You’re pregnant: Congratulations! Now you must almost immediately begin to navigate the collision course that is figuring out how to tell everyone you know.
It’s hard enough to determine when to tell your parents or your best friend, but throwing work into the equation is legitimately terrifying for some women. This is partly because maternity-leave policies and support in the U.S. are terrifically bad — even those companies with official leave policies are sometimes vague about implementing them. In the United States, only about 12 percent of women have some form of paid leave following the birth of a child. Every situation is going to be slightly different, of course, but for many women with full-time jobs, there are a few things you should know going into this process to make it as stress-free as possible for yourself and your employer.
If you are one of the lucky women whose company has a maternity-leave policy of any sort, now would be the time to dust off the manual they gave you when you were hired. Familiarize yourself with every detail of the policy. Know your rights and know them well. Know what you are entitled to. Know also the terms of the 1993 FMLA (Family Medical Leave Act), because you may need to use it. Know how many sick days and how much vacation you have remaining. Write all of this down.
The Family Medical Leave Act of 1993 is pretty simple: It states that if you have been working full-time for over 12 months for a company with more than 50 employees, you are entitled to 12 weeks of unpaid time off. Those weeks do not need to be consecutive, and you can use them within a year of your child’s birth. This act protects your job and gives you the right to continue the same health-insurance coverage while you are on leave. Many women in the United States, for example, get six weeks of paid leave after the birth of a child, and then go on to use an additional six weeks of FMLA leave. Please note that FMLA can run consecutively to your leave, so you can’t take usually take six weeks of paid leave and then 12 weeks of unpaid FMLA time off, but it’s up to your specific employer’s discretion. The point is: You should have some idea of all of this math in mind as you prepare to speak with your boss.
So you’ve reviewed your company’s leave policies: Now what? “I definitely wanted to know when [to tell them] and what exactly to say (if I needed to be prepared with an ‘exit plan,’ etc.),” one currently pregnant woman — a full-time professional in New York City — told me. She was looking for tips on how to speak with her boss, whom she describes as both “extremely busy” and male. Though the gender of your manager isn’t supposed to matter, it often feels like it does.
The 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act is what protects women from all sorts of problems that can arise during and immediately after pregnancy — not just hiring and firing, but pay issues, time off, loss of promotions, and withheld benefits. And though there is no one-size-fits-all approach to dealing with your pregnancy, Tara Jensen, an associate attorney at Cary Kane, a well-known firm in New York City that specializes in labor disputes, says a good approach is to tell your employer “as soon as possible,” once you feel comfortable.
Lawyers think about this issue with one goal in mind: “protecting your job,” says Jensen. So conveying your pregnancy — which is legally (groan) a disability — is oriented toward that. Jensen advises very much against, for instance, telling work buddies before you tell your supervisor. Exactly which supervisor depends upon your company, “but someone who you report to. Anyone in a supervisor position has a duty to report it up so you’d be protected either way.” Because pregnancy is a “disability under the law,” they are required to keep your pregnancy confidential if you ask. The simple fact is that from the moment you report your pregnancy to a supervisor in your workplace, your job is much more protected legally than it is before you do so.
One nightmare scenario women should seek to avoid is if their employer finds out they are pregnant before they’ve been formally told. For example, if you tell a loose-lipped work buddy who tells someone who tells someone until the news has traveled, via unofficial channels, to your boss. Legally, they haven’t been apprised of your situation, so you’re not protected under the PDA, and if they fired you then, you’d have a hard time proving that you were fired because of your pregnancy. You want to avoid this!
The primary thing you should communicate to your employer as your pregnancy progresses is your approximate dates of leave and return. Pregnancy is notoriously unpredictable, but a ballpark will help everyone to begin to make plans. Many workplace’s human-resources departments will have done this enough times that they can help guide you through the process, but Jensen advises — again for your own protection — to be very proactive about “helping them transition and replace you temporarily.” Remember that your employer is almost always legally required to keep your job — or an equivalent one (and yes, “equivalent” is where some legal messiness can arise) — until your return. Jensen says, however, that even if employers are aware of the laws, and know what is legally required of them, many know the loopholes well enough to try to find ways to replace you in your absence.
The simple fact here is that many employers (especially men! but not always!) have a “preconceived notion that now you’re going to be preoccupied with your baby, you’re not going to work as hard, and you’re gonna leave early,” Jensen says. She says that the “deep-rooted bias” against mothers is something that comes up all the time in her line of work. Employers “do it all the time,” she says, when I ask if companies really still try to get rid of women who have just had babies.
This is where the emotional part of the process comes in. If you’re worried that your boss will make negative assumptions about you based on your pregnancy, of course the conversation is going to be stressful! Knowing your rights will help, but it will also help to keep in mind that, just like asking for a promotion or a raise, telling your employer you are pregnant is a business matter.
So, armed with knowledge, confidence in yourself, and happiness about your future life as a parent, ask for some time to speak with your boss. Set up an actual meeting — don’t wing it! — and be direct and unapologetic about your situation. Do not feel bad. You’re not going to ruin your boss’s life by having a child. Yes, it might make the conversation a bit easier if your supervisor is a woman, or a person who has children themselves. But no matter how complicated and anxiety-ridden this conversation feels going into it, remember you will feel a lot better once you can begin proactively making plans with your boss for your absence and later return.
One of the best tools to fight against employer problems during your maternity leave, Jensen says, is to “make yourself indispensable to them.” Don’t just help make sure your job will be covered in your absence, but check in during your leave. “I know you don’t want to and you’re in a totally different zone and you’re nesting, but to the extent that you’re able to keep in touch … and to chime in on certain things,” she says, it will be helpful to you in the long run. Many of us now do have the kinds of jobs where, even during vacations or leaves, we’ll still be getting emails in our inboxes every day. While it’s fine to ignore most of that, Jensen says, it’s never a bad idea to remind people that you exist. “You can send an email and chime in on a group email you got without really extending much time and energy,” she suggests.
And that is, truly, one of very few real upsides to the “always on” mentality: In firing off a few one-word emails during your maternity leave, you not only remind your co-workers that you exist, but you could also be creating a paper trail for future protections should a problem arise after your return. “You don’t want to have to say, ‘I told you I was coming back!’ You don’t want to have to be in a position to defend against being fired or whatever,” Jensen says. “But it works two-fold. It’s like making yourself indispensable along the way and also protecting yourself. Presenting evidence in your defense if you should need it in the future.”
Most of the pregnant women I know do have some fear about the safety of their jobs while they’re away from their desks. They also worry about their responsibilities falling to other co-workers in their absences. That’s perfectly natural, and even warranted, especially here in the U.S. where protections and benefits are few enough that the cards indeed feel stacked against women who give birth. But maternity leave is also an important time in your life — the beginning of your life as a mother — and so anything you can do before you have the baby to make yourself more at ease during your leave will pay you back heartily.
Being prepared and knowledgeable is the most important thing you can do to make sure you get the most of your maternity leave. And if your employer does fuck you over, remember: You can always call a lawyer.