A trimester or two ago (I’m now 38 weeks pregnant), I was texting with a friend of mine, also pregnant, lamenting how terrible I was feeling. I had been up all night, stricken with nausea, frantically Googling “heartburn or heart attack?” because my epic chest pains were so bad that they were making me feel faint.
I’d been Deputy Director of the White House Council on Women and Girls, and then worked as Director of Public Policy for Care.com. Yet, I was totally unprepared for how challenging pregnancy would be--and felt uncomfortable voicing this to anyone but someone else who was also pregnant.
I didn’t want to be seen as complaining or ungrateful -- or even worse, not committed to my career. And I know I’m not alone. For the millions of American women who work outside the home, the career consequences that frequently accompany starting a family can begin during pregnancy, well before the baby arrives. The truth is, pretending pregnancy doesn’t sometimes suck isn’t doing anyone any good.
Yes, America, finally, is having the very overdue and well-deserved conversation about paid parental leave. But can we also talk about pregnancy for a second -- a life event that three-quarters of working women will experience at some point?
It interrupts your physical and emotional body in ways that – unless you have been pregnant before – are pretty hard to fully appreciate.
Let’s take, for example, this whole “morning sickness” thing. Almost 90 percent of women experience some symptoms of nausea during pregnancy. Ninety. That’s not the exception, it’s the rule. Of course, it’s not necessarily “morning sickness” at all – for millions of women, it’s more like “all-day” sickness, an ailment that can make you feel nauseous 24/7 for months on end. Some of us are even lucky enough to experience this for the entire duration of our pregnancy.
I have spent countless days triaging. I’d time my meetings and work for the first half of the day when my nausea was less severe and building in afternoon breaks to account for the freight train of nausea and exhaustion that I knew would come. In between I’d forage for something with any semblance of nutrition to eat, even though just a waft of fresh-cooked vegetables made me gag.
That’s been my life for 9 months – and it doesn’t leave a lot of room for being productive at work.
It’s time for employers and politicians to recognize that pregnancy is hard, birth is messy, and being postpartum is an actual medical event that requires recovery.
At Care.com, I was extremely fortunate to have unlimited paid sick days, but many workers don’t have even one. In fact, only 60% of workers have access to paid sick days, and those who are left out are at the bottom end of the income scale. More than 82 percent of low-wage workers don’t have access to paid sick days, and the majority of low-wage workers are women, many of whom are women of color. Additionally, forty-three percent of women working in the private sector are not able to take a single paid sick day when they are ill.
My heart breaks for the waitress who has to be on her feet all day, smelling the fumes from the kitchen, trying to hold herself together as a cranky customer gives her a hard time, and she grits her teeth, swallows her nausea (literally) and musters all the strength she has to just to get through her shift. Now there’s a woman who needs a paid, job-protected sick day.
Or how about the array of doctor’s visits to attend, especially women experiencing high-risk pregnancies who may need three or four times the number of typical pre-natal appointments? The fact is that for a variety of reasons, low-income women face a greater number of risk-factors during pregnancy, and those are the very same women who are far less likely to have access to paid sick days.
From my work at the White House and at Care.com, I know there are simple, low-cost fixes that could help keep women healthier and encourage safer pregnancies, all the while reducing absenteeism and increasing productivity.
The array of flexible work arrangements such as teleworking, flexible start-stop times, and even the new rage of nap-rooms (yes, nap rooms!) could alleviate so much stress for pregnant workers. (Care.com has four of them)
For hourly workers, companies could use technology that allows for ease of shift-swapping, so that when a pregnant woman needs to adjust her schedule, she has the ability to do so more easily. These types of solutions allow for all workers and employers to benefit, with the added bonus of making work more flexible and manageable for pregnant workers in particular.
Even more important than enabling these women to be more productive at work, ideas like these help foster a culture of trust proven to help companies and organizations retain their valuable talent and participation in the workforce the long run – a benefit to families, companies, and the broader economy writ large.
I told my bosses the reality of my condition during pregnancy and am so lucky to have received full support and encouragement from the CEO down. All of us pregnant women who are in a position to do so can do our part to speak up at work. Because each and every time you tell your manager how you are feeling, you empower other women to do the same. This single action gives confidence and credence to those around you and helps to change the workplace culture from the ground up.
Let’s be real: it’s not like women got pregnant on their own – there was another person 50% responsible for that pregnancy. But men just happen not to be the biological sex that bears the child, and so all the consequences of the pregnancy fall on women because of our physical role in childbearing and rearing. When our laws and workplace policies do not account for the reality of pregnancy and childbirth, it is the height of gender inequality. We must do better, not because pregnancy is a disability, but because it is actually a condition that should be honored, revered and celebrated.
We are perpetuating the human race after all.
Avra siegel, gender equity & workplace policy guru
Avra Siegel is Policy and Strategic Partnerships consultant for the private and public sectors. She was formerly the Director of Public Policy and Strategic Partnerships at Care.com after serving as the Deputy Director of the White House Council on Women and Girls in the Obama administration. Avra also held positions at the White House National Economic Council where she led the women’s economic security portfolio.