothers you, take some steps to mitigate the risks.
In terms of how varying amounts of time off are likely to be viewed by hiring managers, my guess is that no one will raise their eyebrows at 4 months off, and that 6 months off might get noticed, but is unlikely to cause problems. Beyond 6 months, things get dicier, and my gut instinct is that you will be more likely to encounter anti-mother discrimination on your return. However, that doesn't mean you will have trouble returning, just that the the odds go up that someone is going to say/think some boneheaded thing when he or she sees the gap on your resume. That penalty will probably go away after a few years back in the workforce, though- i.e., it might hurt you when you're getting your first job back after the leave, but probably won't hurt in later job searches. (This is all my impression based on how I've seen other managers around me behave- if anyone has actual statistics or other data, please drop that in the comments.)
However, I don't think this straight-forward calculation is how you should think about the decision. I would instead think about in terms of what outcome you think you'll regret most. If you have always wanted to stay home with your baby for the first 6 months, do it, and just accept the fact that you may have to overcome a career penalty if you end up taking a year to get back into the workforce. It won't be impossible to get back in the longer you are out, it will just be harder. On the other hand, if you think you would always wonder whether your career would have taken off if you hadn't taken such a long leave, then start looking for a job earlier in your leave. Babies do fine in day care as long as it is high quality, and chances are, your kid will figure it out if you secretly blame your lackluster career on him or her. I've read comments from grown ups whose mother resented giving up opportunities for them as kids, and they sound FAR more bitter/unhappy than most comments from grown ups who were in day care.
Of course, those are the two extremes, and your reality is probably somewhere in between. I think it is helpful to consider the two extremes, though, so that you can gauge your gut instinct on which sounds worse to you- and then err on the side of the other extreme.
If you do end up taking a longer leave, you may want to take steps to stay somewhat connected with your career while you're out, or to start reconnecting a little before you are hoping to return. This old post has some ideas for how to do that.
I have a few more practical observations:
1. If your current company does not extend your contract and you decided that you only want to be out of work for ~6 months after the baby is born, you should probably start looking for your next position no later than 3 months postpartum. I suggest that number not because I think 3 months is plenty of time to find a job (it may or may not be- it is hard to predict), but because I think that if you do get lucky and land a job within a month of starting the search, you might be able to ask them to wait 1-2 months for you. Basically, you need to figure out what your minimum and maximum acceptable time out of work is, and use that to figure out when to start a search. At your career level, I'd allow at least 3 months for the search, but not be surprised if it takes a bit longer.
2. When you're thinking about when to start your child in day care, think a bit about developmental milestones. Most (but not all!) babies have their first separation anxiety phase at 9-12 months. I personally think that starting day care before or after this phase will be a lot easier on all involved. Also, I had a big dip in milk supply at 9 months postpartum with both kids, which would have made that a tough time to start pumping.
3. Regardless of when you're going to start the baby in day care, if you are breastfeeding, you may want to try to get the baby used to taking a bottle from very early on. Here is an old post about that. There is absolutely no way to guarantee your breastfed baby will take a bottle, but the preponderance of the anecdotal evidence I've seen/heard on and offline indicates that your best odds are if you don't wait much past the 3rd week postpartum to introduce it (assuming a full term baby).
4. It is really hard to run an intense job search without child care. If you can afford it, get some child care once you are ready to really look for a job. This could be part time, but it will really help to have some reliable daylight hours to devote to job searching. Ideally, have those hours include lunch, so you can have networking lunches with people.
OK readers, your turn. What advice do you have for our anonymous postdoc?