Dealing with pregnancy and postpartum care is a uniquely female topic that happens to intersect with the co-ed world of work, and this creates some tricky scenarios for women.
Over the last few years, I’ve fielded questions from friends that go beyond, “How much maternity leave can I take?” and reveal the challenge women face to demonstrate commitment to their careers while prioritizing the new demands of motherhood.
They’ve confided in me, in part, because I used to work in Human Resources, so my advice is spiked with eight years of behind the scenes experience, a dose of U.S. employment law, and a dash of common sense. Now, I’m sharing that guidance with you.
This is not official legal counsel (I’m not an attorney) or even official HR guidance, for that matter, since I don’t know the nuances of your situation. So, be sure to seek out advice from your personal network and company resources. In general, though, if you were to come to me with any of these questions, here’s what I’d say to you.
I’m interviewing for a new job. Should I tell them I’m pregnant?
Nope. You’re not required to do this, but I understand that it’s tempting. We all want to start off on the right foot, and it can feel dishonest to not disclose such a big impending life change.
I like to give hiring managers the benefit of the doubt that they would not use this bit of information against you during the hiring process (and I would never let them, if I was their HR person), but human beings are fallible. While they want to fill this position with the best candidate, which could be you, they also want to fill it quickly, and the thought of covering a looming maternity leave may consciously or subconsciously dissuade them from choosing you.
Of course, if you were the most qualified person for the job and your pregnancy was the real reason you didn’t get it, they’d be breaking discrimination laws, but this might be hard to prove, so it’s best not to offer up the information in the first place.
I got the job! Now do I tell them I’m pregnant?
Maybe. I’d prefer you wait to tell them until you’re clear on the job’s pay and benefits and have the offer in writing. I’d be very surprised (and angry) if they backed out of the offer or tried to change its terms after learning you’re pregnant. But in case of any fishy business, it’s safer to have a written offer in hand.
When you do let your new manager know that you’re pregnant (see the next question for considerations on timing), present it as a statement of fact rather than an apology. You haven’t done anything wrong by keeping your personal business private until you knew that you’d have an ongoing relationship with this company, so an apology isn’t necessary.
Say something like, “I’m very excited about this opportunity. I can’t wait to start contributing to the team and to learn from them, as well. I do want to make you aware of a few important dates, so that we plan my work appropriately. I’m pregnant and will need to take maternity leave beginning on [date] and expect to be out for [specify time]. Between now and then, I’m committed to this role and want to make sure that my temporary absence is covered as seamlessly as possible.”
When should I tell my boss that I’m pregnant?
It depends. There are a lot of factors to consider, and it’ll likely come down to what you’re comfortable doing. I told my manager as soon as I was past twelve weeks because I wanted to wait until the risk of miscarriage was significantly reduced but also give him plenty of time to plan for my absence (and I hate keeping secrets).
I have a girlfriend who waited much longer, until after her managers had finalized performance reviews and promotions, so that she was sure her pregnancy wasn’t factored into any of these things. If you work in a job that requires very heavy lifting or other duties that may be unsafe during pregnancy, then you’ll want to notify your boss right away, so they can work out temporary accommodations for you.
People from work keep calling me with questions while I’m on maternity leave. Are they supposed to do this?
Probably not. At some companies, email access for employees on any leave of absence is cut off to prevent them from working while they’re out. If, as an HR person, I got wind of this, I’d put an end to it to protect you – the employee – who is not supposed to be working. As well as to avoid any complications for the company.
In the real world, though, this may happen, and you’re going to have to set your own boundaries. You may like the feeling of staying connected and knowing you’re missed at work and won’t mind answering a quick question here or there. Or, you will mind, but you pick up the phone anyway to demonstrate your commitment to your job. You don’t owe them your time right now, and they’ll keep calling, if you keep answering, so make sure you feel comfortable being accessible.
Also keep in mind that because you’re not immersed in day-to-day work while you’re out, you may not have all of the information you need to make appropriate decisions or to provide the guidance for which your boss or co-workers are asking. Use your judgment on how to contribute in an appropriate way and don’t feel guilty for ignoring their calls or messages.
My manager asked me to come back from maternity leave early. What should I do?
As if maternity leave wasn’t short enough in the United States, now they want you to come back early. Chances are they can’t legally make you return before the official end of your leave, especially if your time away is protected under the Family Medical Leave Act, a similar state-level protected leave law or a union contract.
Of course, you want to keep a good relationship with your manager and you may feel like you need to prove you’ll still be reliable and loyal, so it’s tempting to agree to a shortened leave. Consider this as you make your decision: You can never get these early days with your baby back.
Do what is in your best interest while you’re on leave because if the company is asking this of you, they’re only looking out for their best interest. If you do decide to start sooner than you anticipated, negotiate something for yourself, even if, in reality, you can’t wait to jump back into work and get a break from baby land. Maybe you agree to come back part-time for a few months or maybe you get extra time off down the road around the holidays or for a vacation you’ve been planning.
If they want you back, then you have leverage. Use it.
I don’t want to come back to work yet, but I’ve used up all of my time off. Can I still ask for an extension?
You can ask, but it may not be granted. The company may really need you back, or they may be concerned with what type of precedent this will set for future maternity leaves if they give you more time off.
For the best response from your manager, make this request as early as possible, so that he or she has time to plan for your longer absence. If there are any benefits to the business by extending your leave, remind them of this. For example, they may be over budget on salary costs and having you out for a little longer will help balance the books.
Keep in mind that if they do agree to an extended leave, it will likely be unprotected, meaning they no longer have an obligation to hold your job open for you. If you’re only asking for a few days or one more week away, chances are good that your job will still be there when you’re ready to come back. If you’re asking for several more months off, then you’re running the risk that the company fills your job and doesn’t have one for you when you want to return.
Make sure you’re clear on the terms of the extension, so there are no surprises when you’re ready to come back.
I’ve worked for two very different Fortune 500 companies and, in my experience, both have invested significant time and money to create a culture of respect and support for all employees and especially for working parents. I don’t want to leave you with a cynical view that companies will take advantage of women who are pregnant, or on maternity leave. That’s truly not what I’ve seen. I’ve been in several meetings where promotions for women out on maternity leave were planned, and where concern for employee well-being was as important as the bottom line.
But not all workplaces are created equal, and some won’t value employees this much. Even the good ones that do, at their core, are just a group of people. And sometimes people make mistakes.
So, when it comes to navigating pregnancy, maternity leave, and careers, women are smart to consider their approach carefully. It’s a balancing act – the first of many for working mothers – to maintain your professional presence, reaffirm your commitment to your careers, and also take the personal time you need (and deserve) to adjust to life with a new baby. It can be done, and if, throughout the process, you show respect both for yourself and for your company, you’ll do it well.