How to Tell Your Boss You're Pregnant
By Kasey Erin Phifer-Byrne
First of all, congratulations are in order. You're going to be a mama! Or maybe you're already a mama, and you're adding to your family. Either way, this is a time full of excitement and nerves, including those nerves brought on by the inevitable responsibility of letting your boss know that you're pregnant. So, what do you need to know about how to do this gracefully and professionally?
Before we get to the technical advice, hold up for a minute. If you plan to share your news with your family and friends before telling your boss, you'll want to make sure your announcement, or any information hinting at your pregnancy, isn't available to your boss or coworkers on, say, social media. Even if you're friends with your coworkers, you might want to be cautious about sharing with them before you're ready to tell your boss. Word gets around, and you want to be the one to share this essential tidbit with your boss when the time comes, not have them hear about it around the figurative water cooler.
Now that you've put the lockdown on that information, it's important that you know your pregnancy-related and maternity-related rights in the workplace. First of all, know that in the US, it's illegal for your workplace to terminate your employment due to pregnancy. That's been true since 1978 when the Pregnancy Discrimination Act was passed, but your boss might not be aware of this, or if they do wish to fire you because of your pregnancy, they might try to disguise that termination by citing safety concerns or even something completely unrelated. Either way, it's illegal, but can be difficult to prove if your boss gives an unrelated reason for the termination.
You should also know that if your pregnancy will affect the work you do at your job, your employer can't fire you for this, either. They need to make reasonable accommodations: for example, if your job involves working in a laboratory with toxic chemicals, your doctor can provide a note requesting a temporary (for the duration of your pregnancy) change in your job position to one that is safe for you and your baby. You can make the same request if you have a complication during your pregnancy that will affect your work. That said, your boss can't force you to change jobs or take time off.
And whether or not your employer provides a paid maternity leave plan (and I hope they do, because if so, you're truly lucky in the US, where there's no legal requirement for paid parental leave), know that you still are likely eligible for FMLA. The Family and Medical Leave Act entitles employees to take 12 weeks of unpaid leave for the birth or adoption of a child and certain other situations. This Act protects your job, and you aren't required to take those 12 weeks all at once (you can take them up to a year after the birth of your child). Be aware that if your employer does provide a paid maternity leave plan, you can't necessarily use FMLA to extend it for 12 more weeks, because it runs concurrently with your paid leave (though this is at the discretion of your workplace). For example, if you are allowed 6 weeks of paid leave and want to also use FMLA, you can usually only use it to take 6 additional weeks of unpaid leave after your paid leave runs out. Some jobs are FMLA-exempt, but most are not. You may want to check on this if you think your job might be exempt.
Okay, so how do you tell? And when?
Here's my advice: Make your boss the first person at your workplace to find out about your pregnancy (unless you fear he/she may react poorly and you have a trusted Human Resources go-to; then tell them first). When you decide to tell might depend on your job. As in our previous example, if you work with substances or on tasks that could be dangerous to your pregnancy, you'll want to discuss this with your boss as soon as you find out you're pregnant so accommodations can be made immediately. In most jobs, though, if your pregnancy isn't affecting your work, it's fine to wait until you start showing. Of course, you can wait longer if you'd like, but I recommend starting the conversation before the rumor mill starts it for you.
Plan to speak with your boss privately and in person. Go in with a game plan: do you already know you'll need to request accommodations? Be prepared to state them, and bring a doctor's note with you. Be aware of your company's maternity leave policies in advance of this meeting with your boss—you might find them in an employee handbook or with the help of your HR department. If your employer is small and has no HR department, you aren't aware of a maternity leave policy, or you know you are the first person in your workplace to ever request one, you're in the unique position of maybe having the chance to negotiate your own leave.
And mama, you've got options. Consider how much time you'll want to take completely off of work, and how much you might ask to be paid during this time. Full pay? Partial pay? Full or partial pay for part of your leave, and a remainder of unpaid time (remember, you've still got FMLA)? You might also consider requesting a work-from-home situation for when you're ready to return to work, if you have the kind of job that can be done from home. Some employers are willing to negotiate for you to work from home either part of the time or full time after your leave or as part of it.
Go into this conversation prepared and with confidence. I know, I know—it's easier said than done, and you may be feeling more than a few butterflies when you walk through the door, but you can do this.
If you're going to be returning to work in person following the birth of your baby and you plan to breastfeed, you have another conversation to put on the table. This one doesn't have to happen at the same time that you tell your boss you're pregnant, but you'll want it on your mind. The Affordable Care Act requires employers to provide employees "reasonable breaks" to pump breast milk throughout the day, so you should plan to request as many breaks as you think you'll need—you'll want to pump as many times as you would usually nurse your baby during the hours you'll be away. Your employer also has to provide a private space for you to pump that isn't a bathroom.
If it's a small company with fewer than 50 employees and providing these accommodations would cause "undue hardship," the company isn't required to do so. This can be a bummer if you work for a small business, but it shouldn't stop you from asking your boss and proposing reasonable ways for you to get your pumping done.
And discrimination on the basis that you're lactating? Just as illegal as pregnancy discrimination. You can't be fired or discriminated against for being a breastfeeding mother.
I know this is tricky business we're talking about, but remember that if you're a valued employee and your boss is a stand-up human being (some are not, but I hope yours is!), they'll likely be happy for you and offer congratulations. Go into this time with an optimistic point of view. When I told my boss about my pregnancy during a time when I was ending one contract and not sure if I'd be getting a new one due to enrollment changes at the university where I teach, my amazing boss and our department business manager helped me avoid an unexpected health insurance crisis by springing into action to create a contract that I hadn’t been expecting. You might be surprised by the support you receive from your workplace. And if not, well, we've gone over your rights, and you can be prepared for that scenario, too. I don't know about you, but creating a human life with my body kind of makes me feel like a superhero.
Best of luck, mama. You can do this—all of it.
Kasey Phifer-Byrne is an English professor, poetry-writer, lactation consultant in training, and mom to one cat and one soon-to-be-born human. She teaches from home while balancing clinical hours for lactation support, preparing for new parenthood, and enjoying a good hike near her home outside of Philadelphia. Kasey is passionate about supporting breastfeeding mamas and advocating for family leave and work-life balance despite today's challenges to working parents.