Starting the Journey to Making a Difference…
It was the following article that I wrote back in 1986 … that led to Working Woman magazine publishing it … that led to an interview (See the original interview and a guest blog I wrote on joanlunden.com here!) with Joan Lunden on Good Morning America … that led to people telling me for years (and still telling me) the difference this piece, written out of total frustration, was to them in their workplaces… that led to the expression of my frustration about people not acknowledging each other in the workplace… that led to my writing three books on the subject… that led to my training leaders all over the world…. that led me to you!
Here’s to the power of the powerfully expressed written word to change the world! And of course, here’s to you – the 25,000+ people around the globe who have participated in some way in this work and continue to spread… (of course) the word!
The following article was first published September of 1986 in Working Woman magazine.
How Not to Talk to a Pregnant Business Woman
She’s just having a baby. Why do her co-workers act like they’ve just had a lobotomy? Here’s how one expectant exec learned to deal with 1,001 cutesy comments. -by Judith M. Umlas
Illustrations by Mimi Pond
When I was two months pregnant, I made the big announcement at work. At a meeting soon after I was told, “Sit down, take it easy. We reserved a chair for you — you need it.“ I was startled and a bit put off. I didn`t even look pregnant at the time and certainly hadn`t yet come to terms with what was happening to me. At three months I was greeted with, “Hi, Puffy, howya doin` ?“ At four months, “Hey, Fatty, you look great!“ At five and six months, “Have you been stealing basketballs?“ and “Did you swallow a pumpkin seed?“ At seven and eight months, “You`re getting bigger and bigger every day!“ And throughout I answered questions such as, “When is your due date?“ and “When are you leaving?“ anywhere from five to 15 times a day.
As thrilled, excited and awed as I was by pregnancy, these comments from co-workers with whom I’d shared ideas, projects and sandwiches, in the cafeteria during my 12 years in communications were irritating. I thought I knew these people! Perhaps I was a little sensitive about the subject. Frankly, I wasn’t too comfortable with the idea of having children. I had been married for 15 years and thought of myself as a career woman. For years I would not risk combining work with motherhood. But age 35 was the turning point. I realized that I had to take the plunge or spend the rest of my life wondering, ‘What if?’. Pregnancy was an emotionally charged subject for me, and I knew it. But thinking about getting pregnant isn’t the same as dealing with being pregnant. I wasn’t prepared for the reactions I received. Once the congratulations were over, I’d naively expected to settle back into my routine and work up to my due date.
Don’t Say That Scary Word
I did feel great for most of the pregnancy. Often I forgot about being pregnant until someone reminded me. And I found the reminder jarring. I was trying hard to retain the comfortable old identity I had known for so many years: career woman. “Mother” was such an unknown. What would it do to my ambitions? To my routine? To my marriage after so many years? While I was trying to go about business as usual, my colleagues were having a ball with my new role. On one hand, I liked this. I’d always had a reputation of being a rather “starched” manager. I had been accused of not letting my hair down enough, of maintaining my stiff air of professional to executives, of whom I’d always been a bit in awe, start chatting with me about birth. As he described what the arrival of his own children had meant to him, both of us got misty eyes. His comments about the miracle of the process allowed me to see him as a complete person. Suddenly we shared an experience that connected us on a profound level.
My former boss of eight years also described his great joy at the birth of his child and talked about the “miracle”–that word kept surfacing–of children in general. I learned more about him during that one talk than in all the years of our warm, supportive professional relationship. But for better or worse, people don’t spend a lot of time talking about miracles at work. Although I loved the new level of communication my condition inspired, I still resented the lighthearted–but to me, thoughtless–remarks it evoked.
One “Hi, Fatty” too many
One day I decided enough was enough. After being greeted yet again with “Hi, Fatty!“ this time by a female executive whom I like very much, I stopped her, looked her boldly in the eye and said, “I don`t appreciate it when you call me that. Why are you being so tactless?“ After her first look of shock she became introspective. “I don`t know!“ she said. “How stupid of me!“
She apologized and then it seemed the proverbial light bulb went on. “I think I know why I said that,“ she stammered. “I`ve had so little contact with pregnant businesswomen. I guess I felt uncomfortable seeing you pregnant. I didn`t know what to say, so that`s what I said. How dumb!“ I could have kissed her for her honesty. Was this true of others in the workplace as well? Were they uncomfortable with the novelty of pregnancy in business? For even thought it’s fairly common for pregnant women to work right up until their babies are born and then return to their jobs, it is still new enough in some companies to cause confusion. I kept noticing that while many people asked me when I was leaving work, few asked when I would return. It was almost assumed that I would not come back, and I found myself lamely adding unsolicited comments like “It’s going to be a short leave; I will be back…”
I think she’s bigger. Do you think she’s bigger?
