Are we due for a workplace redesign? There are a myriad of opportunities for organizations to support talented women as they enter motherhood and navigate through its many complexities.
Turns out it’s an age old realization only I came to appreciate after I became pregnant myself. My pregnancy was one of my more difficult life experiences. I was on a roller coaster of emotional and physical exhaustion. The non-pregnant me didn’t fully grasp just how much life would change. During my pregnancy and now that I have my baby, I met many women who told me their own experiences were similar. “You just can’t explain it until you experience it yourself,” they all told me. All agreed, “It’s definitely not something we talk about as much as we perhaps could.”
So, I want to share my story of how my pregnancy changed my experience at work. My hope is to share one perspective (mine!) and call out some gaps.
I was surprised how often I repositioned my conversations at work.
I had taken on a new role, in a new company, in a new industry with new colleagues just two months prior to finding out I was pregnant. Way to set myself up for success and build credibility while I allowed another being to take over my body! My husband and I were trying to have a baby for over two years and I had practically given up hope. Had I known we would finally have our gift, perhaps I would have reconsidered making a move.
I had one month of bliss before nausea, throwing up and interrupted sleep became part of everyday life. And by the way, those three never left me, at any point in any trimester. I was hugging toilets right up until the day I gave birth to my baby girl.
I was nervous about breaking the news at work. After all, I had barely just arrived in my new role. I read every article I could find and spoke to anyone who I trust. I even wondered what language to use – is it appropriate to say “I am pregnant” or should I say “I am expecting?” Expecting what? That’s not clear.…! Let’s chalk this one up to English not being my first or second language. My growing body did some of the talking for me too! *chuckles*
I wanted to give as much notice as possible. So I shared my news immediately following the day my doctor confirmed I was past the three month baby probation – all was fine with my little bunny. And my boss took the news as positively as I could have expected. Phew!
I discovered a new found empathy for colleagues who were expecting. I had no idea how tough it might have been on my colleagues who had gone on maternity leave before me. If I did, I would’ve known to be a more supportive colleague. Women made pregnancy look way easier than it is. I wondered if I was doing the same. For sure I was making an effort to cope better with the exhaustion and tried not to talk about the pregnancy as often.
I could best describe my state in the context of iPhone battery life status. I was starting my day in the red zone at 20%. By about the first 1000-1500 foot steps, I was down to 5% battery life. I dragged my legs and body to and from meeting rooms, and desperately looked for coping mechanisms to extend my battery life to make it through the end of the day. I’d come home and go straight to bed.
I felt really guilty for my foggy brain, for working from home (completely my own creation because working from home was actually encouraged and positively viewed in my workplace), for scheduling doctor appointments early in the morning but that still spilled into my work day…. All of that guilt, I didn’t have energy for by the third trimester.
How much of all my challenges could I share at work? I was already paranoid that my opportunities at work were impacted just as an overwhelming majority of my personal confidantes warned me. I didn’t want to be left out of consideration for interesting projects that could supposedly be “too hard for me to handle right now” or that I couldn’t finish before I left.
Fortunately, work was a distraction. But as soon as I left work, I felt sick! Sometimes, I was frustrated about losing control over things I simply had taken for granted. That was probably one of the harder concepts to come to terms with.
The other hard part was getting my head straight.
It took me a long time to get used to the idea that I was pregnant.
There were some pregnancy favourites. I loved being taken care of. My husband wanted to wrap me in a bubble wrap, barring which he was at my beck and call. Complete strangers were nice to me. I also found it really easy to connect and find commonality with other moms, dads, uncles, aunts, etc. It was as if suddenly I joined a super friendly secret club. My friends threw my husband and I an amazing instagram-worthy party to celebrate our baby. Above all, I loved the quiet times in the morning or in the evening when I could feel the baby move and dream about our future.
Those parts of my pregnancy were AWESOME!
Here are the parts that gave me pause.
When people saw me, they saw that I was pregnant first.
