As I sit here gazing at my newborn son, I can’t help but reflect on my experiences in parenting over the years. Having given birth to three beautiful children, I have spent almost three of my seven years in corporate America pregnant. It hasn’t been easy. It has been extremely difficult. But with Congress recently introducing the Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act---mandating paid leave insurance for workers--- it seems our political leadership may be taking these struggles more seriously.
A placement counselor once mentioned to me that the automobile company I was interested in would want “foot soldiers” as opposed to people who were interested in starting families. I then imagined myself wearing Army fatigues in a sea of cubicles tucking and rolling over to the printer station. No, I was not a “foot soldier” if that was the criterion. When that company made me an offer, it was one I definitely could refuse. I was married and I believed I had the right to start a family whenever I wanted. Who were they to tell me I wasn’t “soldier” enough?
After suffering a miscarriage that year, I unexpectedly became pregnant again. I had already interviewed at several companies and not working simply wasn't an option for me. So, I started my first job in an industry that I thought would be the perfect fit for an expectant mother. I trudged around attempting to look normal for three weeks until I had no choice but to tell them I was three months pregnant. I could sense the disappointment from pretty much everyone.
Not only that, there was an utter apathy and indifference toward my pregnancy. When I contracted E coli meningitis – a life-threatening bacterial infection which almost resulted in the loss of the pregnancy (and my own life)---I got the vibe that my time away was irritating everyone on my “team.” After four tough weeks of spinal taps and intravenous home injections, I had one peer actually envy my illness. “Can you give me meningitis?” he exclaimed as he stuck his arm out so I could lovingly infect him somehow. I was flabbergasted…and hurt. I had to hold back tears to maintain my professional composure.
This was the beginning of what would be years of feeling like my ovaries and medical needs were an office liability. I could never get a seat on the office bus to the parking lot though I was clearly with child. Everyone expected me to run to meetings (literally run) even in my third trimester.
I came back from leave sooner than I wanted because I couldn’t afford to stay home from work unpaid. When I did return, I struggled with finding accommodations to pump and store breast milk for my infant son. Every single sick day---which I was allotted annually---became a stresser for me. And, then that stress made me sicker.
In a word, it sucked.
In America, we just don’t place enough value on the working mothers – or fathers – need to properly birth, and raise a child. Even with the popular Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) mandating unpaid leave, workers have suffered without pay when family medical demands arise. Most companies still don’t guarantee paid medical leave while even fewer offer paid paternity leave. We are one of only four countries that do not require paid maternity leave – joined by Lesotho, Swaziland, and Papua New Guinea. This isn’t the cohort we would usually want to be in. Yet, we allow it to continue anyway.
It is the general attitude toward family-rearing which makes it most difficult to traverse the corporate landscape while pregnant. But, it is the institutional bias against anything which threatens a company’s bottom-line which allows these attitudes to fester.
These are the politics of pregnancy. Though this Congress has been troubled (to say the least), they have a chance to make amends for decades of lukewarm policy in this arena. Until there are laws on the books protecting working parents from unfair or marginal treatment, these issues will continue to arise. Luckily, the FAMILY Act is a step in the right direction.