First, the good news: You’re pregnant and can’t wait to tell the world all about it! But in the midst of crafting the perfect way to announce your pregnancy to your family and friends, you likely have also found yourself wondering the best way to tell your employer, too. Especially if you plan on coming back to work after your maternity leave, this conversation might be the most important pregnancy announcement you make, one that can have a significant impact on both the immediate and future trajectory of your career.
So how, and when, do you have this conversation? For starters, it’s up to you whether you have it at all.
“There is no law that says you must tell your employer that you are pregnant,” says Sarah David Heydemann, Senior Counsel for Education and Workplace Justice at the National Women’s Law Center in Washington, D.C.
Even so, though, you may want to tell your employer that you are pregnant, so that your supervisor and coworkers can prepare for any time you may spend away from work to keep yourself healthy during your pregnancy and after giving birth.
If you are planning on using the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to take leave during your pregnancy or as part of your maternity leave, you will need to let your employer know at least 30 days before you plan to take that leave. Other than that, though, your decision about when and how to tell your employer about your pregnancy is going to be largely based on your own judgment regarding your work environment and what best serves you in it.
Which is why, Heydemann says, the first thing to keep in mind when deciding how to talk to your employer about your pregnancy is that “everyone has a different relationship with their employer and there is no one-size-fits-all approach.”
That’s why she advises that before you even go in to tell your manager about your pregnancy, first research what your rights are to be free from pregnancy discrimination, under both federal and state law. She recommends trying to get a copy of your employer’s parental leave policy and familiarize yourself with its details so you can go into this conversation as prepared as possible.
Keep in mind, though, that your employer’s first question is likely going to be whether you will return to work after your pregnancy, and about your continued reliability during the time you are pregnant, so be sure you are prepared to answer those questions. Depending on the kind of work you do and the industry you are in, you might want to prepare for specific questions about how you will continue in your work during your pregnancy, and any impact it may have on your day-to-day productivity. Especially if you are early in your pregnancy, it’s best to avoid promising that you won’t need accommodations or other forms of leave, Heydemann says.
“You never know what can happen during various stages of pregnancy or after childbirth, and you want to ensure that you can ask for accommodations if you need them,” she suggests.
Most women find out they are pregnant when they are anywhere between four and eight weeks. For most women, the pregnancy is not yet visible and there are a lot of decisions to consider. Telling your employer you are pregnant before you’re even sure how you want your work and life to balance may be premature. So, take your time.
“There is a lot that can happen or transpire in that first trimester that you may or may not want to talk to your employer about,” says Danna Greenberg, Ph.D., the Walter H. Carpenter Professor of Organizational Behavior at Babson College in Boston, Massachusetts, and the co-author of the recent book, Maternal Optimism: Forging Positive Paths through Work and Motherhood. “Even if your employer is the most supportive, wonderful person, I still don’t think it’s right to have those conversations that early on. There is so much that is going to transpire for you professionally during the time of your pregnancy that you don’t need to have that conversation just yet.”
She recommends that women wait until they are between 10 and 14 weeks pregnant to start sharing the news at work. And that when they do, remember that it won’t be just a one-time announcement.
“My advice is rather than thinking of it as a single conversation, think of it as a prolonged group of conversations,” says Greenberg. “You’re going to have a first conversation and you are not going to solve and resolve everything in that first conversation [regarding plans for your leave and return to work].”
She advises using that first announcement to your manager as a chance to get your employer to “focus on [you] as a professional right now.” In other words, use this conversation as an almost mini-annual review. Review what you’re currently working on, any big accomplishments you have recently achieved, and the status of big projects underway. By rooting the conversation in the work you are currently doing, you’ll set the tone with your employer that your work, and returning to it, is where your focus is, even while you simultaneously navigate, and celebrate, your pregnancy.
Greenberg recommends that a first conversation with your employer to announce your pregnancy can be as simple as letting them know your due date, the sex of your baby if you know it and wish to share that information, and then reinforcing your commitment to your job.
Heydemann notes that if you are worried that your boss will discriminate against you for being pregnant, to “watch closely in the weeks and months after you tell them that you are pregnant for signs of retaliation. Write down dates, times, and descriptions of anything that could be retaliation. Retaliation can look different for different people and workplaces.”
Which isn’t to say that all employers are prone to discriminate or retaliate against a person for becoming pregnant, or any other reproductive choice. It does, unfortunately, still happen, though, so being aware of the reality of pregnancy discrimination is just another way of educating and preparing yourself throughout this process. Remember that pregnancy discrimination is a form of sex discrimination. If an employer refuses to hire you, pays you less, gives you a less than desirable job assignment, fires you, denies you the opportunity for advancement or even denies you benefits just because you are pregnant, this is discrimination and it is illegal.
“Many employers are too smart to say outright that pregnancy is their reason for firing someone, overlooking them for promotions, or taking away work. So if you have a great record and then all of a sudden your boss’s tune changes once you get pregnant, it may be evidence of discrimination,” Heydemann says.
But don’t let fear of discrimination drive you in how you talk to your employer about your pregnancy. Rather, let the conversation start an on-going dialogue about how you can continue to meaningfully contribute while pregnant, and after the birth of your child. And talking about how you’ll continue in your role during and after your pregnancy is an opportunity to show your employer how creative, thoughtful and committed to your role you are, in how you talk about your own hopes during these stages.
“Each of us wants something different, and sometimes organizations will try to force us into a standard model,” Greenberg says. This is why she advises that after having an initial conversation with an employer about a pregnancy, women then follow up with their manager to let them know they look forward to future conversations about planning their leave and return to work.
Greenberg advises to approach these conversations like you would any other negotiation. While many women will end up taking the standard parental leave their company offers, others often manage to negotiate for something different. Focus on your strengths, what you currently contribute to the company, and how you can maximize your productivity once you return to work. If your employer offers a flexible schedule — or if you intend to ask for one — be clear about how the new schedule will allow you to maximize your productivity and allow you to do your job as well or perhaps even more efficiently when you return to work after having a baby.
“There are many ways in which becoming a mother makes you better in your work,” says Greenberg. “I know this from my own research and that of other scholars. There are skills women develop, a resiliency women develop, the presence of another focus in their lives that all make them better at work. They become better at time management, better at delegating, more empathetic and better leaders. There are a lot of skills gained through parenting that make you better at work.”
So when you go to talk to you employer about your pregnancy, remember to come from a place of confidence in your current abilities, and what you will continue to bring to your organization after you return. And trust yourself that you’ll know when the timing is right to start this conversation, too.
Jennifer Gerson is an Atlanta-based journalist whose works focuses on the intersection of women’s health and public policy. She is a two-time National Magazine Award nominee, the recipient of the 2015 Maggie Award for her reporting on reproductive rights for Yahoo Health, and the mother of a very active preschooler.