What You Need to Know About New Moms
(Hint: we don’t just want to nuzzle our newborns.)
My father-in-law celebrated a milestone birthday in 2010. It was the same year I finished my MBA at Columbia University and embarked on a hard-charging job at a Wall Street investment bank. It was also the year my doctor told me, “It’s no longer a question of when you want to have children; it’s if you want to have children.”
When my father-in-law’s birthday party rolled around in December, I was a couple months into IVF. I arrived for cocktails clutching a tiny handbag containing my phone, a credit card, and a syringe of hormones. Two days later, I’d be put under anesthesia for egg retrieval, and I’d been instructed to inject myself exactly 36 hours before the procedure was scheduled. That meant I’d need to sneak away from the festivities precisely at 10:00pm, hike up my black-tie dress in a bathroom stall, and stick a needle into my thigh. I was terribly anxious about it, not just the looming shot in the bathroom stall, but the upcoming procedure and — to an extent — the pregnancy that might result from it. I was in a new job, in a challenging field, and I was still the new girl. In every respect, I was feeling vulnerable.
The party was a grand fete: some two hundred people in tuxes and gowns, with a seated dinner followed by a cabaret. I kept my eye closely on the clock throughout the evening, and when the time came, I crept off, gave myself the shot, tucked the syringe back into my tiny handbag, and re-joined the party. By this hour, a good-humored series of toasts and roasts was underway. When I’d left, my husband and his siblings had just finished a funny little skit, and as I walked back in, a woman was taking the stage.
I knew her: when I’d worked as a political fundraiser, she’d been a donor. She was on the board of trustees of my business school, and she taught a class there while I was a student. She’d worked for my father-in-law early in her career, and he’d been her champion. She went on to become one of the first female partners at Goldman Sachs, and she credits that in part to him.
Her roast went something like this: she gave birth to a child, and while still in the hospital, she received a phone call from my father-in-law. “I know you just had a baby,” he said, “but I need you to walk me through the Ohio deal.” The crowd laughed knowingly, myself included. But meanwhile, my mind was racing a hundred miles an hour. Was that normal? Were women who wanted to succeed on Wall Street expected to really be that accessible? Would I need to be that available? Did I want to be that available? And after just a couple minutes of that rapid-fire ruminating, I had the answer.
Yes to all of those questions. I could do it, and I would do it. I made a mindful choice to not see that story as a bad harbinger of how hard it is to have a family and a career. Instead, I embraced it as an indicator that having both is possible. Standing in front of me was an enormously successful woman, who’d spent decades doing the job that I myself had just started — and she had babies while doing it.
I left that room that night feeling a little less vulnerable than I had when I walked in. And a couple weeks later, I got the happy news that I was pregnant.
But halfway through my pregnancy, I suffered some severe pregnancy complications. I was scared, and I needed to stay off my feet, but I was ready, willing, and able to keep working. That phone call in the hospital story had sunk deep, and I was eager to demonstrate that I could be a superstar, even in circumstances that made it challenging. I never got the chance: my boss stopped returning my phone calls and emails. I was shunted onto disability leave, counter to my requests to keep working. I was completely sidelined.
I’m going to give my former colleagues the benefit of the doubt and call it “benevolent discrimination.” Benevolent discrimination happens when a well-meaning manager makes assumptions about what’s “best” for an employee. In my case, I’d guess that HR and my manager thought they were reducing stress for me, because while I was on disability leave, I’d be paid via insurance without needing to work.
Other ways benevolent discrimination can hurt your career: your boss doesn’t mention a conference that would require you to leave your family for four days. You don’t get assigned to a project that starts a couple weeks before your maternity leave ends. You aren’t considered for a promotion because the new job would mean you’d need to work more nights and weekends. Each one of these things would mean you’d need to make a compromise — maybe even a sacrifice! — and your benevolent boss wants to spare you that hardship. But here’s the rub: if no one asks you, you’ll never have the chance to say “Yes!”
A day after my second baby was born, I got my opportunity to conduct business from my hospital bed. My start-up, weeSpring, had pitched a big advertising agency, and their client had some questions. My cell phone rang, I took the call, and it felt good to know that I had made a judgement call about being available. Emphasis there on I: no one decided for me not to “bother” me. And later, it felt equally good to ignore all the things that weren’t as urgent.
I was my own boss, so I got to be the decision maker. But there’s a lesson here for managers who have women reporting to them: let them be the one to make decisions that might require some kind of sacrifice. If you’re worried about putting undue pressure on them, give them an easy out: “It is okay to say no to this, but I wanted to put the decision in your hands.” Ask yourself: am I empowering my team members, or am I impeding them?
And women: speak up about what you want, and be explicit. Say, “I’m happy to continue with my typical travel schedule after I return to work,” or “If any opportunities arise to take on more responsibility, I’d like to hear about them, even if they may interfere with my parental leave.” Say “yes” before the question has even been asked.
So back to my father-in-law. That lovingly told story at his birthday roast was intended to illustrate what a tough boss he could be. He was ribbed for it, everyone got a good laugh, and she went on to praise him for being a wonderful person to work for. But if you look deeper, that story also exemplifies the opposite of benevolent discrimination. I should be very clear here that I am an ardent supporter of a minimum of twelve weeks of paid parental leave, and I believe that both parents should be afforded significant time to bond with a new baby, in addition to time for a mother to recover from childbirth. But technology has changed for us what parental leave can look like, because we’re no longer tethered to an office to work.
Decades ago, when a rotary phone had to be carried into a hospital room, my father-in-law was ahead of the curve. He didn’t hesitate to call his colleague when he needed her. To him, the fact that she’d just had a baby was irrelevant. She dove in for a couple hours, helped mitigate a potential crisis, and then went back to cuddling with her newborn. I would bet he would have had the same conversation with any of the men on his team: “I know you just had your appendix removed yesterday, but I need you to talk me through the Ohio deal.”