I am a mother (and, yes, I do know that some employees over the years have used a hybrid of that term to describe me less than flatteringly). I’m talking about literal mother. I have two sons, who are now grown men and have their own careers to worry about. I have loved every moment of being a mother and I strongly feel that the skills I learned in that role led me to more success in the corporate world.
The world has changed dramatically for working mothers over the past decades. There are more of us but that hasn’t translated into strength in numbers or changed the stereotypes around a pregnant colleague. Research from the Pew Research Center indicates that over 72% of women pregnant with their first child work and nearly 60% work full time. Yet pregnant women are stigmatized, stereotyped as “warm” but “incompetent.” (“The Right and Wrong Way to Help Pregnant Workers,” by J. Clair, K. Jones, E. King and B.K. Humberd. Harvard Business Review, Sept. 2016).
It was particularly hard to be in a corporate environment while pregnant and the research shows that it is still hard. There were “normal” pregnancy worries of balancing the demands of the job with what pregnancy demanded of me: doctor’s appointments, morning sickness or complete and utter exhaustion. There were the worries about being seen as less serious and less committed in my blossoming state. I needed this job! We had decided that I would be the chief earner in our family while my husband stayed home with the kids. It was clear in my corporate culture that, while espousing the support of women and their careers, pregnant women who were serious about getting promoted needed to act like they were NOT pregnant.
I was luckier than most. My department head was a smart, ambitious young woman who had recently given birth to her second child. Susan took off 2.5 weeks to have the baby and then was back in the office, pretending it hadn’t happened. But she did understand appointments and exhaustion, she always had a kind word and told me, quietly, if I ever needed to lie down I was free to use the couch in her office; just put a “Do Not Disturb” sign on the door.
I tried to pretend. Well-meaning colleagues began to remark in February, “Wow. You look like you’re due any minute!” The baby was due in June. Physically I wasn’t hiding this very well. I was sick and tired and had brain freeze every day. My maternity clothes were starting to strain at the midsection.
On top of everything we were moving to the suburbs to prepare for our expanding family. Money was very tight – buying a house took every spare cent we had – and so we packed boxes ourselves and I tried to organize as best I could, given that I couldn’t lift or bend.
The day of the move I was seven months pregnant. The movers had dropped our boxes in the rooms I had scrawled in magic marker on the outside and left. I didn’t know where to start and I wanted to cry. And then our brand new doorbell rang and there stood Susan, my department head, her husband and her two children, one only a few months old. “I came to clean your bathrooms. You can’t move into a new old house without scrubbing the bathrooms from top to bottom. I know that you can’t afford to hire a cleaning person and I know that you can’t scrub in your condition. Sit down. We brought lunch. Bill will take the kids to the local mall and push them around and I’m going to clean.” And she did.
Susan also asked if we could have lunch on the following Monday, but instead of a local restaurant, she pushed me into a cab and took me to Mothers Work, a store specializing in corporate maternity clothes. “I’m buying you two new outfits. Do not argue. We are all sick of looking at you in the clothes that don’t fit.” And she did, performing acts of mercy that went so far above and beyond that I am still in awe or her and her generosity these many years later.
Much has changed for pregnant women in the workplace. We no longer have to pretend it doesn’t matter. Pregnant women are free to exclaim over cute baby clothes and the best stroller.
But we have lost something, too. In that long ago environment, where we all pretended that our expanding bellies should be ignored and would have no impact on our corporate climb, women quietly bonded. We didn’t talk about baby stuff at work less we be taken as not so serious about our careers. We bonded around the lie that pregnancy didn’t matter. We helped each other maintain the pretense.
Pregnancy matters and work matters. I returned after my maternity leave ferociously dedicated to my career. I had to be – I was working for the family. And that thoughtful, giving woman who understood what was important became a friend for life.