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Pregnancy and the Workplace — A Personal Perspective

By Lisa Frattare

June 2000


Lisa Frattare is an Outreach Specialist at the Space Telescope Science Institute. She has been the main image processor on the Hubble Heritage Project team for nearly 3 years and has co-edited STATUS since 1998. Her daughter was due in early May 2000 (actual birth date unknown at press time).

IKNOW THAT not all STATUS readers are interested in every topic involving female
astronomers, particularly when it is not one directly relevant to their own lives — hence the
need for descriptive headlines. Sometimes it can be useful, however, to get a glimpse from another
perspective. For example, I have never had to consider dual-career couple-hood myself (I purposely
chose a non-astronomer as a mate!) but I do know lots of dual-career astronomy couples,
so reading such articles helps me to understand their situation a bit more.

The same goes for the issue of pregnancy and the workplace. It may not appeal to everyone,
but for those of you who were intrigued enough by the title to read on, I thought I would share
some of the previous nine months' experience of being pregnant and how this played a role in my
everyday work in astronomy.

Job-related Flexibility

I can start by saying that the outlook is very good in my current job. I have tons of “flexibility.”
(You will hear me say that a lot.) If you know me personally you have heard me moan about
how my husband thinks my job is, “just, oh, so flexible.” I have flexibility in the time of day I can
come and go, flexibility in my sick time and vacation hours if I need to knock off early to attend a
doctor appointment or a birth class.

I will have flexibility once the child is here in that I can take her to the doctor. I can telecommute,
I can reschedule long projects for after my leave and pull rabbits out of hats and do all sorts of things that
most people who are confined to a 9–5 job cannot do. I can even work precisely 8 hours per day unlike
some folks who get paid for 9–5 but really work 7–7. (See reference to inflexible husband, above.
Oops, maybe I should have married an astronomer!)

So on the job front, life appears stable. I feel no overwhelming concerns about how in the
world I will manage being pregnant, having a child, taking time off, starting in with daycare, etc.
That stuff will work itself out extremely well. I was even surprised to learn that, because of Short
Term Disability, for approximately six weeks during my leave I actually cannot work regardless of
how I feel! At first I said to my Human Resource representative, “What do you mean I am forbidden
to work! Can you do that?” She explained it was actually to protect me, to ensure I keep my
job, and suggested I must have some projects of my own if I have time on my hands. (I have “flexibly”
rescheduled some science papers for this time and might even get started on the next issue
of STATUS well before the deadline!).

Support and The Need to Regain Control

I also have had tons of support from managers and supervisors. One supervisor said, upon hearing
I was pregnant and when I was expecting,“Lisa, this is great news, I am so happy for you! I
will be having a nervous breakdown later in the day, however.” I took this to mean I am vital,
important, and not expendable nor easily replaced in the work I do. What a fantastic response!
(Perhaps managers are trained to say things like that?) Someone else might think my manager is
implying that things will fall apart with me gone and thus to hurry back, but I do not feel any
implied pressure to return too early, or to have to check e-mail everyday while on leave, or to comment
on e-mail that I do end up reading.

Other folks I work closely with on a day-today basis inquired about short-term replacements
for me and repeatedly asked, “Shouldn't you begin training others in your remaining time, so as to
make it less of a disruption for those of us who are left?” I found this a rather uncomfortable intrusion
into my life, implying a decision that was really between my manager and me. I just wasn't ready to
have other people help make large decisions like that for me. Maybe their intentions were good but
their timing was bad — this message made me feel expendable. To make things worse, when I tried to
discuss this “lack of control” feeling with other coworkers, they would comment, “You probably
don't want to hear this, but you might be overreacting, because you are pregnant and emotions
do run high during this time ...”

There is very little control when one is pregnant. People react differently than when you are
planning an extended science leave, say, or a several-month vacation. Establishing that I wanted
to keep control of my work life was a an important step for me. My level of discomfort was such that I
finally put my foot down and asked co-workers to rely on my and my manager's judgment.

