24 Oct To tell or not to tell
In early July I found myself Googling “pregnant new job”.
Two things that I had been madly hoping for had coincided almost to the day: I was offered a position at a wonderful Learning & Development company, and I found out I was expecting.
Looking back, I had been feeling rather funny in the days preparing for the interview and on the day itself, but I couldn’t contemplate the thought of being pregnant for more than a fleeting moment in case it would interfere with my ability to show my best side at the interview. So I waited, went through the rigorous but friendly process, got the job offer two days later, said YES YES YES!, and woke up the next day feeling properly and undeniably sick. It was as if my body was saying: “Ok, I gave you some time, but now you have to stop ignoring me!”
I’m not going to attempt to describe the mix of emotions I felt at finding out that I was, indeed, going to have a baby. I also want to make it clear at this point that I consider myself lucky in so many ways in this story. But I think it’s important to talk about the dilemma I faced at that specific moment, just days before I was due to sign the contract and start: To Tell Or Not To Tell?
As I ruminated on this question, I kept coming back to a story I’d once heard, in which someone had unknowingly bought a pregnant guinea pig and was pretty annoyed about it once its secret was revealed. A ridiculous comparison, but one which my anxious and hormone-riddled mind was seriously into.
Isn’t it funny what our brains do? I’m going to be bold and rephrase that to: Isn’t it funny what women’s brains do? I absolutely accept that men have their own challenges (and their brains can also be pretty weird), but my internal responses seemed characteristically female. It was difficult for me to focus on what I wanted, what course of action might generate the best outcome for me, what solution best suited the person that I am. Instead I obsessed about what others would think, and mainly: IS ANYONE GOING TO BE ANGRY WITH ME?
Is my new employer going to be angry if I tell them now? Have I ruined all their plans? Are they going to think I’m not in control of my life? Are they going to think I’m too much in control in my life to the point of being calculating? Are they going to be angry if I don’t tell them now, but wait until the 12-week scan, or until I’m legally obliged to disclose (the 15th week before the baby is due)? Are my fellow feminist friends going to be angry with me if I don’t make use of the laws protecting women in these situations, which allow me to keep this news to myself for a while? Is my boyfriend going to be angry if I tell and jeopardise this job and its income at this crucial time? Is my family going to be angry because this is so bloody typical of me, doing too many things at once…
In reality, none of the people in these imagined scenarios are angry people. In fact, they’re all generally warm and supportive. But the predominant feeling was that I had done something I needed to apologise for, and that coloured my expectations of their responses. Embarrassment makes it very hard to make an effective judgement on how others might react, and yet it is crucial in a situation like this that you are able to do so, as not all employers are created alike.
The employer in this story is, of course, Steps: a company which focuses a large amount of its time on addressing inequalities of all kinds in the workplace. One of the main reasons I wanted to work for them is because our values line up in that sense. If they were to retract the job offer on the grounds that I was pregnant (illegal, but hard to prove), then they wouldn’t have been the organisation I thought they were. This consideration helped me to make my decision.
More importantly though, with some effort, I managed to consider which option felt most like me. Openness is very high on my list of priorities and I would have found it very stressful to keep a secret as big as this under the circumstances. It realised it was important to me to start the relationship in the way I meant it to go on.
So, about twelve tense hours after taking a test and confirming what I suspected, I called Steps. I told them nothing had changed from my side; I was still raring to go, but wanted to give them a chance to reflect on the news as well. I’m proud to say that I managed to repress my instincts and didn’t apologise for being pregnant (mostly). Their response was the best I could have wished for- again, I’m aware that makes me lucky. My solution isn’t the right one to fit all contexts, and even with the most thorough considerations, in the end it is out of your hands how another person will respond.
All’s well that ends well- so am I making a bloggy fuss about nothing? Why is this rare dilemma worth sharing? Actually, it turns out I am by far not the only one who has gone through this (I know this from my frantic Googling). Unfortunately though, like many women-only “issues” this one is kept rather hidden, which in my case meant that I felt unnecessarily alone and a bit guilty. The anonymous online calls for advice would suggest others feel similarly. Why don’t we talk more openly about things like this?
I don’t have the answer to that huge question, but I do wonder whether it has something to do with pregnancy shining a light on a rather uncomfortable truth: that our system of work still isn’t designed to accommodate the arrival of new humans. Rather than take ownership of the problem as a society, we use the same defence mechanism any individual might, and compartmentalise: procreation and its challenges belong to women only. It may be a coincidence, but one really effective way of passing the buck is to create a sense of shame and isolation around something.
Lots of women are wonderfully capable of refusing to take on this emotional burden. As you can tell from the above, I am not one of them. So what helps? When others connect and show their involvement: my boyfriend sitting down with me and talking through our various options; my new colleagues at Steps reacting joyfully, giving me license to do the same; my family and friends planning bits of their lives around our due date. All of those moments have meant that I no longer feel quite so much like the proverbial (guinea) pig in a poke.
Since writing this blog, Elisa is now the proud mum of twin daughters, who arrived in February 2017!