I knew that people weren’t deliberately trying to upset me. Obviously my insecurity about my changing role was making me oversensitive. In self-defense I began talking to other business women who were either pregnant or new mothers, and I discovered I was not alone. They all had cringed at insensitive comments made by previously normal associates who shifted in attitude toward them. One experienced professional who worked at a weekly newspaper discovered that as soon as she donned maternity clothes, her associates addressed all remarks, business or personal, to her tummy. She was rattled to find that it was not a passing phase–her colleagues continued this strange form of communication throughout her pregnancy. Another mother-to-be businesswoman was horrified to find that men who had always shown professional respect toward her thought nothing of rubbing her belly, as if an invisible wall had crumbled and she as now public property. “They wouldn’t have dared touch me before I was pregnant” she fumed. “Why should they feel it’s OK now?” An executive in the publishing industry found it got on her nerves when her co-workers, male and female, continuously made comments on her size and shape as if she were an animal at the county fair.
I began to wonder if co-workers of pregnant women would appreciate a few pointers on how to deal with the situation. And perhaps pregnant businesswomen themselves could benefit from things I learned the hard way. After all, women who work late into pregnancy frequently have been called pioneers; there are not too many trails blazed for them yet.
IF YOUR COLLEAGUE GETS PREGNANT
For the co-workers of pregnant businesswomen: Once the announcement is made, of course you should congratulate, celebrate and share the excitement. After that, hold the gory stories about childbirth, though positive tips or information are welcome. (“I have a friend who got a fantastic housekeeper through an agency. When you’re ready to think about such things, I’ll get you the agency’s number”).
Be aware, though, that the pregnancy is still new to her, too, and she may not be ready to deal with nitty-gritty details for months yet. I absolutely refused to learn the difference between a “kimona” and a “stretchie” until the baby was born. Each time I looked at layette lists I felt overwhelmed and just couldn’t take it all in. And that was just one example of my unwillingness to plunge into the new world. I wanted to hold on a bit longer to due dates for reports rather than for babies. So be sensitive to the fact that your co-worker may not want to discuss bottle vs. breast-feeding immediately.
Another crucial point: While at work, most pregnant women are trying to do their jobs. Yes, the pregnancy is a major event, and for you to pretend it does not exist would be weird. But daily comments on her proportions can become a nuisance. And given our social conditioning, expressions such as “fatty“ or “puffy“ are out.
When a Manager Turns Green
What do you do if your pregnant co-worker has physical problems at work? Not all pregnant women experience symptoms such as fatigue, nausea or severe back pain. If she does, let her guide your response. In my third month I had to disappear every afternoon for a brief nap in the company nurse’s office. My absences were explained to those few who needed to know, and I deeply appreciated the understanding of colleagues who didn’t make a big deal of it. When I returned a half hour later, I usually got a warm smile and we just got on with business. If there are serious health problems that cause many days` absence, this will affect the work schedule. Face the situation head-on. Subordinates and superiors may need to be involved in the solution. One woman in my company was violently ill with morning sickness for a month and a half and had to ask her subordinate to take on some extra work (with her boss`s OK).
If you manage a pregnant woman you obviously don`t want her to think you expect problems. But if they do arise, let her know you are aware of the situation and will try to back her up as best you can. In an extreme case, suggest that she start maternity leave early, but only as a last resort. Naturally, you will both have to discuss projects whose due dates coincide with hers and come up with contingency plans to make sure they get done. If you find yourself feeling awkward around a “burgeoning belly” or acting overly helpful, admit it. It takes courage to be this honest, and she may be relieved to air any tension. Say that you want to correct the behavior. “I know I’m being old-fashioned, but I keep wanting to do things for you instead of letting you do them yourself. Will you tell me when you need help?” That will make it clear you are considerate but won’t burden her with your ideas about pregnancy. It might be the start of a needed, honest discussion on a touchy subject.
It’s Been Nice Knowing You, Dear
Whether and when a woman will return to work is emotionally charged on both sides and needs to be faced, especially if you are her boss. My irritation at being asked, “When are you leaving?“ and not, “When are you coming back?“ probably had something to do with my realization that in my heart of hearts I didn`t know the answer to the last question. Could I swear on a stack of annual reports that I would return no matter what? Having a baby was such a tremendous unknown that all I could go by was how I felt now.
