Michelle Papachristou of Brooklyn, N.Y., originally planned to take nine months of mostly unpaid maternity leave with her daughter Nina, just as she did with her son.
But a few months in, she's now planning to pick up her flight attendant duties after four months.
"In January, my husband's company announced that everyone was getting a 10 percent pay cut across the board," Papachristou, 37, said. "And, then, about three weeks before Nina was born, he got a call, 'Oh, we're doing another 5 percent for April.' So we've really had to rethink how long I can stay out of work."
Changes in maternity leave decisions are difficult to document or quantify, but people who track such shifts report that the cost of an extended leave is something more and more families can ill afford in a difficult economy.
Across the country, Kristin Carter, 27, of Camarillo, Calif., is preparing her nursery after trying to get pregnant for a year. She hoped she wouldn't need to return to her college teaching position full time for six months, but that has changed.
"We're so excited," Carter said. "I get pregnant. And, then, it was almost immediately that they started slowing down at my husband's job. And then, they started having less course offerings at the college that I teach at. And then, it just sort of all fell apart."
So, instead of six months, Carter will take six weeks. She's anxious that her job may be in jeopardy if she doesn't go back soon.
"The longer that that I'm away from work, the more I'm worried that they're going to discover that like, hey, 'Maybe we don't really need her,'" she said. "'Maybe we've got other people that could teach those classes.' It's not like they're trying to squeeze me out or anything like that. This is not a reflection on them. It's just the economy and the way of the world, you know?"
"The issue for women these days is they are increasingly bigger financial supporters of their family," said Carol Evans, the founder and chief executive of Working Mother Media.
Maternity policies vary by employer. But any company with more than 50 workers is required to allow 12 weeks of unpaid leave, according to the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993. The company must reinstate the returning employee to the same or an equivalent job with equivalent employment benefits and pay.
Meanwhile, the House has passed the Federal Employees Paid Parental Leave Act that would provide federal employees with four weeks of paid parental leave out of 12 weeks available. The Senate has yet to take up the measure.
The U.S., Swaziland, Liberia, Lesotho and Papua New Guinea are the only countries among 173 surveyed in 2007 by the Institute for Health and Social Policy at Montreal's McGill University that don't guarantee paid maternity leave to new mothers.
"What's happening now is women are afraid to take their maternity leave, they're afraid of not being in the office immediately after having a child, it seems," Evans said. "They should be doing the opposite of being afraid. They should be fighting this fear."