When the Professional Gets Personal: Navigating Pregnancy and Loss in the Workplace
By Kathleen Reid
January 31, 2020
I am a mother. As the Founder of Switchboard, I have at times felt like the mother of my team or the mother of my business — the immense responsibility of running payroll, ensuring consultants are paid within net 30 and worrying about cash flow. All of the things that keep business owners up at night. But, a recent experience gave me a new and deeper appreciation of what it means to be a mother, and it illuminated to me the need for more authenticity, more understanding and more inclusion in the workplace around the issue of motherhood.
Several weeks ago I found out I was pregnant, and just like that I wasn’t anymore. As a graduate of the Catholic school system, I often joke that I received no formal sex education. For most of my life, the idea of getting pregnant was forbidden, but now that I’m married, I’m at that time where society says go for it. As a result, I had the space to feel the diverse range of feelings that can accompany the anticipation of a major life change, and despite the fact that the pregnancy didn’t go as planned this time, I want to use the experience as a catalyst to advocate further for diversity and inclusion in the workplace. In tech, we often talk a big game about increasing the number of women in our sector. With only 18 per cent of women making up the tech workforce in B.C. it’s hard to deny that tech’s need for talent is hurt by the lack of women. But moving the dial on this issue isn’t just about equal pay and childcare. It’s about allowing women to be their most authentic selves as they navigate some of life’s most challenging, and often isolating, moments. So much of diversity & inclusion (rightly) focuses on hiring and the transitions in and out of maternity leave. After having this experience, I’ve realized that we need to support women through all the different stages and outcomes of becoming a mother, including the ones that are hard to discuss.
Beyond giving me a heightened appreciation for my own mother and all the working mothers out there, here’s what that little bean taught me in such a short period of time and to a profound degree:
For some, the expectation that pregnancies should be secret until the 12-week mark feels inauthentic.
They say you’re not supposed to “tell anyone” until your first trimester is over. Depending on how a person processes the first few months, physically and emotionally, that might be the right move. But, as a goal for 2020, I’ve committed to being authentic with my team when I need more time, space and flexibility. In this instance, hiding a pregnancy when I had heightened anxiety and daily puking felt like more energy than it was worth. It made me wonder: What kind of support exists in the traditional workplace during those early days, whether the pregnancy is disclosed or not?
The tell-tale tummy bump doesn’t arrive until the first trimester is over. People have good reasons for needing flexibility, understanding and respect even if it’s not visibly obvious.
My Irish background means I love a drink as much as the next person, but “no” is a full sentence when you’re turning down alcohol at an event. As much as I wanted to be authentic with my team, I also wanted to be in control of who I told and when. This became more difficult when people pressured me to drink, or when “no” prompted a bunch of follow-up questions. When someone declines a drink, don’t make them do it more than once. You can let them know what non-alcoholic options are on the table, and leave it at that.
Pregnancy and motherhood are more than just physical events, and honouring big feelings as they come up helps us be better colleagues in the long run.
The little bean reminded me of something personally. Having big feelings is a good thing, and it’s part of what makes me good at my job. Many of us would not hesitate to take an afternoon to recuperate if suffering from the flu or a migraine. We need to take the same approach with our mental health, and be gentle with ourselves when we’re experiencing deep loss or sorrow, too. I needed the time to cry, watch movies, question “why me?” “Why us?” and to have a personal pity party. I booked in with a counsellor, who reminded me that grief can be like throwing tennis ball: You don’t have the opportunity to bounce back up if you don’t travel down and hit the floor first. We need to hit our wall of futility in difficult times in order to learn and grow.
When men don’t receive flexibility in the workplace around issues related to pregnancy and parenting, we all lose out.
When workplaces treat pregnancy and parenting as exclusively female issues, men don’t get the space they need to process grief, and partners can’t lean on each other as much as they might need to during a loss. When my husband and I went to the doctor and received the news, I was grateful that he could leave the office to be with me during the appointment. We should not be “grateful” to have our partner by our sides but, because of the expectations we have for men versus women when it comes to the issue of pregnancy, we’re delighted when the system throws us a bone. Men need to be able to tell colleagues and supervisors that they need a mental health day, and we’re going to need a cultural shift in the workplace to make that happen.
Authenticity in 2020
Why am I sharing this? My theme for 2020 is authenticity, and part of this is to be a better listener. In this instance, I had to quiet the external noise to listen to myself — to understand that going through the rituals of grief needed to be prioritized over all else — even sales-related meetings or managing accounting details to close out the calendar year.
I don’t have a personal blog, so Switchboard’s blog felt like the right place to share what I learned from this experience. For some of you, this may seem like an overly personal read, but I’d like to challenge you on that. When was the last time you shared something personal? It’s the personal that connects us. It’s shared experiences. In short, 2020 you’ve already taught me so much.
For those who want more personal content from me, it’s coming in 2020. I’ll be chatting about the isolation of running a business, why I’m so passionate about accessibility and, in general, sharing more of my thoughts. There’s a lot of content out there, but so little of it is real, and we want you to come to our blog expecting to get real. If there’s something you want us to cover, please email [email protected] because in 2020 we all need more of this. Here’s to more personal conversations.