Professional Women on What to Expect When You Tell Your Boss You’re Pregnant
January 27, 2018 | Filed in: Your Career
For many women, pregnancy and childbirth are a big part of working life—but for first time mothers, the process of announcing a pregnancy at work can feel confusing, opaque, and downright awkward. What’s quote-unquote “normal”? Announcing as early as possible? As late as possible? Ignoring your pregnancy at work as much as possible, or celebrating it? We decided to ask women in our network—as well as an expert—for their take. Read on to hear their stories and advice on “delivering” (pun intended) the news.
Alex is a negotiation expert and “solopreneur” who found herself without a game plan for announcing it to clients. “When I got pregnant, it happened more quickly than I expected. I had thought I would have more time to mentally prepare,” she said. “At first, I debated keeping it a secret for as long as possible, because I didn’t know if it would impact my ability to get hired for new projects.”
Emma, a writer and editor, also struggled with when to announce her pregnancy—but for different reasons. “My boss was pregnant around the same time I was,” she said. “She waited until the five-month mark to tell us, which I felt like was the conservative, responsible, professional thing to do. I don’t know where I got this idea, but I felt like I was supposed to wait as long as possible before talking about what was happening with my body with my colleagues.”
Because pregnancy is, by definition, not the norm at work (and, dare we say, it falls outside of the typical male default), it can feel awkward or inappropriate to bring it up in the office. Alex concurs: “I have literally read articles in business publications that say things like ‘Don’t ever bring up your pregnancy, don’t talk about the fact that you’re pregnant, don’t make your pregnancy small talk when people ask you like how you’re doing. Make sure you have your leave plan 100% buttoned up and focus on how you’re still contributing.”
But for many women, that’s unrealistic. It was for Emma, who suffered from hyperemesis gravidarum, a condition characterized by “severe nausea, vomiting, weight loss, and electrolyte disturbance,” and that made her pregnancy impossible to set aside at work.
“I went in for one doctors appointment, and she said ‘I ran a blood test. You have no sodium in your blood. I need you to walk into the ER.’ I was like, ‘That seems dramatic. Can’t I just take a nap?’ I was working from home, and I had to Slack my entire team that I was leaving. Of course, then they wanted to know why, and I had to say ‘I’m not dying, I’m just pregnant.’ And that’s how everyone found out.”
In the midst of her illness, she felt guilt over not announcing her pregnancy in the “right” way. “You’re supposed to have these conversations in person, and plan them—you’re not supposed to dump them into a multi-person Slack chat group. I remember thinking, ‘I’m ruining my professional life right now.'”
This sense of ambivalence, or not knowing what way is the “right” way to go about announcing a pregnancy, is common. And it’s because many workplaces are ill-equipped to respond adequately to pregnant employees, despite the fact that there are national laws that forbid them from discriminating against that group. Pregnant at Work, an initiative from the Center for WorkLife Law, has created a database for women who are thinking about how to announce their pregnancies, customized to each state and called “Talking to Your Boss About Your Bump.” Though it contains many useful tips and recommendations, reading through it is a depressing reminder that pregnancy is still stigmatized in many workplaces. Take this piece of advice, for example: “Reassure your boss that you are committed to your job and that you plan to return to work after the baby arrives. Many bosses wrongly assume that pregnancy means the end of an employee’s dedication and reliability. It’s important to tackle those assumptions up front.”
Well…that’s depressing. And even more of a reminder for women who are pregnant or are thinking about starting families that it’s important to do their homework beforehand. Liz Morris, the Deputy Director of the Center for WorkLife Law (the creators of Pregnant at Work) stresses the importance of knowing what your rights are.
“There are some national laws that are relevant to pregnant woman and provide protection for pregnant women: for example, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Family and Medical Leave Act, ” she said. “But when we’re talking about accommodations that people may need to be able to continue working and maintaining a healthy pregnancy, the laws vary.”
Emma knows this all too well. The policy at the media company where she worked was that employees would receive six weeks’ paid maternity leave, with the option to take an additional six weeks unpaid. “They made a big announcement that, starting in 2016, everyone would get 12 weeks of paid maternity or paternity leave. But I was due on December 20th, 2015. So I asked, ‘Since this new policy starts 10 days after my baby’s probably going to be born, do I still get it?’ They said no.”
And their reasoning was, frankly, bullshit. “They said, ‘Well, if we make an exception for you, then we have to make an exception for everyone.’ I was literally the only employee in this organization who would be giving birth in December 2015. My boss was livid on my behalf, but there was nothing she could do. Ultimately, I ended up taking vacation time for those last few days of December—my own vacation time—and then I just lied, and said my son was born on January 1st. I told them, ‘Yep. New Year’s baby, first baby of 2016, give me twelve weeks’ paid leave,’ and they did.”
The fact that, in 2018, it is still so complicated for women experiencing a very common, human life event to feel confident that they’re navigating it successfully—and to get the benefits and accommodations that they’re entitled to—can be deeply frustrating. But there are steps that workers can take to change the environment around pregnancy, and lessen the sense of taboo surrounding it. And it shouldn’t just be pregnant women—everyone can do more to normalize pregnancy around the office.
Alex made the choice to talk openly and frankly about her pregnancy early on. “I own my own business, and the majority of my clients are women, and a lot of the work that I do is about closing the gender wage gap and working toward equality for women. And I just thought, If I can’t be open about my pregnancy, then who possibly could?”
It’s been easier for her, in certain respects, as an entrepreneur. “I can only speculate as to what the experience is like having to tell a boss, and I can totally appreciate why people would feel nervous about it. We live in such a 24/7 culture that if you don’t respond to an email for 10 minutes, it’s like ‘What happened to you?'”
It’s easy to feel like workplaces hold all the power—and Emma’s upsetting experience is a perfect example of that power gone wrong. But there is something powerful in the idea that if pregnancy is normalized at work, then it will become more normal to insist on the accommodations that really make a difference in women’s lives. And the power of sharing information amongst women, even with women who are not mothers or planning to become pregnant themselves, cannot be overstated.
“Ask around, talk to other women that have been through it at your office and see what kinds of accommodations or leave they got, because information is power,” Alex says. “Knowing what you’re entitled to before you tell anybody is a good thing. I also think it’s really important for fathers to take parental leave, especially at the top of the organization.”
Morris, our expert, concurs. “When men take parental leave, and take all of the leave that’s offered to them, then pregnant women are no longer seen as a disproportionate burden on the workplace, and taking time off to be with babies and putting families first is just something that all parents do. And when employers perceive that taking leave is something that all parents do, not just women, then there will less discrimination against pregnant women, because there’s no perception that only women go off and have babies and take time off of work.”
It can be hard to overcome that feeling of needing to reassure your boss that you’re still you. “I definitely remember staying later, and being like, ‘Look at me. I’m still working really hard. Pregnant, and working really hard,'” Emma said. “Nobody wants to be the pregnant person whose like, ‘I’m tired. I have a human in my belly.'”
But most pregnant people will feel tired, at least some of the time. Because they are growing humans in their bellies!
“It sounds a little cheesy,” Alex says, “But I hope for more women to really be the change they want to see at work. That’s why I’m talking openly about being pregnant and not shying away from it. Because this is a normal thing—we cannot go on as a species without procreating, so it shouldn’t be a secret, and it’s completely ridiculous that we feel that it should be. It doesn’t mean the whole world revolves around your pregnancy, but I just think that hiding doesn’t serve anyone.”
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