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I recently started a new job. I’m working for a start-up in London, which is an unfamiliar environment for me, and in a brand-new area. I’ve previously worked for much bigger companies where management has been quite hands-off, or for very small businesses where everyone tended to know what was happening with each other.
I really, really like this new job. I have a lot of responsibility, I’ve been encouraged by my manager to think about the long-term future and potentially building out my own department, and I get to work closely with the CEO and have a level of strategic oversight that I’ve never experienced before.
Here’s the problem: I also want to have a baby. And there’s a couple of ways in which this is complicating my life and my approach to my job.
The first is that I have a medical condition that means it’s proving quite hard for me to get pregnant. This means a lot of doctors’ appointments, scans, etc. I’ve had three doctors’ appointments, one scan in hospital, and one nutritionist appointment in the last three months, and I have another scan and appointment with the nutritionist coming up in the next month.
I really don’t want to seem as though I’m skiving off all the time, but I also don’t feel like revealing to my manager that I’m trying to get pregnant and dealing with quite a complicated medical situation. Of course, I know that trying to get pregnant or being pregnant can’t legally affect how they treat me at work — but there are just 25 people in the office, my boss is just a couple of years older than me, none of the people here have children … and there’s no HR department. I’m concerned that while the letter of the law might be followed, the processes aren’t robust enough to actually make sure it doesn’t negatively affect me. I don’t want to be overlooked for progression and future opportunities because they think I’m about to go off and have a baby, especially since it could potentially be two or three years before I actually get pregnant. On the other hand, I feel like accumulating a bunch of doctors’ appointments and sick leave is going to make me look like I’m not taking the job seriously enough, which is very much not the case.
My instinct is to tell my manager — who is one step below the CEO — that I’ve been recently diagnosed with a medical condition (which is true, as I only got the firm diagnosis in February) that will require ongoing appointments, probably once or twice a month, for probably the next six months. If the current treatments don’t work, then the volume of appointments will probably step up with the next type of treatment, which will be more interventionist. However, I don’t want to give her the impression that I have something life-threatening and then turn around and be like, “Psych! I’m actually having a baby.” Although obviously I would love an opportunity to say “psych!” in real life. Should I say, “I have a condition, it’s important to treat now but it’s not actually causing me any pain or preventing me from doing my job, I’m still going to hit my targets”? I don’t want to start promising to make up the hours since obviously the point of sick leave is that you don’t have to pay back that time — but should I?
The second is the larger question of whether this is a good time to actually start a family. Honestly, this doesn’t concern me as much as it maybe ought to. I’m almost 30, I’m in a very loving and secure relationship, we’re financially stable, and I don’t think I’m ever going to be at a perfect time to have a baby. What’s more, my medical condition means that the earlier I do have a baby, the better. But is this far too blasé an attitude? Am I potentially throwing a grenade into my career, just when it’s starting to look like a real prospect? I don’t want to wait, especially because it could be years until I actually get pregnant, but am I being foolish?
I’m not under any illusions about what comes next. I know that balancing children and work is hard. I’m also nervous that all the medical appointments will come to naught, and then my husband and I will have to make a decision about what to do next. But for right now, I’m stuck between creating the best possible situation for myself at work and doing what I need to do in order to have a baby. Help me!
I think your instincts here are pretty perfect.
You can tell your boss the pieces of the truth that are relevant to her and to your work right now, without telling her the parts that are personal and ultimately not her business. In other words, you can say this: “I want to let you know that I’ve recently been diagnosed with a medical condition that will require regular doctors’ appointments for a while — probably two a month for the next six months. After that, I’ll have a better idea of what else might be required, if anything. This isn’t anything you need to worry about — it’s not life-threatening or anything that will impact my work. It’s just something that I need to take care of, and I wanted to let you know so that you’re not wondering when you see me out for a bunch of doctors’ appointments.”
A good manager will respect your privacy here, but if yours presses for details, it’s fine to just say, “I’d rather not get into the details, but I promise to keep you posted if anything changes that would impact work. But please know that I’ll be fine! There’s no reason to worry.”
And no, you do not need to offer to make up the hours. The point of sick leave is that it’s there for you to use for health needs; you’re not expected to make up that time, at least not in a functional office. (Of course, if you’re taking time off on a particularly busy week, you might need to adjust your schedule in other ways to accommodate for that. But in general, sick time is yours to actually use.)
You mentioned that you’re worried that once you end up announcing a pregnancy, your manager might feel duped by this conversation. But first, she’s not necessarily going to connect your doctor appointments with the pregnancy, since people get pregnant while treating totally unrelated conditions. And second, you do have a legitimate health condition; you’re not misrepresenting that. If treating it results in a baby at the end of the process, well, mission accomplished. That’s okay — don’t feel weird about it.
And really, this isn’t information that your manager is entitled to! There’s a reason that there are laws protecting pregnant women from discrimination at work. (That’s true in both the U.S., and the U.K., although since you’re in London, your legal protection is even a bit stronger than ours is here.) And speaking of pregnancy discrimination, you’re absolutely right to wonder whether, laws aside, some bias might kick in once your office knows you’re actively trying to get pregnant. Even among well-intended people who want to be supportive of moms and would-be moms, it can be easy to fall into thinking, “Hmmm, Jane might be out a big chunk of next year, so maybe we should hold off on giving her any new big projects right now.” That thinking isn’t right — and it’s illegal! — but it’s really common, and it can be hard to guard against. That’s especially true in smaller offices like yours, where parental leave can feel like a bigger deal because there are fewer people around to cover your work for you, and where there’s no HR department watching out for this kind of bias.
In fact, you might even think of it this way: By not disclosing your childbearing plans at this point, you’re making it easier for your employer to follow the law. Bias is hard to overcome, even when people don’t want to be biased, so you might as well make it easy for them and not share information that they’re not legally allowed to act on. (It’s the same principle as not disclosing a pregnancy when you’re interviewing: Since employers aren’t legally allowed to factor in your pregnancy, do them the favor of not throwing it in the mix, at least not until you have a job offer.)
Now, what about your larger question of whether this is a good time to start a family? Obviously that’s a decision that only you and your husband can make, but for what it’s worth, it sounds like a fine time to me. I get that you’re worried about derailing your career just when you’ve gotten into a position you love … but by not doing it, you risk derailing your life. You were good enough to work your way into the job you have now, with all the opportunities that it gives you, and that means that you’ll have a pretty solid foundation for your professional life once there’s a baby in the picture too. You’re unlikely to ever stumble into the exact perfect time to do it, but everything you’ve described sounds like you’re in a good situation to make this work.
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