Juggling your pregnancy and career can be stressful as it is, but having to deal with the sly noxious reactions from your employer is an antiquated burden to bear and absolutely counter productive. Yet sadly that spinning wheel, however obsolete, continues to spin. As a first time soon-to-be mom I was naïve to the idea that a young and up coming company, whose CEO was only 35, could be so backwards in their philosophy…ethics!
Being pregnant at work felt like walking on eggshells everyday. The minute they found out I was expecting it was like a shutdown. My boss would walk past me at times and not even speak. I became very insecure about my position and there was a pressure to perform above and beyond to prove I wasn’t some lazy pregnant lady that was looking to use her pregnancy as an excuse.
So I beat the sun out of bed each morning and made my 1 ½ hour trek from Brooklyn to Livingston, NJ everyday. Not even pulling over to give up my breakfast and lunch to the plastic garbage bags I had to keep in the car (a very precarious task to achieve on the BQE, let me tell you).
I had read the books and advice columns about preparing to go on maternity leave. I had prepped myself for the possible snubs on promotions, being placed on the ‘mommy track’, and all the other prejudices that come along with being pregnant in the work place. What I had not anticipated was flat out blatant discrimination.
Popular advice suggest waiting to the last possible moment to let your employer know that you are pregnant and will be going out on maternity leave. Well one can only keep that kind of secret for so long before it starts to poke out from her suit jacket. I had planned to work up to my due date, keeping my fingers crossed that I would make it that far. At the start of my 8th month I began to look at the calendar to estimate the best maternity transition plan.
That particular morning I came in to work extra early as to not conduct personal business on company time. I laid out my maternity leave plan and I left out of the scheduling manager’s office feeling confident, and on top of things that we were able to come up with a game plan. I would take 6 weeks of maternity leave and be available on-call for any questions my temporary replacement may have.
Immediately following my lunch break, I was called into a meeting with the company’s in-house attorney. I figured he wanted to go over some contracts since I was handling some of the boss’s personal accounts. I grabbed a pen, note pad, and all of my pregnancy glow and sauntered into the conference room. He greeted me politely as I took a seat near his. I readied my pen and paper and waited for him to begin. He got right to it.
“Dawn what I have here is a letter of your termination, the company has decided that they are no longer in need of your services.” If he said anything after that I sure as hell didn’t hear it. It was almost as if I went deaf for what seemed like forever. My thoughts began racing, what had I done wrong? Did I mess up on an account? If I had, why had it not been brought to my attention? I hadn’t been late… I use paid time off for my doctor’s appointments… Then my thoughts shifted to that morning and my conversation with the scheduling manager about my maternity leave. The attorney must have seen it all over my face, because the next thing I heard was, “New Jersey is a ‘at will’ state, the company can fire without reason, without warning.”
I still had yet to respond. I wasn’t sure what my voice would sound like and I wasn’t willing to risk a public display of insane black woman goes wild. I began to blink back the tears as every hormone and emotion began to creep up. This was a full-blown sneak attack.
The attorney began again, “The Company is prepared to offer you a severance package, which is something no one else has received upon termination. One month’s pay, vacation pay, and health benefits to cover until the end of next month. However in order to receive this severance you must agree to sign a contract stating you will not try and bring suit against the company.” There was no need to say anything at this point, I had walked straight into the dagger, and I needed to get out of there, quickly.
Back at my desk I grabbed what I could, and bee-lined towards my car. I drove out of the parking lot and up the block before I pulled the car over to the side of the road. Then I completely unraveled, everything began to hit me at once fear, panic, frustration, anger, and then guilt. I imagined what I was putting my little baby through, so I stopped crying on a dime.
I picked up the phone and called my husband and calmly explained to him everything that happened. He wanted to know where I was at that moment so he could come to me, but I told him I was ok to drive, just meet me at home. On my 1 ½ hour drive home I tapped into some of my resources. My mother’s good friend was head of HR of a fortune 500 Company and she told me that I could fight this, but that it might be a long and arduous fight that could take years. She suggested that I do some research before I make a decision.
A week later I went into preterm labor and delivered my baby girl 5 weeks early.
I’m blessed to be able to say that she is healthy and perfect in every way. She is a fighter born amidst conflict.
My story is an extreme one. And hindsight being 20/20, I would have sought out legal counsel at the first sign of discrimination. And that would be my advice to any woman who may find herself in the same conflict at work. If it comes down to the conformity of a position or the wellbeing of your body or child, there is no conflict of interest.
At least not for me. Not when it comes to her.
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