My first baby was my career. I started nurturing it in college, hell-bent on moving to New York City and writing for magazines. This lifelong goal began in elementary school when I started writing “bonus chapters” to my Sweet Valley High books. I made the move and spent a solid 15 years working toward my dream job at the helm of an entertainment website. I wasn’t always sure that motherhood was part of the plan. But then I met my husband and suddenly, I was as hell-bent on having a child as I was working in magazines.
The dream job fell in my lap, a serendipitous “right time, right place” encounter, and it happened very fast. The same day I came in for a meeting, I received a written offer. The job checked all the boxes: my biggest salary jump to date, the freedom to build, hire and manage my own team and creative control over the content. I asked about everything from where I would sit to the work-from-home policy. I drilled my new boss about his management style and the goals I was expected to hit my first year. I inquired about expenses and even lunch options in the neighborhood.
But the one thing I didn’t ask? Details on maternity leave.
I know, I know…how did I ever accept a position without inquiring, while I was stockpiling ovulation kits and tracking my cycles? How did it not cross my mind during my lightning round of questions to ask, “By the way, what’s your maternity leave policy?”
The main reason? I was already covered via my husband’s insurance policy. In fact,
knowing I wasn’t signing up for health insurance, I barely glanced at any of the materials that HR provided during my onboarding process. It’s a terrible excuse considering that I knew we were starting a family. But here’s an even worse excuse—I assumed because this “dream job” was at a media company (with a pregnancy magazine on their roster!) that they’d surely offer at least a few weeks’ paid leave. I didn’t know that it was possible to not have a maternity leave policy. And I was flattered and starstruck by how this company wooed me and then quickly locked me in. It almost made me feel like they were giving me so much that glossing over the fact that I planned on becoming a mom while working there could be dealt with later. This was a company that offered me a job on the spot without hesitating to give me the exact salary and schedule I wanted. I learned the hard way that it’s near impossible to keep negotiating and asking for anything more once you sign the dotted line.
But I actually didn’t discover the lack of a maternity leave plan until I was indeed pregnant—not like the writing wasn’t already on the wall.
A few months into the job, I ambushed my male boss with a desperate plea for additional budget. I didn’t realize he was hysterically laughing while I sputtered out my argument until he cut me off. Gasping for air, he exclaimed, “You can have whatever you want. The way you stormed in here, well, I’m just relieved that you didn’t announce you’re pregnant!”
I was so shocked that the gravity of those words didn’t sink in until it was too late.
About a year later, my husband and I blissfully found out that we were expecting. I was ready to shift my focus and redirect my priorities yet determined to keep my career trajectory on the rise. I never doubted I could do it. I’d worked at many female-driven companies over the years and watched in awe as my colleagues ran into meetings with sky-high stilettos and swollen bellies or dialed into conference calls, completely unfazed by cooing (and sometimes screaming) in the background. So, while I had the normal anxiety about, you know, keeping a human alive and my “new normal,” I was comforted by the positive experiences of my friends and mentors before me.
The catch, however, was I no longer worked at one of those female-driven companies. In my workplace, which didn’t offer a formal maternity-leave policy, there was much confusion over how maternity leave even worked. I asked my new male boss, a father of two (who did not laugh at the news that I was pregnant) how I should officially alert the company that I would be taking maternity leave. He had no idea and suggested I speak with the editor of the pregnancy magazine, who was also pregnant. She gently broke the news that at my own discretion, I could explore short-term disability and of course use the Family Medical Leave Act to hold my job, but the company offered no paid time off beyond whatever vacation days I saved up.
Ignoring the needs of working moms was a common thread in the company culture and my blinders were ripped away when I hit six months pregnant. My position was eliminated and I was laid off.
Knowing upfront that maternity leave was non-existent wouldn’t necessarily have foreshadowed my getting laid off. I don’t think it even would’ve stopped me from taking the job had I known. But it’s information that would’ve been useful before and during my pregnancy as an employee there. For example, my doctor was unsure that I’d be able to conceive without medical intervention. In fact, I was unknowingly pregnant during a consultation with a fertility specialist. Now, had I gone through the IVF process, I would’ve likely needed extra time out of the office. I also would likely have been blindsided when those requests were denied. Had I known that maternity leave wasn’t offered even on the most basic level, it would’ve been a red flag that family life at any stage wasn’t a company-wide priority. While layoffs are ultimately unavoidable and never pleasant, a different company culture with more support for pregnant employees would have provided more resources for me when I separated from the company. I’d also like to think I would’ve fought for changes before it was too late for me.
If I could go back in time, I would’ve drilled my boss during our interview about the maternity leave policy—including flexibility once I returned. Those answers alone would have provided great insight into how the company views moms. Because no matter where you are in your family planning, even if you’re positive your family is complete, it’s essential to know the type of support you will—or won’t—receive…at all stages. Sometimes dream jobs contradict the dream family life. Work-life balance is not easy, even with the most supportive company culture. I know now that a dream job isn’t necessarily the one that lets you hang with celebrities or issues you a corporate AmEx. The dream job is the one that won’t ding you for going into labor two weeks ahead of schedule or pass you over for a promotion because you took a few extra personal days to care for a sick child. The dream job is one that changes with the times and works with their moms, not against them.