CNN recently came out with an article stating that two groups who reach the peak of human endurance are extreme athletes and pregnant women. I read this and felt extremely affirmed, but also extremely confused. Why are women who have reached this peak endurance often treated poorly and frowned upon as not being able to do their job as well during and post pregnancy? I think it is important when writing about this topic to first acknowledge that being a mother does not make you any more or less of a woman. And that however you become a mother whether by adoption, surrogate, or carrying a baby yourself does not make you any more or less of a mother. However, recently I have found that there are so many things you do not know about returning to work after maternity leave. Every experience is different for working or pregnant women depending on their job, but I would like to highlight three common obstacles they might face.
1. You have to use your sick/personal leave or take weeks unpaid. I am a teacher and was out for happy hour with three of my male colleagues. I was pregnant at the time and they informed me how lucky I was to get extra time off from work after I have my baby. The looks on their faces was pure astonishment when I informed them that the past two and a half years I had not taken a single sick or personal day, because I had to save days to be able to take a maternity leave for six to twelve weeks. Though some companies provide paid leave, it is often not enough.
2. No Accommodations For High Risk Pregnancies. Some women are forced to use their sick days they were saving for maternity leave early due to pregnancy complications. I myself had a miscarriage and was not able to return to work for a week afterwards. After conceiving a second time I had hyperemesis, which is a rare condition that happens to 3% of pregnant women. Hyperemes is medically explained as extreme morning sickness. Think about the last time you had the flu and vomited, then imagine having it for three months. Being in and out of the hospitals for IV’s and vomiting over twenty times a day is not fun. Unfortunately, women still show up to work in this condition because we are desperate to save days for when our babies arrive. This determination to not use my sick days resulted in my fainting at work. Women with hyperemesis, gestational diabetes, and other extra complications during their pregnancy does not make it easy to maintain a work schedule and healthy pregnancy.
3. Pumping At Work. Yay! You had your baby and are ready to return to work without your bump. Unfortunately, you traded in your bump for a pump if you are breastfeeding your baby. I am 100% supportive of women choosing to breastfeed or bottle feed, but I am 100% against women being forced to choose because their work does not accommodate them to be able to pump. As a teacher I had to use my unpaid lunch and prep to pump. I was also told that if I wanted to pump at another time that was not during my prep I was legally allowed to, but it would be taken out of my pay. Many women are forced to pump in bathrooms, which in Minnesota is actually illegal. I myself have had to pump in bathrooms multiple times including on a farm and even at the science museum. Nobody enjoys pumping in a bathroom and according to Minnesota and federal law, “employers need to provide you with a space shielded from view, near your work area, free from intrusion, and that includes access to an electrical outlet.” However, be aware this does not prevent employers from putting pressure on mothers who pump and constantly questioning if they are as valuable as other employees because they take time to pump during the day.
These issues do not even come close to the income loss women who work hourly face when having a baby. Every pregnancy is different and every working mom faces their own struggles. So, what can you do to better support working mothers? Ask them ways you or your work can better support them, vote more women into public office, and speak up about your concerns. The U.S. is the ONLY country that does not mandate paid maternity or paternity leave. This is something that I hope as more women speak up and share about will change!