Should I stay or should I go? Pregnant at work

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Introducing a new bi-weekly column

So, you’re about to have a baby. It is only natural you might be worried about his or her health, how the delivery will go, will breast-feeding be a challenge, will you ever get your figure back, and, importantly, will you be the kind of mother you hope to be.

You are also probably wondering how the heck you’re going to integrate this bundle of joy into your hard-earned career. Should you double-down and “lean in” or should you put things on hold for a while and “opt-out”? There are no easy answers, but there are role models who have navigated these choppy waters before you.

How do I know?

Because I interviewed 186 trailblazing women and surveyed nearly 1,500 more for my book, Work Pause Thrive: How to Pause for Parenthood Without Killing Your Career to learn the secrets of how they integrated their personal and professional goals. The lessons and insights they provide offer great insights for modern women who want to be both engaged mothers and committed professionals.

Over the next year, I’ll be writing a bi-weekly column called “Should I stay or should I go?” to help you consider what makes the most sense for you, your family, and your career. I’ll be sharing insights from my life; from the lives of highly successful women who have figured out how to create their own empowered career path; and from research about how mothers (and fathers!) can thrive in today’s workplace.

Let’s start with the thing you are probably asking yourself most: should I go? Here are five reasons why the answer could be yes:

1. Careers are long, babies are only babies for a short period of time

I had a vibrant career working as a Vice President at Foote, Cone & Belding advertising agency when I was forced on bed-rest during my second pregnancy. I had already been down this path before when my first baby, William, was born six weeks early and spent nearly the first month of his life in the pediatric intensive care unit. It was a harrowing experience, but he survived and eventually came home healthy and strong.

When I went into labor at twenty-four weeks with my second pregnancy, my doctor insisted I stop working. She told me, “Enough is enough. Your job – your only job – is to be an incubator for that baby.” When my daughter, Maret, finally arrived after four months on bed-rest, I knew something had to change. I didn’t want to give up my career, but I needed to re-calibrate and understand who I was now that I was a mother of two. What I really needed was time.

I would have liked a longer maternity leave (I had two months of paid leave), but that wasn’t an option. I would have liked to be able to work part-time for a few months to ease my way back in, but that wasn’t an option. I would have liked to job share for a few years, but that wasn’t an option. My company wanted me to be either all-in or out.

I chose out because I knew careers are long and babies are only babies for a short period of time. I believed I could keep my career on track even if that meant forging my own path on my own schedule in my own way. I was right (and I was wrong – more on that in the weeks to come).

2. Breastfeeding at work can be nearly impossible

So you’ve had the baby, taken whatever maternity leave you were able to get (which for the average American woman is ten weeks, mostly unpaid) and then you’re back at work. The majority of mothers still want to breastfeed once they return, but it can be darn hard. Consider the experience of software engineer, Kathryn Rotondo. When she returned to her job three months after giving birth to her son, Max, she was forced to pump breast milk in a unisex bathroom, one without a lock.

“Twice a day I had to barricade the door just so I could get some privacy,” Rotondo said. “It was mortifying.”

And she’s not alone. Ask most mothers in the workplace and they’ll regale you with their pumping horror stories. Cold storage closets, empty conference rooms, and parked cars are just a few of the places you can find women expressing milk for their babies. A recent study by the Jacobs Institute of Women’s Health revealed that 60 percent of new mothers in the workforce do not have lactation accommodations, even though it is required by federal law.

A little-known provision of the Affordable Care Act called the “Break Time for Nursing Mothers Law” requires employers to provide a clean, private space and a “reasonable” amount of time for employees to pump. But the law only applies to hourly workers, so salaried employees aren’t covered. So, if you want to continue to breastfeed once you are back in, I wish you all of the luck. You’ll need it.

3. It’s hard to be a two-career couple; something’s gotta give

I live in Silicon Valley and there is a term around here called a unicorn. That’s the rare company that truly will be a home-run investment. Well there is another unicorn out there: the two-career couple. We hear about them, we might even know a few of them, but in my experience, they aren’t a reality. In most cases, one person’s career takes precedence and the other, while he or she may still work, becomes the lead parent.

