How to Protect Your Career While You're Pregnant

a year ago

When you're pregnant, everyone has advice (warranted or not) about what you should do to take care of your body and the baby growing inside of it. Then you have the baby and even more people are coming at you -- citing books and studies -- about what you're likely doing wrong in caring for this new life. (Pssst. You're doing fine. Forget those people!)

But for those moms-to-be who also happen to be working women, the one area that doesn't get discussed enough is: How do you take care of your professional life during your pregnancy. This is where someone like Allyson Downey and her new book Here's the Plan comes in.

How to Protect Your Career While You're Pregnant
Photo Credit: Allison Hooban

Downey is an entrepreneur, writer, and parent who has built a career on the power of trusted advice. In 2013, she launched weeSpring, a Techstars-backed startup that helps new and expecting parents collect advice from their friends about what they need for their baby. The book was borne out of Downey's own experience with pregnancy discrimination at the office, but it is also informed by interviews she conducted with more than 75 working women on how they successfully navigating the early years of parenting while also pursuing ambitious careers.

The book covers everything from when to disclose pregnancy during the interview process to how forthright to be if you need to miss a meeting because of a sick kid. "It's about nurturing the life outside your body," Downey says.

We grabbed some time with Downey in the middle of her book tour to talk more about how to protect your career while you're pregnant.

BlogHer: When it comes to working mothers (mothers in general!), the work/life balance piece is a constant challenge. Is it possible to achieve true, guilt-free balance?

Allyson Downey: When I think about work/life balance, I have this mental picture a tightrope walker teetering along carrying a pole with a work weight on one side and a life weight on the other. And I think that's what it feels like if you're setting out to achieve work/life balance every day: precarious, anxiety-provoking, high stakes. I personally aim for balance over weeks and months.

There are some stretches of time when I miss bedtime more than I make it because of a work deadline, but afterward, I pull back a bit and will drop the kids off a little late for school because I took them out to breakfast or duck out of the office early to go to the park. And after a week or two of late nights, I've earned that flexibility.

One of the women I interviewed for my book is a coach who coined the term work/life fit, and I love the term fit. It feels far more achievable than balance.

BlogHer: What’s your advice for the woman who wasn’t informed about protecting her career during pregnancy and now finds herself stalled on the on-ramp?

AD: First, know that you're not alone. So few women talk about the career implications of having kids, and I think there's a sense of shame around having stalled out -- as though you've done something wrong. I certainly felt that way, and indeed, it wasn't until I started researching Here's the Plan that I realized just how prevalent discrimination is. In most cases, it's "benevolent discrimination," when someone does you a "favor" by lessening your workload or reducing your responsibility because you're a new mother.

The best way to avoid benevolent discrimination is to speak up loud and clear about what you want, and be a broken record about it. People make a lot of assumptions about what pregnant women and new mothers want or need, and those assumptions may be the opposite of the truth. Walk into your manager's office and say, "In the next six months, I'd like to accomplish XYZ. Can we talk about how I can make that happen?" Your XYZ might be a promotion, or a big client account, or expanding your skill set. Figure out what you want to achieve professionally, and then voice that objective.

BlogHer: How does one effectively guard against or prepare for the "parenting penalty" that working mothers too often face at work?

Stocksy Image via weeSpring.

AD:The motherhood penalty is all too real. In a 2007 Cornell study, a sociologist found that in a lab experiment, mothers were offered $11,000 less in salary than non-mothers. It's a bigger societal hurdle that I believe ties closely to the lack of paid paternity leave; while moms are at home building up their baby-care skill sets, dads are in the office expanding on their professional experience.

Again, I think it comes down to speaking up for yourself. I recommend that women have a quarterly calendar reminder to have an informal conversation with their managers about their short and long term goals, while also trumpeting what they've accomplished. You can ensure you're really prepared for those meetings by setting aside 15 minutes at the end of each week to write down what you did that week; keep it all in the same document and add to it each week. As women, we spend a lot of time worrying about we didn't get done and rarely celebrate what we did. Keeping a list like that gives you that weekly moment to celebrate, but it also equips you with a ready list of your accomplishments that you can cite when advocating for more responsibility, a promotion, or a raise.

BlogHer: What’s your advice for the young woman in her 20s or early 30s who is still unsure about motherhood, but wants to keep it open as an option as she builds her career?

AD:A lot of the tactics I cover in the book are applicable even for women who are still a long way off from pregnancy. I think of it as folic acid for your career: good for you all the time, but crucially important when you're pregnant. One of the things that can yield the best return on investment is diligently building up your personal network, and you can start that on the first day of your first job.

When most people think of networking, they imagine networking events where you're exchanging business cards and jostling to make as many contacts as you can in a short stretch of time. And while you can make some valuable connections that way, I think the most effective way to strengthen your own network is by making connections for other people.

If you're being thoughtful about the connections you're making, and they're truly mutually beneficial, you're doing two favors with one small act. You don't have to be a born "connector," but you can develop muscle memory for it if you train yourself to think, "Who do I know who can help this person?" each time you meet someone new.  Over time, you'll have seeded so many connections that each of your relationships will be stronger -- and those people will be more likely to open their own network to you.

BlogHer: If you had to boil it down to one crucial lesson, what’s the most important thing you wish you knew about protecting your professional life and career during pregnancy?

AD: There are two: first, be relentless in building your network, and second, be a broken record about what you want. The first breeds opportunities like rabbits, and the second stops people from making assumptions about you.


Nicole Blades is a novelist and freelance journalist who writes about family, identity and culture. Her second novel, THE THUNDER BENEATH US (Kensington), is now available for pre-order!

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