A much-belated homage to Women’s History Month and an early celebration of Mother's Day, as a new mother and a working mother in training.
It is about 3 pm Eastern Standard Time, also known as “Attack of the Sleeping Bugs” in my new reality. In this new reality, I am more often awake at 3 am than at 3 pm; the same distance that used to take me 15 minutes to walk now takes me 25-30 minutes, and I am completely out of breath after being on a conference call for 10 minutes.
Being pregnant at any age is no spa treatment. In addition to the hit to a woman’s vanity when she begins to outweigh her husband and must put away the Louboutins and pencil skirts, the incessant tension between unavoidable physical discomfort, even sickness, and the eagerness to function as an optimum professional is real.
Is it nice for people to give me a seat on the subway? Sure. Is it nice for my team members to step in when I am simply too debilitated on certain days to walk back and forth between our office and meeting venues? Absolutely! Is it nice for senior management to give me special thanks for a job well done at 8 months pregnant? A million times yes! For a pregnant woman, there is something just a smidge extra special about feeling that she is valued and respected in the workplace. I cannot speak for others, but I worry about being perceived as a somewhat weakened or even incapacitated team player just because I check into hospitals so often and need three times longer than before to get to a meeting.
Maybe it is because I work on gender equality and women’s empowerment initiatives; maybe it is all the formidable and positive women’s vibes that I have been receiving during Women’s History Month; but I cannot help but think about what it means for a very pregnant woman to still strive to maintain her professional aspirations and identities.
I wrote the text above on March 25. That was the day when I started to feel unwell. I thought I was catching a cold, and I spent the next two days resting at home. Then, on the evening of March 27, my husband and I had a baby care class scheduled. I really did not feel well, but I was also worried that we did not know how to change diapers. So I drove to Lenox Hill Hospital to meet my husband for the class. The class was interesting and informative, but I started to have worse and worse contractions. I had had preterm contractions before, so I didn’t think too much about it. Then, in the bathroom, I saw some blood spots, which is never good. As soon as the class finished, we went to the labor and delivery floor at the hospital. The next thing we knew, I was going under the knife for an emergency C-section, and I delivered my preemie baby boy at 35 weeks and 4 days of my pregnancy. A pregnant woman’s journey came to an end and a mother—a working mother—was born.
I had no time to finish reflecting on my journey as a pregnant professional woman before I learned what it was like to take a conference call at 7:30 a.m. with my baby hanging on my breast as I made sure our partner in Oslo didn’t hear him fussing. Don’t get me wrong; we have very flexible and generous maternity leave policies. My 16-week maternity leave plus another 2 weeks of working from home have been approved. I chose to work for a week before my leave officially started because I had disappeared rather abruptly—I never even handed over my work to colleagues or shut down my work laptop. And believe it or not, I’m grateful that my colleagues included me in the conference call when I said I could join rather than making a decision for me that I “should” rest.
Now, we can be grateful for what we have while still aspiring to something better. This part is particularly difficult for women because of our “guilt” about being too greedy, too demanding or too ungrateful.
Throughout my pregnancy as a type-A workaholic, I was acutely aware of my fortunate circumstances. I have good maternity leave. Well, not as good as it would be if I lived in Canada or one of the European countries where people have year-long maternity leaves. But it’s good enough for the U.S., where paid family leave is still very much a luxury. I have a great team and team leaders who did everything to accommodate me during the pregnancy, including providing flexible working arrangements and being ready to step in when I needed them to. I also have a good health insurance plan, great doctors and a reputable hospital. I may not have gotten the “Beyoncé” room, but we could certainly afford the private rooms the hospital offers at a premium price. I don’t take any of these things for granted.
I was once very angry about being stripped of my professional identity as a pregnant woman. Interestingly, no male friends or colleagues made me feel this way. Instead, it was my dear female friends who told me to put my professional life on hold.
“Elle, why don’t you just take it easy and enjoy the maternity leave? Once you are out and about again, I can pass your resume along.”