In my qualitative and quantitative research of women who worked, paused, and thrived, one of the key messages was that having two parents working 24-7 didn’t work for their families. Something had to give and what gave was usually the woman’s job.

“Wait!” you say. ‘What about all of those stay-at-home dads I keep hearing about?” It’s true we are seeing a huge rise in the number dads who are lead parents. The latest estimate is that there are close to 2 million in the U.S. today, with one in five dads being the primary caregiver to their young children. Some say this is a cause for celebration, that we are breaking down gender barriers and allowing men to engage in caregiving. While that may be true, the reality is the reason these dads are abandoning their career is the same reason moms do: the workplace sucks for those with caregiving responsibilities.

Smart couples are viewing their careers as a collective unit. One partner may downshift to focus on family for a period of time and then the couple switches and the other partner downshifts. It’s a win for moms, dads, and kids. Before you jump ship, talk with your partner about whether this is something you two could do. Spiraling your careers may be the best way for you both to work, pause, and thrive.

4. It’s likely your company cares more about getting the work done than about you

The reality is we are all replaceable. Yep, even you. As much as there is a war for talent right now, the vast majority of American businesses are built on the notion of the “ideal worker.” You know who that is don’t you? The guy (because it is usually a guy) who can work 24-7 and has no home obligations to distract him from the job at hand. Study after study shows that people who can be all-in, all-of-the-time are the ones who get promoted fastest and who then promote the ones under them who are also “ideal workers.” It becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy and most companies don’t even realize they have fallen into this cycle. They think they are getting a truly committed employee, but the reality is this ideal worker model is failing because the vast majority of us don’t have a partner at home who can take care of the family. Most of us need to jobs to keep the family finances stable. As result, employee engagement is at its lowest level in years. In 2015, Gallop released its Workplace Survey on Employee Engagement. According to their research, 70 percent of the U.S. workforce reports feeling disengaged, resulting in $550 billion dollars in lost productivity in this country alone.

Meanwhile, research by EY and others reveal that Millennials, more than any other generation, report the stress of the 24/7 workplace and the failure of being able to integrate work and life. You’d think that would drive employers to change the way work gets done, but they haven’t. Or, at least not yet.

So, since they don’t really care about you, only you can decide if it is worth committing your human capital to them. Your company may be great place to work for the “ideal worker,” but if it is not a great place for parents, then you may want to consider moving on.

5. With rampant maternal bias in the workplace, you’re screwed anyway

I hate to be a Debbie-downer, but our modern work culture considers motherhood a major inconvenience. Stanford University professor Shelley Correll has done extensive research on the challenges mothers face in the workplace. Here are some of the facts she and other researchers have uncovered:

  • Employed mothers face a 24 percent wage penalty for one child and 44 percent for two or more children independent of their work interruptions, part-time work, and job level;
  • The pay gap between mothers and non-mothers is larger than the pay gap between women and men;
  • Visibly pregnant managers are deemed to be less authoritative, less dependable, and more irrational.

Finally, women who identify as mothers on their resumes (such as listing PTA involvement) are significantly less likely to be invited in for an interview in the first place. In other words, it’s harder to get promoted, get paid fairly, or even get a job once you become a mother. Since you can’t expect them to take care of you, you have to take care of yourself.

This isn’t about trying to discourage you, it’s about helping you get clarity on what truly makes sense for you and your family. If pausing your career is the right thing to do, then do it. But be smart about it. Don’t just quit. You’ll be a mother the rest of your lifetime and unless you are part of the 1 percent, you are going to have a long career ahead; you need to plan accordingly.

You can pick up a copy of my book at your local bookstore or online to learn more. Meanwhile, I’ll be answering your questions in my Should I stay or should I go column for this magazine. Email me at lisen [at] pregnancymagazine [dot] com. I’d love to hear from you.

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