How I Navigated My First Pregnancy as a Rising Leader

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Most of us come into the world the same way: coaxed into unwitting existence, slowly and then all at once. For 40 weeks — give or take — our moms carry us with them everywhere. For every bathroom break, every meal and craving, every fitting room moment and car ride, we’re her squirmy and squiggly, organ-kicking, plus one. For some women, we also tag along to water cooler chats, sales call, and sober happy hours. When mom is putting in her 40 hours (and then some), so are we.

Despite this universal experience, the world isn’t always very kind to moms — even and especially when the baby isn’t here yet. Pregnant women are often denied promotions and seen as liabilities or burdens, based on their decision to have a baby. All this, despite the fact that women make up 50% of the workforce, and up to 85% will become mothers during their careers.

For me, becoming a mom while climbing the corporate ladder was something to take in stride. During my first pregnancy, I was still a rising leader at my organization. Some of it felt very familiar: closing deals, hitting my targets, and motivating my team. The pressure to do it all while taking care of myself and my unborn daughter is what changed. Suddenly, the sales culture I thrived in — late nights fueled by hyper caffeination, hurried meals of questionable nutritional value, and the frenzied crunch-time sprints to meet my goals — became a liability.

Moving through the corporate world at this time wasn’t easy, but through the process, I learned what it takes to navigate an incredibly exciting time in your career while taking care of yourself and your soon-to-be-born baby. As a result, I can now be a resource and advocate for other women facing these same challenges by sharing the tools that helped me manage.

Know your rights.

When you’re expecting, understanding your rights at work is an important place to begin. Unfortunately, many women are placed in experiences where their rights during pregnancy aren’t respected to their full extent. Before anything else, educate yourself on what you’re legally entitled to.

I would recommend starting with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). More specifically, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (PDA) forbids discrimination based on pregnancy when it comes to any aspect of employment. Your state or organization may also offer specific protections or policies to support you — look into those.

Navigating your work life after childbirth will involve a great deal of planning and conversations with your manager well before your baby is born. If you have even a slight desire to have children — or adopt — start thinking about this early. Your foresight will make the rest of the journey smoother, and allow you to transparently plan for taking benefits like paid parental leave (offered by most — but sadly not all — organizations) when discussing your future goals and career path.

Figure out what you need.

Pregnancy can be both a humbling and unifying experience. From the earliest days of morning sickness (which, let’s face it, often turns into an afternoon, evening, or all-day sickness) to the ebbing and flowing of hormone-driven emotional changes, most pregnant women will have some uncomfortable or unpleasant days. This is true of everyone, from the women on the front lines up to the CEO.

All this to say: Pregnancy is a veritable bingo card — it’s impossible to say how your physical and mental health will be impacted until your body starts calling numbers. Your needs may also change over time and within each trimester. Perhaps the biggest lesson I learned during my own journey is that stepping into a leadership role while pregnant demands a thorough understanding and calibration of your physical and emotional needs, as well as the boundaries you need to protect both.

Before you announce your pregnancy to your manager or your team (and after you know your rights), I recommend conducting a thoughtful and complete inventory of the things that matter to you and are necessary to maintain your well-being. For instance, what rules are you and your doctors setting for your pregnancy? This may include more days working from home, a flexible schedule, or being off-camera while working remotely.

During my pregnancy, for instance, I committed to making time for a 30-minute walk daily. Towards the last trimester, this shifted to taking time for bed rest and extended breaks throughout the workday. Being open and transparent with my manager and my team members in my communication around these needs was a continuous process throughout my pregnancy, but it was necessary.

Set clear expectations.

The sooner you establish your boundaries, the better you’ll be able to communicate them to your boss, your team, and larger organization. It’s important not to leave anything open to interpretation, both for your own well-being and for the clarity of your colleagues who, while well meaning, may place unfair expectations upon you. Remember, this is your pregnancy — not your boss’s or your coworker’s.

Remember, too, that as your body changes, so do those boundaries. Some women, for example, after an easy first trimester hit bumps in the road in their second or third, and requiring new accommodations. Be as open as possible with your manager and your team as early as possible — not only about what you require, but also about the way things may change along the way. By setting that expectation up front, you will reduce the likelihood of pushback down the road.

This applies to client-facing communications, as well. Sales, in particular, is a profession built around relationships. At the end of the day, we’re all people and it’s possible (and healthy) to set clear boundaries in a professional manner. The same rules apply to the people outside of your organization: Transparent communication is necessary, but on an as-needed basis.

As with all things, expect some days to be easier than others. On the hard ones, I would ask my team for the flexibility to skip low-stakes internal meetings, go off-camera, or otherwise lightly participate when I wasn’t feeling up to it. They graciously accommodated my requests, but would have never known if I hadn’t expressed them.

Delegate like a champ.

As a rising leader, it’s easy to feel isolated, especially as a woman — let alone a pregnant woman. The higher up you move in a company, the more responsible you become for other people and their work. People expect you to help solve their problems and support them, but not so much the other way around. When you’re feeling overwhelmed by this, remember that you’re not as alone as you may feel.

Just because you’re “a boss,” doesn’t mean you can’t ask for help. Like everyone else, you have resources — tools, people, and assistance — that can lighten your load. Take advantage. It’s impossible for everyone to give 110% effort every day and attempting to do so is a recipe for burnout. When pregnant, the burndown to burnout is not only shorter, but potentially more dangerous as well.

Allowing your teammates to support you when you need a break is a gift to everyone. They gain an opportunity to learn, and you gain an opportunity to rest.

That said, your more junior team members may feel less comfortable offering to assist you during this time for fear that they are overstepping or being inappropriate. To get what you need, be proactive by delegating your responsibilities, transforming asking for help into a teachable moment. During my pregnancy, on hard days, I asked my direct reports to lead sales meetings by bringing something they wanted to teach everyone else into the space, such as objections they had been getting, research on a persona, or other insights they could own, present, and be proud of. This offered them chance for them to lead while simultaneously allowing me to be present, but from a more relaxed point of view.

Be a resource for others.

You’re only pregnant for nine months at a time, but the mark you make on your company during your pregnancy is indelible. As a leader, you have power to improve circumstances not only for yourself, but for other people who will come after you — and maybe even for yourself in the future.

During this time ask yourself: What example am I setting? If you skip a meeting or take time off for your mental, physical, or emotional health, it will help ensure that your team can too, when they need it most. Every tough decision and every battle you win paves an easier path for the next person.

To that end, if there were policies or procedures in place that weren’t conducive to your pregnancy, speak up. Odds are, you’re not the first to undergo this hardship and if you don’t say something, you likely won’t be the last. As a leader, you have the ability to effect change. Push for inclusive parental leave policies, ask for a mother’s room, and set internal policies that will make life easier on challenging days.

Remember that this advice doesn’t just apply to pregnant women. For many of us, our mobility and health challenges are temporary, but for millions of others moving through the workplace with a disability, there is often not an end date. Consider this as you grow in your role and have more pull on the way your organization may design spaces, experiences, and policies to create a more inclusive environment for everyone.

Finally, use your journey as an opportunity to connect with others. Mentorship programs and employee resource groups are both ways to foster empathy, connection, and goodwill. If your company doesn’t already have these resources, it may be worth initiating them. When you connect with people based on shared life experiences — rather than similar job titles — you have a far better chance of creating a meaningful relationship.

Being a great mom and a successful leader are not even close to mutually exclusive ideas. Pregnancy is an opportunity to nurture, lead, and get the job done well and by taking care of and advocating for yourself, you will be able to enjoy your pregnancy, your parental leave, and return to a workplace better off than you left it because of the contributions you made.