“Are you sure you want to interview for a new job at 6 months pregnant? No position will wait for you. It’s a waste of time for you and the company. Why don’t you just wait?”
“I can’t believe you are still working at 35 weeks pregnant.”
All these comments came from my concerned girlfriends. They assumed that my pregnancy was a deciding factor in what I should or should not do. I cherish my friends, but I was furious at them in those moments.
I acknowledged my physical limitations when I was carrying a big belly, and I would not have risked my own or my baby’s health by doing any activities a pregnant woman should not do. However, I did not see any hindrance to using my brain. I interviewed with Goldman Sachs when I was 2 months pregnant. I interviewed with BCG when I was 4 months pregnant. And I continued to network and attend business meetings throughout my pregnancy.
I was asked to take on a new project when I was 7 months pregnant. The deadline for project delivery was my original due date. I happily accepted it. I loved being considered for new opportunities even when I was heavily pregnant. I could have refused to take on this project if I had not felt up to it. It was having the choice that made me so grateful.
A couple of male friends also referred me for roles in their companies, no questions asked. They did not interrogate me about my pregnancy, express concern about my timeline or treat me as anyone different from the energetic person they knew before I was pregnant.
So why it was actually the women who tried to steer me away from new opportunities from me out of concern? What about letting a pregnant woman decide for herself whether she can take on a new opportunity and ace it, rather than assuming she can’t do it and denying her the opportunity to try?
How about letting a pregnant woman be in control of her life and make the decisions about what happens in her life as usual? Another woman should be the last person to prevent this from happening.
I must admit that from time to time, I let being pregnant get in the way of just being myself. When my team lead suggested that the team take professional headshots, I protested that I needed to wait another few months to drop the extra 40 pounds. After I said that, I immediately felt ashamed of becoming a cliché. Why can’t a woman present her professional self confidently while carrying a belly? On the contrary, we should feel especially confident because now we are gaining a new title—a truly unique title that, once obtained, it would be unimaginable for anyone to strip away. With this reasoning, I went ahead and took a professional portrait at 7 months pregnant, and I had never felt more radiant and comfortable in my own skin.
With Mother’s Day fast approaching, I was telling my husband that we should really celebrate this year’s Mother’s Day because my mother is here from China. My husband said, “Now it’s your holiday too!” Severely sleep-deprived, with my 3-week-old in my arms, it hadn’t even occurred to me that now it was my holiday! It’s official: I am now also at the epicenter of the “work-life balance” and “can women have it all” debates.
My issue with these two debates is that they focus so much on the outcomes— “balance” and “having it all.” To me, these goals seem utterly elusive. Instead, what matters most is the freedom to pursue them. Many people don’t realize how often they presume a pregnant woman to be immobile—and hence, don’t even bother to offer her opportunities. That is the part that hurts and disempowers the most.
“Pregnancy brain” may sound endearing, but ultimately it is a term that puts pregnant women in a non-productive category. When I made mistakes at work during early pregnancy, I wondered whether I could continue to be a productive and efficient top performer, or whether I should just lie back and enjoy the sympathy card that most people would extend to me for being pregnant. When I look back, I know for sure—and I think many other women would agree—that nobody would use the sympathy card counterproductively. Sympathy is most appreciated when there is a need, but it is not to be treated as a “why don’t you sit back and rest for the next 9 months” answer to all occasions and opportunities.
My most important task was to put together a high-level event during the Commission on the Status of Women in March, when I was 7 months pregnant. I had a lot of anxiety over it, and I worried that I’d end up being too pregnant to deliver top-notch results. But I was proven wrong. With the best possible teamwork, it was a stellar event, and many crucial people commended our work.
Pregnancy brain may not be a negative thing after all. But we wouldn’t know if we never put it to work to the fullest, would we? So let pregnancy brain work its magic, as normally as you’d function pre-pregnancy. But before we implore others to give us the chance, it’s important not to let our own self-doubt get in the way. Nothing is more powerful than our own minds.
If you think you can do it, you almost always will.
disclaimer: This article reflects the author’s personal view only and does not reflect the view of the author’s professional organization.