You're pregnant. How did that happen?
Seriously! I actually uttered those words, I kid you not.
(I know what you are thinking. I'm an HR professional and I said that.)
I'll save you the trouble of shouting me down with the following descriptive words of yours truly: troglodyte, crown prince of the hopelessly clueless, 18-karat idiot ... feel free to add to the list.
The "if looks could kill" expression and terse, on "Kay's" face "I'm NOT Terry," caught me flat-footed and speechless. In the words of newspaper columnist Leonard Pitts ...
My lips should have sued my brain for making it utter those words.
That was years ago. Let's fast-forward to a recent encounter. Seated in a break area, I caught a glimpse of "Tanile," a diversity thought leader with whom I often brainstorm, approaching from a distance.
It was clear that Tanile was in the late stages of her pregnancy. But with the stinging rebuke I got from Kay years ago, I tried not to "notice," let alone again say, something stupid. Soon she stood right next to me, her protruding belly a yard from my face (my eyes glued to hers, not daring to look any lower):
TANILE: Hello Terry. What are you up to these days?
ME: Actually, I have a meeting in this part of the building, so thought I'd just pull up a seat since I'm here a bit early.
TANILE: Great. Well, as you can see, things have changed for me.
ME: Oh really?
TANILE: Well, I'm pregnant, can't you tell?
ME: Well, sort of, not exactly…no, I didn't notice.
Truth is that when word gets out that she's pregnant, some folks become discombobulated and fumble around with what to say and do and whatnot. Beyond congratulations, what many sincere people really want to know – many of those of us of the male persuasion, in particular – is how they should behave in ways that are sensitive and respectful or, if nothing else, how to avoid inserting the old foot in the mouth.
"A troubling aspect in commenting on this is an acknowledgement that organizations generally have not equipped nor have encouraged managers and employees to be thoughtful, proactive and supportive partners in openly discussing and mitigating the complex intersection of workplace and pregnancy," wrote Frank McCloskey, a blogger with New York-based Catalyst.
"It's as if an organizational demarcation line has been drawn between the integration of a major life event with operational performance. Rather than a manager having the skills, knowledge, personal care and commitment to ensure that the expectant mother feels full support and business outcomes achieved, the pregnancy is instead perceived as an 'inconvenience.'"
We'll get to what to do, but let's first describe what not to do based on feedback from women who shared their insights:
- Do NOT share horror stories from the birthing process of your spouse, sibling, friend, etc. Know that these stories of pain aren't fun; they are terrifying.
- Don't ask me if I'm through having kids (or if this is my last one).
- Don't refer to maternity leave as a "vacation."
- It is not appropriate to ask a pregnant woman if the pregnancy was "planned" or "just happened."
- Don't touch a pregnant co-worker's stomach and gush, "Oh my, you are pregnant! When is the little angel due?" Just because a woman is pregnant doesn't make her belly community property.
- I am still getting used to the idea of answering – is it a boy or a girl? In India (where I am from) we don't find out the gender of the baby beforehand, so I am not sure if I should share this information freely outside the family.
Behaviors and comments like these are not the only reason why some women may hold off from telling others the news before exhibiting the visible signs.
McCloskey says: "Waiting longer gives her a better handle on whether the pregnancy is viable or not. Another possibility is it might be close in time to a job interview or performance review, and she doesn't want the hiring manager or reviewer's judgment to get clouded by her temporary condition. Finally and unfortunately, it may be a case where she doesn't have confidence that the manager she works for will view the pregnancy in a positive light."
(While on the subject of comments, non-malicious slips of tongue are one thing; demeaning statements about a pregnant employee or dads-to-be, including comments to men related to their sexual abilities and testosterone levels, even if made in humor, are another and must never be tolerated.)
"Terry, I found it easier to let my female boss know that I was pregnant with my second child," shared "Anna" during a brief hallway chat. "With my first pregnancy, my male boss came across as cold and distant when I shared my news. The first question he asked was whether or not I intended to come back to work and when. Not once did he congratulate me."
The opportunity in response to what "Anna" shared is that it helps when hearing the news that managers come across as genuinely excited, supportive and encouraging. Otherwise the employee may feel devalued and even guilty for what is a glorious event in her life.
Turning now to what to do. Here are some perspectives and advice from women:
"A big issue for me was how to stay connected during the leave while maintaining some distance and privacy. I let people know in advance that I didn't intend to check emails all the time, but if there was an emergency someone should call me. I did skim emails so I felt like I knew what was going on. I still felt connected and valued without being overwhelmed. And when it was time to return, I was ready and eager to start contributing with the team that had shown so much support!"
"My advice is for leaders not to ignore the sacrifices peers make, both men and women, while she's out, many of whom take on some of her work in addition to their own. This can lead to resentment. It is critical to convey to them how much their sacrifices are appreciated."
"The best advice I can give is to talk to other working mothers. It's great to hear you're not alone and others are going through the same things. I wish some of the resources I've been seeing for new moms had been around when I had my first child. The ones you shared with me are great, but I don't think we do a good enough job letting people know about them."
OK, your turn.
One thing I can't say is that I know all there is to know about this topic. So tell us your story, your finest hour and worst nightmare, and your experiences. What advice do you have? Have any foot-in-the-mouth moments you'd like to share?