Often the first comment (however well intentioned) when I met people was about my pregnancy, baby or my growing body. I remember feeling confused and needing a moment to remind my brain that I was pregnant, so that’s why they said what they said. “It’s normal”. In reality, as obsessed as I was about the baby, tired and low on my battery life, being pregnant was not my identity. So when majority of comments, questions or conversation directed to me however well intentioned were about the baby, I had to reset my orientation. After all, I was still the same person who cared about and thought of a thousand different things and pregnancy was “while major” just one aspect about me. My experience gave me a new found empathy and perspective on racism, ageism and overall being an “other” in a room.
Being fortunate enough to live in Canada, I had the option to take 12 – 18 months off from work to be with the baby. I am grateful to have this option.
It also made me realize in April of 2017, that I will be back to work in 2019!
My Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO) skyrocketed to an all time high. My world could change so much and be so different in 2019! I am proud of and am known for my ability to juggle multiple priorities at once. I worked full-time on a demanding Human Resources job, while pursuing my full time Executive MBA program, regularly making time for my friends and family, giving back to the community through awareness and fundraising events, as I was going through some life changing family events at the same time. I am expected to just spend a year thinking about nothing, but a baby!
I’m not even sure how much I like babies! I certainly don’t like pregnancy!
I cared about my career now more than ever.
A consistent stream of thoughts during my nine months was about my career. I was new in my role and hadn’t had much opportunity to prove myself. Being new was unnerving even for someone as self assured as me. I was increasingly aware of my need to have real purpose in my work. There was also an emerging shift of at what price I was willing to pay. I still aim to pursue senior leadership opportunities in the corporate world and continue on my trajectory. I wanted to do it on my own terms. The opportunity cost of my efforts at work is time away from my baby. I needed my career to be one that is truly meaningful and doing something that I love.
This last realization uncovered a real gap in today’s workplaces for me. Rather than take a back seat in my development because I was pregnant, I wished for a mission of discovery, for my leaders to take an active interest in me and ensure frequent, transparent career conversations were happening. I needed to have a challenge to look forward to when I am back or at the very least have the confidence in my sponsors who will champion for my advancement for my work.
I felt alone as I navigated through my pregnancy at work. While there were many who related to my experience, like many women before me, I too had to take it up on myself to navigate through the complexities. My experience begged the question:
Are we due for a workplace redesign?
As my own coping strategy, I tried to make my meaning of “It takes a village to raise a child.” I believe this village can start long before the child actually arrives. And this village can start in our workplaces.
My number one support was my husband, Jeremy. He strangely developed the ability to charge my battery to even slightly above 20% with hugs, walks in the trails by our house and listening ear. I could not have possibly made it through these nine months without his support, presence and empathy for what I was going through.
The next component of my village were mentors. With them I did not need filters, I need not worry if it was faux pas to say what I felt, I just said it. And let them hear my perspective, share their own, help me process what I was going through. I truly leaned on my mentors like never before. I was even fortunate enough to find new leaders and confidants I looked up to and I am forever grateful for their generosity of time and support.
The third were friends and family who reminded me how awesome being mom will be and their excitement made me excited! Their ideas also gave me ideas for more coping mechanisms. I tried to really let go of wanting to have control over things, and let others in as part of my experience and growth. From the practical (what to buy and borrow) to the possibilities (playdates and weddings), they kept me going.
At work, I made a point to introduce myself to some key leaders and colleagues to learn about what they do and their mandate in the next year and also to make a connection – this helped me feel better about being so new to an organization, in a new industry where I am an unknown entity still, and haven’t had much opportunity to make my mark.
I believe women need not be alone in navigating through their experiences. While every mothers experience is different, collectively there are commonalities. I have seen many examples of leaders who have taken it upon themselves to bring changes. My experience planted a seed for my future as a leader. For now while I’ll focus on the little seedling that is my baby, I look forward to working on solutions in the years to come.