PSA: Stop Asking Pregnant and Postpartum Women If They Plan on Returning to Work

As I prepare for a massive identity shift to “mom,” I am reading books about self-care, taking classes on transitioning to motherhood and talking to friends about their experiences. These resources prepared me for some intrusive questions about weight gain and breastfeeding, but they did not prepare me for questions about returning to work.

By Emily Pevnick

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I am 37 weeks pregnant with my first baby. I am also a public affairs consultant and I truly enjoy making an impact as a professional. Throughout my pregnancy, I have mastered my answers to common questions like, “When are you due?” (April 17th, Passover baby!) “How are you feeling?” (Minor leg pain but overall great!) and “Do you know what you are having?” (We are going to be surprised!).

As I prepare for a massive identity shift to “mom,” I am reading books about self-care, taking classes on transitioning to motherhood and talking to friends about their experiences. These resources prepared me for some intrusive questions about weight gain and breastfeeding, but they did not prepare me for questions about returning to work.

I have been asked about returning to work a handful of times, by strangers and acquaintances alike. I assume I will get the question even more during my maternity leave. Personally, every time I have been asked if I plan to return to work, I freeze, fumble through some incoherent answer and try to change the subject. After I leave the conversation, I find myself extremely frustrated and offended. My uncomfortable reaction is not due to my actual decision about returning to work; it is a visceral reaction to the assumptions that underlie the question.

After being asked by two separate strangers at a bar-mitzvah, I took to Facebook to articulate why this question needs to be eliminated from the pregnancy small talk altogether. To my surprise, the post generated almost 200 likes and 45 heartfelt comments from men and women. I had two friends reach out to thank me personally because their family members constantly ask them if they are returning to work. I had an older mom say that my post has made her reframe her questions going forward. Overall, the wonderful discussion validated that so many women feel alienated by this question and it should not be taken lightly, especially during such a vulnerable and emotional time in a woman’s life.

So, although you may think it is innocent small talk, the following are some assumptions you may be making if you ask whether a woman plans on returning to work:

 

1.    She can’t be the bread winner in the relationship

Assuming she may not return to work implies that she’s not the one who really “brings home the bacon”, and that her income is supplementary. When, in fact, she may be supporting her partner as they work to, say, get their artisan bakery off the ground. Who’s the bread winner now?

 

2.    She has the “luxury” to make a decision to stop earning 

The question about returning to work comes from a place of privilege, and assumes a certain type of financial situation. Many families rely on two incomes to make ends meet, afford child care, or save for the future.

 

3.    She gets some kind of “leave” from which she can return 

The United States remains the only country in the developed world that does not mandate employers offer paid leave for new mothers. Only 12 percent of women in the private sector have access to any sort of paid maternity leave and 40 percent of women don’t qualify for the Family Medical Leave Act. Until these statistics dramatically improve, the question about “returning” to work really doesn’t apply to many women in the U.S.


4. Her partner is not going to act as a co-parent and she will inevitably be “primary parent” 

I often tell my husband he should be just as offended by people asking me this question as I am. He’s just as excited to be an equal partner in parenting our child and his schedule, work or otherwise, reflects that. By asking if a pregnant woman is returning to work, you are ignoring the partner’s desire to play a major role in parenting, pigeonholing them into a lesser parenting role.  

 
5. She doesn’t own her own business 

If a woman has built her own business, she probably isn’t thinking about shutting it down after having kids.  

6. She can’t have multiple sources of income, work in the gig economy, and/or work remotely

“Work” takes on many different forms in 2019; we don’t work in a 9-5 office world anymore and women (and men) are embracing the “side hustle” lifestyle. Just like if she owns her own business, it’s possible that her work as an Uber driver, web designer, blogger, etc. allows her to create a flexible schedule of her own.


7. Stay-at-home fathers/partners aren’t a thing 

Like number 4, the person who’s pregnant isn’t automatically going to be the primary caregiver. Let’s normalize and celebrate stay-at-home dads!


8. She owes you a binary answer when she may still be figuring it out for herself 

Maybe she knows what she wants to do but doesn’t want to be judged for her decision. Maybe she doesn’t want to commit herself to an answer and feel like a hypocrite if she changes her mind. Maybe she plans on taking a few years off and then returning to work. The answer is almost rarely simple and deserves a deeper conversation that just isn’t going to happen in line for hors d’oeuvres at a bar-mitzvah.   

 

9. If you are her coworker, how she answers your question may affect her job or determine her success at the company

The protections for pregnant women in the workplace are complicated and don’t apply to all employees. It’s possible that the way she answers your question could affect her advancement or job security, even if she 100 percent plans to return to work. With so many life changes going on, don’t put this pressure on your coworkers! (PS – if you want to learn more about the Family Medical Leave Act and advocate for protections for pregnant women, you should join the YWLN on Advocacy Day!)


10. Her employer doesn’t accommodate working moms

Returning to work as a new mom is unquestionably hard, especially in the United States where there are less laws supporting and protecting working moms than many other countries. Many companies are making major strides to support women in the workplace, especially working moms, so a better question might be: how does your employer support working moms?


11. Society (you) still hasn’t normalized working moms 

According to the latest numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 70 percent of American mothers with children under 18 work. I recognize there is often a generational gap involved in the question. However, the question should reflect the reality of women today, and it’s fundamentally at odds with the times. And, in my experience, I have found this question does not discriminate by age or gender, stranger, family or friend.


12. Personal family decisions are not always small talk

One woman commented on my Facebook post, “family planning conversations are never small talk.” I recognize not all women are offended by the question, but you can truly never know if you are making a woman feel uncomfortable, anxious or alienated.

In my experience, if you are asking the question about returning to work, you probably have your own opinion about the subject and want to share your perspective. What you may not realize is your perspective might be seen as judgement that she did not ask for – whether she appears to be “too traditional” or “values work over family”. There’s a lot of baggage around this decision, and she might not want to justify her process to you.

If you decide you truly care and aren’t just aiming to share your own views on the subject, try reframing your question to, “Are you able to take off any time from work?” And she will tell you as much as she wants. Women will make the personal decision that is right for them and their families and you will find out the decision soon enough.

 
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Emily Pevnick is strategist, globalist and activist. She currently serves as a Senior Account Executive for Resolute Consulting where she advises clients on public affairs, civic engagement and communications. Prior to joining Resolute, Emily was the Deputy Director for Strategic Partnerships and Global Affairs for Mayor Rahm Emanuel. During her time in Chicago city government, she strengthened the political, academic, economic and cultural ties between Chicago and its international partners. She helped manage numerous Mayoral trips abroad, including to China, Europe, Mexico and Israel. Emily started her career working for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in Washington, D.C. and Chicago. Emily is a graduate of Indiana University where she received a B.A. in Philosophy and Jewish Studies, magna cum laude. She serves on the boards of CityPAC, Chicago Foundation for Women, Technion Innovators and a Jewish Community Relations Council Vice Chair.