Amazing Comments from Co-Workers

Another striking thing is what people at work wish to discuss with me about my pregnancy.
They come up with the most amazing comments! Professionalism goes on holiday and people
say anything, sharing their thoughts, doubts, biases and knowledge of pregnancy, childbirth
and child-rearing. Ironically, many of these comments came from childless people. Some questions
and statements required no return comment on my part, others invoked my chuckling
or venting later with my husband. (I did ask if he was getting similar comments from his coworkers.
Of course he said no.) A few examples:

  • “So, are you or your husband planning on quitting your job?”
  • “Daycare is the root of all that is evil in society today.”
  • “You really should pay attention to how you are getting in and out of the car, I read somewhere
    that it is extremely detrimental to the baby to get in and out the wrong way.”
  • “I read that drinking any alcohol in the third trimester kills the baby's brain cells and is
    bad for mental development.”
  • “Why AREN'T you taking three months off? You really should.”
  • “Well, you ARE disabled, you might as well get a temporary parking sticker.”
  • “What do you mean you are writing a journal to the baby and talking to it before it is
    born? This kid is spoiled already!”

Many of the more in-depth conversations about my well-being and long-term plans were a
little less direct, but still quite opinionated:

  • “You may want to be Super Mom and continue doing your job, but nobody can really do
    both, so some things will have to give...”
  • “You may think you can work from home, but it will probably be impossible when you are
    dealing with a child under six months of age...”
  • “You really should consider the worst possible scenario — what if the baby has colic or
    something else goes wrong?”

I jokingly “announced” my pregnancy at work during “T-shirt” day with a custom-made shirt that
said: “Astronomers make the best New Moms — We don't mind being kept up all night!” It gets difficult
at times to have to apologize for being optimistic about upcoming issues in my life. I don't
remember getting so much negative advice when I was about to get married. No one said, “Well, you
should think about the worst case scenario: your inlaws might be a pain, or your husband might stay
out late and not call for hours... And heaven forbid how this might affect your work performance. You
should probably seek a replacement for the first few years of your marriage …” Of course this is not
something you hear people say to newlyweds.

I do appreciate the not-so-pessimistic kind of colleague, usually a new parent, who is tired and
perhaps has had a colicky baby, who says, “I love it, and wouldn't trade this feeling for the world! You'll
love it too. It is hard work, but it is so worth it.”

Did We Both Just Use the Word “Vaginal”?!

Other surprising conversations, at least in the workplace, were in-depth physiologically explicit
discussions. These occurred nearly exclusively with men who were active in the birth of their
child, about issues that they and their wives went through during actual childbirth or in dealing
with a newborn. I was the on the receiving end of countless (unsolicited) discussions about
breastfeeding, vaginal births, and C-sections, in the halls, on the way to meetings, and at company
parties. In no way were these discussions threatening or uncomfortable to me personally,
but they seemed rather off-beat for the workplace. However, after a half dozen such conversations
with various casual male co-workers, I began to see a pattern: they needed to reveal
what they knew and how much they had experienced with the birth of their own children.
Much of it was positive and factual, like describing a car crash, and they rarely got into the emotional
aspect of their experience except to say how incredible they thought the event was. And
how incredible they thought their wives were for having gone through the experience.

In Closing

One thing is clear: expecting a child while working has really brought people out of the
woodwork! I guess it is a major life event that one really can't hide (for the last few months for the
mothers anyway). I can't recall a life event where so many people were so interested in discussing
quite personal issues. I am learning from childbirth classes that childrearing is similar to religion and
politics: it is open to graphic discussion and usually leads to philosophical debates in which there is
really no one right opinion.

It is quite interesting to acknowledge other people's views. (Perhaps, after having gone through
this experience, I too will find myself offering advice of the kind I have been so surprised to
hear.) I hope to instill in my daughter the values of being honest and open yet respecting another's feelings.
Perhaps 30 years from now she will have children, by which time society will (I hope!) have
acquired a more optimistic view of “super moms” and what it is like to be in our shoes.
Most of all, throughout all these social interactions I have learned a great deal more about
myself, my beliefs and what is important to me. It has been an excellent character-building event.
Even though I may roll my eyes now and then, I will have great stories to tell my child as she
grows up and asks what it was like when I was pregnant with her.

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