The question caught me completely off guard.
“Well, I guess since she’s still in the hospital, I could come in this week,” I heard myself answer as a lump formed in my throat. My boss had called my cell as my mom and I were driving to visit my newborn daughter in the hospital NICU.
What I thought had been a check-in to ask how I was doing after my first baby arrived five weeks early was instead a request to come into the office for a few hours and train my replacement.
Yes, my daughter had arrived at 35 weeks with no warning and, no, I had not trained the person who was going to be covering my maternity leave. But my boss hadn’t even figured out who my replacement would be. Now the team was scrambling, and I was asked to lug my one-week postpartum body, which was still shuffling instead of walking thanks to an unexpected C-section. And my emotionally unstable postpartum mind, which couldn’t go an hour without sobbing, on a more than 45-minute commute downtown, up an elevator 40 floors, and back into work while my new baby lay in a hospital hooked up to tubes.
I wish I would have articulated all of these considerations out loud to him, but instead, I hastily hung up the phone and promptly burst into tears.
Maybe I could have understood the request if my boss didn’t have kids, but he did. Maybe I could have understood the request if he didn’t have the emotional trauma of having a baby in the NICU, but he’d experienced that too. So how can any of us expect a broader understanding of what working (and all) mothers go through following the birth of our babies if someone with such similar personal experience could still make this request of a brand new mom?
I should mention that my company was way ahead of most when it came to supporting new moms. Because of my tenure, I was able to have twelve weeks fully paid maternity leave. And a few years before the Affordable Care Act required breast pumps to be covered by insurance, my company covered a 6 month rental of a hospital grade breast pump and had one available in a private Mother’s Room at the office.
In addition, they provided an on-call lactation consultant and five days of backup daycare to be used in the first year after your baby was born. On paper, they were a great place to work for new moms and I was very lucky. But when it came to having a culture that supported new moms, this call proved they still had a long way to go.
Which is why I’m encouraged by companies like advertising agency 72andSunny and their new Mommy Bahama campaign — a tongue-in-cheek faux e-commerce site selling tropical themed postpartum goodies like mesh undies and pumping bras. Mommy Bahama is defined as “a resort wear collection for the vacation people think you’re going on,” led by Agency creative director Tara Lawall, a working mom from their New York office. I recognized the company too, thanks to an article their new Director of Production, Kate Morrison Schermers, recently wrote about being hired by the company while 24 weeks pregnant. Clearly, they see the business benefit of supporting new moms.
Ideas like Mommy Bahama and even the recent Amy Schumer SNL short about the realities of childbirth can help start a conversation and build more empathy for new moms among those who haven’t experienced those aforementioned mesh undies.
I remember early in my career, my cubicle was right outside the Mother’s Room at our office and a young male coworker casually asked me if the room was where moms went to nap. While a napping room isn’t a bad idea, how would a 25-year-old copywriter know anything about pumping breastmilk? Or any of the other challenges new moms face returning to work without more open and frank conversations in culture and in the workplace? As a new mom, much of it was even a shock to me.
So did I actually go into the office a week after giving birth? No. I wrote an email saying that I couldn’t come in, but would be willing to have a phone call with the new team member. I did the call without tears and never brought up the issue with my boss. Although I’m sure I did a disservice to fellow future working moms by not saying anything.
So this story is my hope towards repayment to them for staying silent. Let’s keep the conversation going and maybe my NICU baby, now a healthy five-year-old girl, won’t have to worry about a workplace that supports her as both employee and mom.