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Supporting Pregnant Coworkers

This is a very personal account of my observations as an expecting parent. I’m hoping that by sharing, we can start a conversation.

We started thinking about starting a family in the later part of 2016. When it didn’t happen right away, we didn’t force it and when I started my new position as a Product Manager at Shopify, we decided it was probably not the best time to get pregnant. Low and behold, things happen when you least expect them and I found out I was pregnant three months into my new job.

I think I stared at my doctor for a solid minute before saying anything after she congratulated me.

Some background

To set some context, my husband has always been the more family oriented one in our relationship. He’s always wanted to be a parent whereas I’ve slowly warmed up to the idea over the last 6 years. We decided pretty early on that I would take a shorter parental leave of 3–4 months and he would take about 6–9 months. For many reasons, this arrangement makes the most sense for us.

Before I got pregnant, I had an idea of how I wanted 2017 to unfold. For me, one of the hardest things about being pregnant was trying to incorporate my existing plans with the realities of growing a human.

When my doctor told me I was pregnant, my first thought was:

“I’m going to have to miss our next developer conference because I’ll be on parental leave.”

It’s not that I wasn’t excited about becoming a new parent, I was just that surprised by the pregnancy and that excited about what was happening at work.

I was just getting into my groove at Shopify and after doing a start up for 4 years, I was ready to start proving myself valuable at a bigger company again. Work was where I was spending a good amount of my energy and, more importantly, I was having fun.

For me, I was nervous that all the opportunities I was being given would stop because I was now pregnant and people would assume I couldn’t handle certain things anymore. I worked really hard to find and cultivate a team I loved working with and I was scared that I would lose my place in it.

Dos and don’ts

After talking to more new moms around the office, I learned that I wasn’t alone in wondering how I would juggle my new identity as a parent with my existing life. It’s easy to assume that when someone gets pregnant all the things they care about and their priorities change. This is true for most people but not everyone’s priorities end up looking the same way. Even something as simple as deciding when to stop travelling during pregnancy is a very personal decision.

By and far, the most important thing my team members did to help me feel supported was not make any assumptions about my goals or what I was or wasn’t capable of taking on since I had gotten pregnant.

Here’s some examples of how my team made me feel like a rockstar at work while growing my family.

Don’t assume everyone’s parental leave is going to be same.

Shopify is a really progressive company and even still, most people were (and still are) surprised to hear that I wasn’t going to be taking the full 12 months off. Given that I’m not taking a long maternity leave, I want to make sure that I will be coming back to the same, challenging, opportunities I had before I left. When people made it a point to ask me how long I was taking, I felt more in control of the kind of work I wanted to be included in when I got back.

Do assume they have the same capabilities for taking on new work as they did before they got pregnant.

When I was in my last trimester, my lead asked me if I could make it to an offsite in San Francisco (we’re located in Toronto). I think his exact words were, “I think it would be really valuable for you and the team if you could go, you’d get a chance to build a lot of great relationships. Do you feel comfortable flying that far for a few days right now?” It was great to know why he thought this was an important trip to take and that he was thinking of my future as part of the team. On top of that, he gave me a chance to decline the trip or talk about my concerns. It turned out to be one of the most valuable and fun 3 days I’ve spent at the company. I was super glad I went, swollen feet and all.

Do help them achieve their goals by being supportive around logistics.

During that trip to San Francisco, my teammate booked the same flight home just so I’m not travelling alone. This made me feel like I had a team who not only valued my work but also had my back. No one questioned if I should be taking this trip. They let me decide whether this trip was worth taking but did what they could to make sure I felt safe doing so. This was exactly the right kind of support I needed to feel confident I could be a new mom and still maintain an exciting career.

If you take anything away from this….

Just because a team member is expecting does not mean that they’re not the same person with the same goals. Encourage them to lead the discussion about what they want to take on and if they need to make any adjustments.

Bringing a new person into the world is a huge milestone in any parent’s life but it affects everyone differently. Having a conversation without assumptions or judgement goes a really long way in building a supportive environment for expecting team members.

Before you go.

I would love to hear about your experience either as a new parent or someone working with expecting team members.

Vanessa Lee (@vlaurenlee) | Twitter

Below are a couple articles that I found helpful around this topic.

Special thanks to Amy Thibodeau, Brandon Chu, Monica Czarny and Helen Mou for their help reviewing this and encouraging me to write this.