Many women do return to full-time jobs after maternity leaves ranging from two weeks to six months. Therefore, there is an excellent chance that if she says she will be back, she will. Accept this. Not blindly, of course, especially if important projects are riding on her return. A discussion is definitely in order. Do not dispute what she says with comments such as, “Oh, once you see that adorable baby you`ll change your mind.“ But do ask if she will need a transition period such as coming to work two or three days a week, if this is possible. Evaluate crucial tasks and decide whether or not she could do some of them from home in the beginning. That is a form of enlightened management I appreciated after the birth of my baby. As for touching a pregnant woman’s belly, be careful. A thoughtful friend explained the instinctive urge to touch as a wish to “warm your hands at the fire of humanity.” A noble thought, but if you have never had physical contact with her before, such an unexpected pat may be offensive. The simple solution is to ask. I was charmed and moved when someone would ask to touch my belly, and I invariably answered yes.
MAKING YOUR PREGNANCY EASIER ON OTHERS
Now for the other side of the story. What can a woman do to make her pregnancy easier on co-workers and herself? First, think carefully about when to make the announcement. Some experts believe it is best to wait until it is obvious, so that the woman has time to make the emotional adjustment before the world adds its two cents worth. I did not. I think that my announcement at two months was a couple of months too early. But my husband was eager to tell everyone immediately, and since we work in the same industry, I thought I would get nervous wondering who already knew. And I had waited so long to get pregnant that my own exuberance was pretty hard to contain. But you should know yourself and evaluate how difficult the adjustment will be once the word is out.
In any event, the first to know at work should be your boss. When you are face-to-face making the announcement, you will be able to see the mental machinery whirring: Will she really come back? Will the work get done? Who will replace her during her maternity leave? These are normal questions, and you should be prepared to answer them. Deal with as many as you can in that initial discussion.
Remember, pregnant professionals are still unusual, and there may be awkwardness on both sides. Be as direct as you can. Say, “My due date is Aug. 15. I`m planning to work until late July, but I hope we can be a little flexible, since I`d like to work longer but will have to see how I feel.“ Share ideas for finishing major, looming assignments. Don`t say you will work until the day before the baby is due, even though you may want to! It is increasingly common for women to work until close to their due dates, but by that time you may need to relax and get ready for the big event. And you may need sick days. It is OK — even non-pregnant people take these from time to time! I felt like I had to be Superwoman and prove something for all of womankind. Looking back, I probably should have left work several weeks earlier than I did instead of waiting until my doctor told me “Stop, or else.” A week before the baby was born I developed the first signs of toxemia; it was over 100 degrees on several working days in July, and yet I felt compelled to keep going. I should have realized that no one, not even the pregnant superwoman, is irreplaceable.
HOW TO SMILE THROUGH YOUR TEETH
And now strategies for coping with thoughtless remarks. First and most important, maintain your sense of humor. Ninety percent of the people who make silly comments mean well and simply do not know any better. If the person is a peer, you may feel comfortable enough to let him know that the remark rubs you the wrong way. If the wisecracker is a superior, you may have to grin and bear it, hypocritical or not. Be sensitive to the rank and communication level of that person. You cannot reform a lover of one-liners in nine months. A few people may just be plain hostile. One woman at work made remarks about pregnancy and motherhood that drove me up the wall throughout. Yet I tried to be as tolerant as I could, since I knew she had lost two children and deserved more compassion than anger.
If people are uncomfortable about your pregnancy, you’ll get the vibes. If you feel fairly secure with the person, bring up the subject. For example: “I think some people feel awkward around pregnant women at work–it’s still pretty new to see us leading meetings. How do you feel? It would help me if you could let me know.” Tell your boss how you want to be treated: “Ill be happy to continue traveling until my seventh month; after that I don’t think I should fly.” Or say lightly, “I’m really not fragile, so don’t be afraid to give me new assignments, especially tough ones. You know I love a challenge!” Or, just as valid: “I’ll be winding down next month for my maternity leave, so I should try to tie up all loose ends. It would probably be better if I didn’t take on new assignments then.”
In short, pregnant businesswomen and co-workers alike should try to keep office life much as it was before. When the initial ecstasy wears off, everyone will be happy to go on working with the same efficient person they knew before she, uh, swallowed a basketball. (See how far I’ve come?)
Judith M. Umlas did return to her career in communications after the birth of her daughter, Stephanie.