What to Do When You're Pregnant and Your Boss Doesn’t Get It
Career advice from a former VP who didn't get it, until I had kids of my own
I know all about this, but probably not in the way you think. Yes I’ve had three kids in the last five years, but for the first time in my adult life, I’ve been out of the corporate environment; I’ve been a consultant working from a fairly cushy home office in Italy, and now North Carolina. No boss to deal with at all. What I know about lame bosses during pregnancy—”Wait, you have another appointment again tomorrow?”—is actually from the other side of the desk. I was the clueless one.
As a young and ambitious VP of a big media company, it’s not that I was ever unsupportive. I certainly didn’t think poorly of my pregnant team members, worry about their career prospects or begrudge them that maternity leave. It was more subtle than that. When a mom-to-be from my team would say she’d be out or she was tired, I’d say, “Okay, sure. Whatever you need to do.” But in my head I’d basically minimize the whole thing, thinking judgy thoughts like, “What’s the big deal? Haven’t people been doing this for thousands of years?”
What an idiot.
The problem with bosses is that most of them are just people. Probably ambitious people who like working hard, but aside from being good at the tasks at hand, they might not have a whole lot of leadership skills or even life experience. I didn’t. Single and living in New York City, across the country from any family member of my own, the career was my main priority for many years. Sure I had friends, coworkers and team members with kids, but the true complexities of raising a family and working at the same time were totally lost on me.
What I needed was a swift kick in the you-know-where, three kids of my own, a very wise mentor, or at least a message like Sheryl Sandberg’s.
The second most famous Facebook executive spoke at Salesforce.com’s Dreamforce event about the need for bosses to have honest, supportive conversations with female employees. She suggested saying something like this to valued team members in order to keep them on board for the long haul:
“You may want to have kids one day. My door is open. Come talk to me anytime.
If you want to have children I’m not going to give the good [opportunities] to someone else because you’re pregnant. And I’m going to help you take a leave and come back if that’s what you want to do.”
This type of conversation did not cross my mind. Ever.
If you are pregnant or still considering a family but worried because your boss is young and silly, or old and lame, don’t give up. Sheryl Sandberg is not your average boss—just consider her paycheck and her accomplishments. Her message, her attitude, is the gold standard, and you deserve that. You and your boss might get there but it’ll likely have to start with you.
My advice as a former boss and a current parent is this:
- Don’t apologize. Having a life outside of work is great. It makes you an interesting person who can relate to others. This includes having life goals, big dreams and even babies. Be grown up, have a pleasant, productive conversation with your boss about your plans and figure out how it can work for both of you.
- Don’t act like your boss owes you. Even if you’re the most dedicated employee around, never forget that you are getting paid for your work. That means you and the company you work for? You’re square. No one owes you extra time off or special perks, even though you might get a few along the way. (When in doubt, I used to gauge my own requests like this, “If I owned this business, is this how I’d spend my time?”)
- Don’t be a martyr. There’s a lot to juggle when you’re pregnant and working full time. Figure out how you can still be awesome at your job while getting enough rest, water, bathroom breaks, mornings off for appointments and so on. It gets more complicated after the baby comes and of course you can still make it work.
- Don’t expect your boss to totally get it. You don’t need her (or him) to. Especially if she hasn’t become a parent yet. Just think of it like any other life event—we’ve all worked with brides planning for a wedding, through the death of parents, battling serious health problems and more—and keep moving forward.
But before you start your family and career conversation, get yourself in a good spot. The most important advice I could ever give someone who wants to move up (or stay in a solid position) is simple, something my boyfriend-turned-husband told me many years ago and it changed my career. Your job is to make your boss’s job easier. If you can spin the paradigm from ways to get more attention, a bigger paycheck and access to cooler projects for yourself, if you can start looking for ways to lift your boss up, you’ll immediately find yourself moving up. And if you want to have a baby along the way, any boss with an employee who has her back like you do will be much happier to help make it work. Even if she’s a little young and inexperienced.
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