“I’m pregnant. Do you still find me valuable?” I spewed these words when I first announced the news to my boss. And although I hadn’t intended on pairing those exact sentences, many working women hold the sentiment of my conversation-starter – not just in the beginning, but through all stages of pregnancy and for months postpartum.
Whether it’s the nerves around asking our employer about maternity leave, the insecurity of our belly bump at a job interview or client meeting, the fear of job security during maternity leave, or all three, there’s an undercurrent of wondering how you are going to make this motherhood thing work.
With both of my pregnancies, my work life was starting to gain real momentum when I saw the two pink lines. After 15 months of trying for a second baby, we were over the moon. But too soon after we got the news we had been waiting, hoping, and praying for, the back of my mind started stressing out.
What about childcare? When will I have to go back to work? How is this all going to be possible? I felt frustrated that I let these doubts take over the anticipation our growing family.
But the reality is 25% of women in America have to return to work two weeks after giving birth, because they simply can’t afford otherwise. Two weeks! Not only does the infant-mother connection starve, but a mother’s body is nowhere near healed. Most women are still bleeding, recovering from a tear, leaking breastmilk, and sweating way more than comfortable in public.
In an effort to get in front of these concerns and snuff them out before it became full-blown anxiety, I boldly asked my employer about maternity leave. I did not expect my time away to be paid. I had been an employer once myself and knew The United States is the only developed nation that does not mandate paid leave to mothers of newborns. I simply wanted to know how many weeks I could be offline. I needed a timeline to start planning around – a window to my life on the other side of pregnancy.
After one month of hearing crickets from my boss, I got the answer I least expected but most feared: I had six weeks until my last day. His wife, the mother of his kids, would be taking over my position.
My upbeat background music cut off.
There I was, laid off at seven months pregnant, confused, with a flowery rage taking over my heart. The middle-finger vibes in my abdomen induced hot tears and insomnia. I was writing email responses in a half-sleep state, combing over every sentence until each one was the perfect zinger, only to forget them by morning. How dare he take the fun out of this! There’s only so much buddha-smiling and Grateful Dead listening that I could do before I settled into the reality that things were actually not going to be okay.
In this county 62% of households with children operate on dual income, and my family lives in that camp. Our household income was abruptly cut in half, and at a point when my body had rendered me unemployable, my belly now too big to suck in, too big to hide. Any business-minded employer would skip right over me, despite the Pregnancy Discrimination Act that was passed to protect me. Who would train someone only to have them leave for 8-12 weeks? I tried to stay positive, but I felt hopeless.
My due date was closing in on me, and I couldn’t stew any longer. I had to make a plan. Thanks to all the rise of feminism on Instagram, Angela Garbes, and my supportive husband (who bore the worst of it), I became empowered by my womanhood almost overnight. I started diving into some research about what I now know has a name: “the motherhood penalty.” And I learned that I was far from alone in this temporary struggle. Being in the company of other, unknown women made me feel more capable than ever.
Unfortunately hugs and sympathy don’t pay the bills. Information can. And there is a lot of that out there. Some of the language can be hard to navigate, especially when you’re feeling emotional, hormonal, and spent. How do we cope? What actions can we take? I’ve done some digging, and we do in fact have options to make the road of unemployment a little easier to travel. Every woman’s situation is different. Check out these resources and make an action plan that fits your needs:
- Find Health Insurance: If you were previously receiving healthcare benefits from your employer, make this step your number one priority! There is a huge medical expense in your near future. If you’re unable to get added on your partner’s health care plan, you can utilize continued health coverage under COBRA, which allows you to keep your workplace health insurance for a while longer.
- File a charge of discrimination with the EEOC: If you were laid off specifically because you are pregnant, contact The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). You can file a charge of discrimination, and they will issue you a right to sue your employer. Some employers will try to mask discrimination with claiming company reorganization. Get your termination in writing. Keep the email conversations. Be prepared for a fight.
- Get real with your budget: You may have been used to all those fancy cappuccinos at the hip, new coffee shop in town. But it’s time to grab a bag of beans at the grocery and brew it yourself. Comb through your budget, and decide on small changes that can make a big difference. Get out those envelopes, ladies! Time to get real.
- Ask for severance pay: If your company is downsizing, closing, or if you are being terminated for any reason outside of your control, humble yourself and ask your employer for severance pay. Don’t hesitate to use your pregnancy card to boost your chances. Worst case scenario, your employer says “no”, and you move on to the next plan.
- Work a side hustle: Do you have a skill or certification that you aren’t currently utilizing? Could you freelance? Find an online gig? Let your network know what you are up to, and ask for support. Every little bit helps with baby on the way. Next thing you know, this side hustle may turn into your new career.
- Hit the ground running: Get out on the job search. You’re pregnant, not incapable. Plus, potential employers can’t legally ask if you are pregnant. If you’re too far along to hide your bump, look into companies who encourage working remotely like StitchFix, Amazon, and Netflix. Lots of corporations have Customer Service positions that are work-from-home only. Check out American Express, Apple, Dell, and Hilton.
- Call your local Workforce Commission: You may be eligible for unemployment benefits through the state. There is no shame in this game. This program was designed for your situation. You will not receive the same wages you were previously, but unemployment benefits may help you stay on your feet while you keep up the job search during pregnancy and post partum.
- Find a silver lining: Have you been daydreaming of a career change? Use this opportunity to switch gears. Has your family talked about relocating? Look for jobs in a new place that will pay for your relocation expenses. You may never have an easier window to uproot.
Being laid off in the third trimester had me spitting bullets, fuming and frazzled. I was mad at the machine and shaking my fist at the universe. When I finally transferred all of that fiery energy toward a positive action plan, things started to happen for me.
Before my last day on the job, I created a series of landscape prints, launched an online store, and booked my first art event. I teamed up with a fellow, female designer that I highly respected and admired. We launched a full-service creative agency and landed our first client. For the first time, I knew where I was going, and I was on my way. This impediment became a crucial part of my story, not something that would stop me, but a bump in the road that would launch me forward.
Image via Parents Magazine