I knew I had to tell them at work. I was only a few weeks pregnant but suffering from morning sickness. My male colleagues might never have known but one or two of the secretaries were starting to speculate after hearing me in the loo.
I was working in the oil industry in the early 90s. There were precious few women around to start with. And very few of them had had the audacity to get pregnant. So far as I knew there weren’t any single mothers among the more senior ranks so I was not at all sure how they would react to the news.
Frank astonishment would best describe my line manager’s response. Though he remembered to congratulate me (somewhat hesitantly, skeptical of my intentional single mother status). My mole informed me that my ‘condition’ had been discussed at the weekly senior management meeting. The only other time I knew I had achieved that heady notoriety was when I went from my usual dark brown hair to being a platinum blonde – apparently the board concluded this was because I was under-challenged in my role and put me on the promotion list… so not at all the high risk I had feared. This time their conclusion was similarly unpredictable. They decided that if I had a dependent and no means of support I would need to keep working so might become more ‘manageable’. Yes, we all know what that means don’t we…?
What I did discover – aside from all the other extraordinary things that come from a healthy pregnancy and joyful birth – was that it forced my hand somewhat. To the good I think. I enjoyed the challenge of dressing smartly and functioning normally till the 39th week when I went on maternity leave. The sheer panic on their faces whenever I got in a lift towards the end was hilarious (those Hollywood films where people have babies all of a sudden have a lot to answer for!) and maintaining my networks while on maternity leave gave me new ways of connecting with people.
More practical considerations came along when the return to work was looming. I had agreed to leave my previous position and come back to a new one so it was no surprise that I had to go to Paris for an interview. No problem I responded. Obviously I’ll need to take the baby because I’m breastfeeding her so I’ll need to take someone with me to look after her while I’m in the interview. (Handy tip, whenever you mention the word breastfeeding there is momentary confusion during which you can often get agreement for things not written into the HR Policy Manual) so the 3 of us – me, baby and friend Pamela who was prepared to be nanny – sallied forth for a 2 day trip to Paris.
When they sent me on a week’s residential training in Brussels we agreed I would take the baby and she would attend a day nursery. She also accompanied me on trips to Colombia and Rio. Now I realize that for many of you this might seem like an appalling idea. Poor thing being dragged around like that. But babies are pretty portable, it helped her socializing skills and at least it meant she always saw me each day.
Years later when I met some people from the BBC who were filming a colleague they exclaimed “We know about you, you’re the woman who breastfed in a board meeting!”. As I explained, it was only the once, and just because the team had insisted on continuing the all day meeting without a lunch break. There were tricky politics going on and I couldn’t risk leaving the meeting. I’m sure it was more challenging for them than it was for me. But it just goes to show… we can retreat like the red squirrel into an ever diminishing definition of women at work or we can take a deep breath and stand up for ourselves, our children, our values and our way of life. So long as we are also delivering the goods then you may find out your employers are more accommodating than you might have expected. And don’t we all have a duty to gently coax change for the sake of all the women without the power to do so?
I have three teenage children now. I’m still a single mother and I’m still standing. I tend not to take them to board meetings these days! Of course these decisions have had their challenges, but they are entirely possible even when we can’t find a manual to show us how. Write your own manual! And then share it with other women.