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Let’s Be Real About Pregnancy Loss and Careers / Work

Updated: Jul 5

When we talk about career development, progression, and success, we often discuss factors like education, experience, skills, networking, and opportunities. Rarely do we delve into personal circumstances that can profoundly affect a woman's career trajectory. One such circumstance is pregnancy loss. It's a topic that remains largely unaddressed in the professional sphere, yet it carries significant implications for women's careers.

I’m Megan, Founder of Spark + Pivot. I’ve been pregnant 7 times and only have 3 living children. I’ve suffered 3 miscarriages and the stillbirth of my son, all while serving in leadership roles at a marketing agency, raising my daughters, and navigating a significant career change. Until my son died, I kept my losses quiet - relying on compassionate and protective managers to help me keep my secret while getting a few days PTO. When Theo died, however, pandora’s box opened. Just like I couldn’t hide my huge belly that everyone had watched grow for months, I could no longer hide all the pain I had endured once he died.

Now that I’ve changed careers and spend my days providing mental health counseling and advocating for pregnancy and infant loss awareness, I’ve found purpose and joy in keeping Theo’s name alive. But I realize, on the final day of October (Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month) that I’ve not brought my authentic self to one social channel. LinkedIn. I’ve posted about mental health after perinatal loss throughout the month in other social channels - but something held me back from the marketing and digital community I’m still a part of.

That ends today, because the data tells me that there’s far too many people suffering quietly in professional realms. Maybe my story can help.

Understanding the Issue

Pregnancy loss is an unfortunate reality for many birthing parents, with statistics indicating that about 1 in 4 known pregnancies end in miscarriage (end of a pregnancy before 20 weeks gestation). This does not account for other forms of pregnancy loss such as ectopic and molar pregnancies, failed embryo transfers (after IVF), stillbirth (death of a fetus after 20 weeks gestation), and Termination for Medical Reasons (TFMR). Speaking from personal experience, the emotional, physical, and psychological toll of such events is indescribable. But in addition to these personal effects, pregnancy loss can also have considerable implications for a woman's professional life.

woman grieving after miscarriage
Grieving woman

The Impact on Career Progression

The immediate aftermath of a pregnancy loss often involves taking time off work to recover physically and emotionally. Depending on how far along the pregnancy was, how traumatic the diagnosis was, and - candidly - how much the birthing parent can afford to take off work, you may never know that several of your employees and coworkers are struggling. Being able to “afford” to take off work includes not just financial ability (because birthing parents in the US are not guaranteed leave - much less paid leave - for pregnancy loss) but also social capital. Because for women throughout the ranks, overt and covert messages are received daily about what it means to be “strong” and deserving of leadership. Taking considerable time off for grieving and healing from the death of a child in utero is not a comfortable thing to ask for - whether you’re brand new to your career or a part of the leadership team. And most likely, the company won’t proactively offer it.

This absence, though entirely necessary and justified, can interrupt a woman's career progression. It can lead to missed opportunities, delayed promotions, and even job loss in extreme cases. In addition, the emotional aftermath can affect a woman's ability to perform at her best, potentially impacting her professional reputation, and opportunities for advancement - not to mention, she/they may be entirely disenfranchised about work. Because who can think clearly about marketing KPIs, sales goals, operational efficiency, or fundraising when your baby just died?

The Silent Suffering

What's even more difficult is that pregnancy loss is often a silent suffering. Many women feel they must hide their grief and return to work as if nothing has happened.

Meta analysis of mental health studies show that bereaved birthing parents are 4x and 7x as likely to develop major depressive disorder and post traumatic stress disorder, respectively. And though limited, a growing data set indicates that postpartum anxiety, OCD and psychosis are also at higher risk. All of this should concern employers, who need to keep their team members healthy and engaged.

Having had 4 losses in 4 years gave me the unfortunate perspective of how differently I handled things based on changes in leadership and my growing wisdom about grief. Each time, I was fortunate enough to be working for a boss that cared and looked out for me. But it wasn’t until my son’s stillbirth that HR offered a full maternity leave. Part of this was because a strong female HR leader was at the helm, and the other part was because my boss (who happened to be male) was an executive who knew of my fertility challenges.

Despite their compassionate offer to take a fully paid 12-weeks, I returned after 6 weeks. Just long enough for my milk to dry up and my pregnant belly to disappear. For some reason those were the two signs I had fixated upon - as if they had any real bearing on my emotional well-being. I still had trauma brain fog, phantom kicks in my empty womb, and embarrassing lapses in my short-term memory. Yet, I forced myself to come back because I was afraid people would think I was using Theo’s death as a crutch.

The truth is, most birthing parents do NOT have leadership teams as humane and as that specific team. So I can only imagine what pressure they might receive or put on themselves as they also grieve the death of a very wanted child. Feeling isolated, stressed, and traumatized will naturally affect job performance and satisfaction.

Addressing the Issue

It's clear that pregnancy loss can have a significant impact on a woman's career. But what can be done about it? Employers play a crucial role here. They need to foster a supportive environment where women feel safe to share their experiences and take the necessary time off to heal. This can involve implementing policies that specifically address pregnancy loss, providing resources for emotional support, and ensuring that women aren't penalized professionally for their loss.

Additionally, please review insurance procedure to ensure the company does not call or send letters to the bereaved parent that insensitively inquire about details to ensure the claim isn’t fraudulent. I’ll spare that soap box for now. Suffice to say, if you are in HR and happen to be reading this - please ask your generalist to work through procedural details with your insurance provider.

Concluding Thoughts

Let's be real: pregnancy loss is a difficult, painful experience that can profoundly impact a woman's career. But it doesn't have to be a silent suffering. By acknowledging the issue and taking steps to support women, employers can help mitigate the professional impact of pregnancy loss. In doing so, they not only support their employees' wellbeing but also contribute to a more inclusive and understanding workplace culture.

It's time we address this hidden aspect of career development and create a workplace environment where everyone feels supported, regardless of their personal circumstances. Because ultimately, a supportive workplace doesn't just benefit the individuals who work there - it benefits the organization as a whole.

If you are struggling with your mental health after a pregnancy loss, please contact us.

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