Thursday, March 15, 2007

The Pregnant Pause: How Maternity and Motherhood are Viewed by an Employer

Recently I was reading a career advice column that brought up parenthood. A young newly married career woman was at dinner with her boss and colleagues. The conversation came around to her plans for her future career and family. She said she is looking forward to starting a family. After recounting this story to her husband and the advice column, the unanimous answer was to never talk specifically about your own family planning.

I have to agree with this. I have been on both sides of this topic, initially being my employer's first woman they employed who worked through my pregnancy and then returned from maternity leave, and later as an employer with people who were starting families. So I'll give my thoughts from the employee and employer perspective.

Planning your family takes personal and couple discussions about how you will raise the child, how you will afford expenses that arise, and how you will juggle responsibilities. These are very intimate issues to work out. A big issue is how you will handle your career once you become pregnant and when the baby arrives. Everyone handles this differently, and today more than ever it's a couple's solution. Some people can work throughout the pregnancy and maternity leave without missing a beat. Others have severe medical issues that limit a woman's ability to work during the pregnancy. And other woman have occasionally complaints during pregnancy that can affect performance.

So now your bundle of joy arrives. I remember distinctly the first night my baby was home with us and wouldn't stop crying that I was completely responsible for this new human. That's quite a life changing event. For many women and men today, maternity leave is the first time they haven't worked for a period of time. Some people find it a great bonding time with the new family, and others realize that they don't have the strong nurturing feelings they expected to have. Give yourself time to adjust. This is when some people find that they can accomplish work duties while away, or can barely accomplish getting bathed. Make sure you give yourself options so you don't have to run back to work before you are ready.

This is all well and good--but what if you are an employer who needs to keep the company running. What do you do if your star employee all of a sudden can't remember her sales appointments (surprisingly plausible), or your department manager announces his desire to take family leave, or your right hand winemaker is on bed rest for the remainder of her pregnancy? If you plan ahead you can make sure that systems are in place to catch any problems ahead of time. You can also cross-train other employees to handle any time off. You can have more frequent talks with your employee to keep abreast of things that might come up during their leave. And most importantly you want to support them during this exciting time.

Great, but how does an employer really feel. When an employee discusses their hopes to get pregnant there is always a twinge of concern. Will the employee become dreamy eyed and forget their past hard-charging ways? Will they assure the boss that they will return to work 6 weeks after the baby arrives, and then find a new job and leave the employer high and dry? Will a father find he loves being a stay at home dad and surprise his company by giving notice? These things all happen, and are why an employer pauses when parenthood is brought up.

So I'll come back to what the advice column said. Never discuss your personal family planning. As a young career woman I always praised new parents and echoed other's comments about how great their accomplishment was, but kept it quite separate from my own personal life. I may have thought that was the cutest baby I ever saw and was dying to have one of my own. But I loved my work, and my family, and didn't want to ruin my future possibilities. So I kept my home life private and also made sure I had options if my own family situation caused me to change my career aspirations.

What do you think? Any experiences or comments?

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