Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Ask Cloud: Breaking the Pregnancy News

It is time for another Ask Cloud post!

Industry Postdoc writes:

"I am 10 weeks pregnant and am trying to figure out when to tell my boss. I've been at my job (an industry postdoc) for 5 months and my due date is two weeks shy of 1 year after my start date. My boss is female and has two kids, and I have no reason to believe that she would react irrationally or hold my pregnancy against me. I don't know if this is relevant, but 80% of the group is male.  As far as I can tell, I get along well with everyone and am reasonably well-respected at work.

I don't know if there are other factors I should be considering in deciding when to tell her. It's possible that she won't react well, or will see this as an indication that  less dedicated to my career, or whatever. I don't know. In terms of taking time off, it's hard to know exactly what I will want to do (this is my first time being pregnant) but I think I would ideally take 3-5 months off and then come back to work, possibly part time for the first few months or working from home a few days a week.

My employer has pretty good benefits, but postdocs are not eligible for  some of them. So one of the reasons I'm thinking about telling my boss sooner rather than later is that she might help me navigate this issue, and I would also feel better about talking to HR if I don't have to worry about my boss finding out from someone else."

The general advice is to wait until you're out of the first trimester, but you are close enough now that I think that if you are ready to tell your boss, you should go ahead and do so. Actually, I think it is OK to tell your boss whenever you're ready, even if you're only 6 weeks along. Everyone's situation is different. Synthetic chemists, for instance, generally have to announce their news quite early, so that their work can make accommodations to ensure they don't have to work with any chemicals that might be harmful to the fetus. Someone who is having a really tough time with morning sickness might also want to tell people earlier. On the other hand, someone who has a history of miscarriages may prefer to wait until as late as possible. Or she may not. Basically, talk to your boss when you are ready for your boss to know.

You don't have to have the conversation about your maternity leave plans at the same time as you initially tell her you're pregnant. In fact, I think it might be better to put that off to a later discussion, and if she asks, just say that you're still thinking about what sort of leave you think will work best.

Most people- even bosses!- will be genuinely happy for you when you tell them your news. If she is not... well, you might as well know that now, so you can have more time to think about how you want to deal with that.

If you're lucky, here's roughly how the discussion will go:

You: "I'm pregnant. I'm due on [insert due date]."

Boss: "Wow! That is so exciting! Congratulations. How are you feeling? I was sick as a dog my entire first trimester."

You: "I'm a little woozy, but I'm doing OK, thanks."

Boss: "Have you thought about your plans after the baby is born?"

You: "A little. I know I want to come back to work, but it is still really early, and I haven't really figured out what I want to do about maternity leave yet. What sort of leave did you take?"

Boss: who knows, but her answer will be really informative.

Then you take the info you gleaned from your boss's answer, the info you get from HR about your benefits, the info your partner gets about benefits, and you and your partner make a plan about how you guys want to handle the first months of parenthood. The info you get from your boss's answer doesn't dictate what you do, but it can help you form a strategy to increase your chances of getting the leave you want with minimal impact on your career. If, for instance, your boss says she was back to work three days post-partum, you can still take a three month (or more) leave, but might want to think about things you'd be willing to do to keep your work going while you're out, such as revising a manuscript or answering the occasional work email. If your boss says she stayed home until her youngest was two years old, you'll want to think about whether she's the type to make passive aggressive remarks about your plan to use day care (for instance) and steel yourself for that so that they don't derail the conversation about the leave you want.

When you are thinking about your plan, think about what you want/need at home, but also about how you can make things go more smoothly at work. I can't really tell you what you'll want on the home front. I think that is something that is different for every family. I didn't really know what I wanted until I was in the middle of it, and just got lucky that the leave I'd arranged before I left was about right. My advice is to listen to your instincts on this, try to block out the cultural expectations (which are hugely contradictory, anyway), take your best guess, and realize you may need to make some adjustments mid-flight.

However, I think you can and should plan ahead for the work side of things, and I have some suggestions of things to consider:
  • Are you willing to check your email once a day and try to respond to urgent queries? I did this both times, and it did not feel stressful at all. However, I like to have multiple things going at once, and was happy to have the work questions to distract me from unanswerable parenting questions like "why won't my baby nap unless she's in motion?" You may prefer to be able to focus entirely on parenting, which is fine. You just need to establish your boundaries, and have a plan for how people can get information from you if they really need it.
  • If you want to request a part time period, what portion of your duties would you resume during that period? How will you prioritize them? I actually had to write an entire plan about this for my second maternity leave. The level of detail and formality my company requested was sort of silly, but the planning was very useful.
  • If you want to request the option of working from home, how will you handle child care? If your boss has kids, she knows darn well that you are unlikely to be able to get much work done at home with a baby without child care unless you win the baby sleep lottery. Winning the baby sleep lottery can happen, but you want a plan that works even if you lose that lottery.
  • What are you willing to do to smooth the transition between you and whoever temporarily assumes your duties while you're out? This is particularly important if you want to request a leave beyond a few months.
Basically, one of the great things about maternity leaves is that they are not unexpected, so use this to your advantage, and plan how to minimize the impact on your job. This will make your boss happy, because otherwise, she'll have to figure that out, and she won't know what your boundaries are (unless she asks, and in my experience, bosses suck at asking about boundaries). Agreeing on boundaries ahead of time can feel scary, but believe me, it is better to do that than have hurt feelings on your side and/or disappointment on your boss and colleagues' side when your assumptions about what is "right" turn out to be wildly different than theirs. (Note: you might find some useful tidbits about planning in this old Ask Cloud post about taking an extended leave, which also gives the details of the leaves I took, in case you're curious about that.)

I think the second trimester is the perfect time to do this sort of planning, because most women have a boost in energy and feel better during the second trimester, which will help you think clearly about what you are willing to do at work. I think if I'd tried to figure that out during the exhaustion and constant nausea I experienced in my first trimester, I'd have greatly underestimated the amount of work I would want to do. Of course, every woman's pregnancy experience is different, so there is no guarantee you'll feel great once you hit the 4th month. Regardless, it is really hard to look ahead and predict how you'll feel once the baby comes. But try to do it anyway.

As Eisenhower said: "In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable." I love this quote for so many reasons. It is true that things almost never go according to your plan. This is doubly true when children are involved. But the act of planning forces you to think through your options, and having done that makes your responses to the inevitable surprises much better.

That's what I have. What advice do the rest of you have for Industry Postdoc?


  1. Congratulations! My recommendation is that you learn as much as you can about maternity leave laws in your state, and understand how much of your leave will be paid, and figure out how much you can afford to take unpaid.

    I live in California, where available leave is--for the U.S.--pretty generous. But the vast majority of that time is unpaid. I took most of it anyhow, but that was easier to do because my husband and I were making informed choices about our finances in the process.

    1. My husband and I both took FMLA both times. It is partially paid, not unpaid- or at least it is up to the point we used. But we had to submit a bunch of forms to get our partial reimbursement, which comes from the state, because it is run as an insurance-type thing.

  2. Awesome news!

    Love that Eisenhower quote. Oddly, I had just heard it for the first time this morning when I was listening to G. Rubin's "Happier At Home" on tape in the car - a few hours before reading this post. Cool.

    So, in general my advice is to wait to start telling folks until you've seen a fetal heartbeat (8+ weeks or so?)

    With my first baby, taking 3-5 months off and then coming back to work part time, before easing back into full-time work was my ideal, too. That sounds perfect.

    At work, I told HR first to get a sense of what benefits I could expect, then I told my manager. He was ecstatic, and that was a pleasant surprise.

    I came back part time at 4 months, but never did manage to get any work done at home with no childcare. I had a very alert, low sleep needs baby who did not sleep as much as the sleep books all say a newborn "ought" to need to sleep. YMMV though.

    1. The only quote I love more than the Eisenhower one is the Voltaire one about not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good...

  3. Congratulations! I've heard talk of timing announcements to delay until after performance reviews/promotion opportunities (if possible), but not sure if postdocs in industry have to worry about that sort of thing.

    I wrote up a checklist on my blog for what to do before mat leave (corporate job - this may not be applicable to postdocs), so if Cloud doesn't mind a link drop, here's the first (early) one:

    1. Link drop here anytime! I can't believe I forgot about those posts of yours. They are very good. I blame the work stuff going on... which I may have figured out how to blog about, at least partially. Stay tuned. :)

    2. Sorry to hear that the work stuff is continuing :( I also need to finish that series, though it's kind of weird for me to do "after maternity leave" since I didn't go back *this* time.

  4. Carolina (@braziliancakes)6:15 AM

    I only decided to tell my PI when I was 20 weeks along, but that was mostly because I knew he didn't care, and I could take as much time off as I wanted. I ended up taking 12 weeks and then went back full time. As a graduate student I was able to arrange my hours so that I could still work partially from home. The first few months back were pretty rough and sometimes I wish I had taken a little more time off.

  5. Anonymous1:56 PM

    Congratulations! I'm not sure if your post-doc is any different than the ones we offer at a U but it might be worthwhile to talk with HR first and think a bit about your plans. Our university offers no maternity leave for anyone outside of the FMLA requirements. I had a post-doc announce her pregnancy about 4 months into her position when she had earned no sick leave or vacation time so would have the opportunity to take 12 weeks completely unpaid. As most post-docs here are paid off grants, anything else is directly up to the PI. This has serious repercussions for both you and your advisor. Even if she wants to be humane, it's difficult for her not have any product to show while you're out on leave, a problem that may be even more acute if she attempts to pay some of your leave. On both sides, the grant likely has a very real end date which you leave her in the lurch with a funding agency and you without a job to return to. That said, if you're funded by NSF, they have some new initiatives to take the burn out of this. My only advice (from the other side) is to have a clear understanding of what the institution can provide, what limitations she may be facing for the funding of your position, and a real plan for what you want and are willing to do before you talk about the details with her. That said, you should also consider being flexible - this will likely be a negotiation/collaboration to find the best solution for everyone. Good luck!

  6. Industry Postdoc8:23 PM

    I'm the industry postdoc who wrote to Cloud. Thank you Cloud and everyone for your comments and kind words! I told my boss recently and she was very positive and supportive, and also said she would find out about benefits from HR--which I'm grateful for because I hate doing that sort of thing. As Cloud suggested, we didn't really talk about what kind of leave I would take, because that's still far off in the future.


Sorry for the CAPTCHA, folks. The spammers were stealing too much of my time.