The Working Woman's Guide To Pregnancy

From here to maternity leave: how to stay fit, healthy and happily employed while youre expecting.

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You're pregnant, at work and trying to focus on the tasks at hand, but little thoughts keep creeping in. Is my job dangerous to my baby? Should I keep working or stay at home?

While facing possibly the most exciting event of your life, you're also contending with new limitations, major decisions and issues that concern your identity, job and home life.

Here, leading work/family experts offer advice to help guide you through such issues as deciding whether to return to work, negotiating your maternity leave, staying fit and healthy and simply surviving the workday.

Go back to work? Or stay home?

"Are you going to keep working?" It's one of the first questions pregnant women face. But for every woman who knows exactly what she's going to do, there's another who can't decide. And almost all women have doubts about their choice. It doesn't help that new mothers often are given a hard time either way.

Rather than taking these judgments personally, it may help to recognize that as a pregnant woman, you are caught in a clash of two social ideals: the perfect worker vs. the perfect parent. As companies become more progressive about meeting parents' needs, women may need to struggle less with this "identity crisis." In the meantime, we've cleared up some common misconceptions to make your decision — assuming you have a choice in the matter — a little easier.

Myth: Children of stay-at-home moms fare better.

Reality: Research shows that children of working mothers have as secure a bond as those of stay-at-home moms, they're as well adjusted socially and emotionally (indeed, they may be more independent and outgoing), and they score equally on intellectual and physical development, writes Ellen Galinsky of the Families and Work Institute in New York in Ask the Children: What America's Children Really Think About Working Parents (William Morrow, 1999). What counts most is how warm, sensitive and responsive the mother is to her child, as well as how satisfied the mom is with her situation. But then again …

Myth: If you do quit working, you can always jump right back in the game later.

Reality: Unfortunately, most women's careers and advancement opportunities suffer if they leave work or work part time. Not only that, but being a stay-at-home mom can make a woman and her children financially vulnerable. "In case of divorce, women who are home full time end up in economic dire straits, as do their children," says Joan Williams, author of Unbending Gender: Why Family and Work Conflict and What to Do About It (Oxford, 2000). That said …

Myth: Whatever your decision is, you'll know in your gut that you made the right one.

Reality: Because there's no ideal option for many women, it's normal to have doubts. If you stay at home, you may feel isolated and resentful or worry that you've ruined your career. If you keep working, you may feel guilty about missing out on your baby's development. "You may have a lot of negative feelings, but that doesn't mean you've made the wrong decision," says Michele Kremen Bolton, author of The Third Shift: Managing Hard Choices in Our Careers, Homes, and Lives as Women (Jossey-Bass, 2000).

"Every woman should allow herself two months back at work (or at home) before she decides if she's made the right decision," recommends Chris Essex, co-director of the Center for Work and the Family in Rockville, Md. Try to build flexibility into your plan with your manager in case you later want to cut back your hours or return to work full time.

Planning for Maternity Leave

Most women now can take maternity leave without the threat of losing their jobs, thanks to the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which requires businesses with 50 or more employees to give women 12 weeks of unpaid leave without repercussions. But how companies put the law into practice varies greatly. Some lucky women get fully or partially paid leave; others use their vacation and sick days to cover part of their leave. Five states (California, Hawaii, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island) require companies to pay new moms disability for six weeks, and some employers in other states voluntarily do this as well.

To give an acceptable amount of time to prepare for your leave, inform your manager that you're pregnant by your third or fourth month (sooner if morning sickness or fatigue is cutting into your availability or productivity). "Read your company's manuals and talk to other women there who have gone through this so you have a good idea of how accommodating your company is," suggests Lauren Asher, spokeswoman for the National Partnership for Women & Families in Washington, D.C.

Before you talk to your boss, have a clear idea of when you expect your leave to begin and end, make a list of responsibilities that must be delegated to others, and create a plan for who will cover for you. Also let your employer know how available you'll be while on leave.

"Make the transition as smooth as possible for the company and for yourself," says Asher. If your announcement is met with unhappiness or pressure to return to work earlier than you'd like, hold your ground. "Don't compromise on the things that are most important to you," she adds.

Is your job hazardous to your baby?

Some jobs expose women to agents known to cause miscarriage, low birth weight, preterm delivery or birth defects, says Elizabeth Whelan, Ph.D., an epidemiologist with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) in Cincinnati. Limit (or, if possible, eliminate) your exposure to:

-Chemicals, including lead and solvents used in various industries (such as home remodeling and the electronic and semiconductor industries), as well as cancer-treatment drugs.

-Radiation from X-rays, which health care workers, dental-office personnel and laboratory researchers may be exposed to. The electromagnetic fields emitted from computer monitors are not thought to be a risk.

-Disease-causing agents, including cytomegalovirus, hepatitis B, HIV, rubella and chicken pox, which may affect health- or child-care workers, teachers and other people who come into contact with children; and toxoplasmosis, which could affect animal-care workers.

-Strenuous physical labor, such as prolonged standing, heavy lifting or other similar tasks.

Other potential hazards include:

- Dry-cleaning fluids.

-Various anesthetic gases, which medical, dental, veterinary and other health-care workers may be exposed to.

-Rotating shift work or long shifts.

Consider Child-Care Options

If you're planning to return to work, start thinking about child care while you're pregnant. There are three main options, explains Laura Castergine, a Boston work/life consultant for Ceridian, a benefits-consulting company:

Family child care- A caregiver watches children in her home. Advantages: flexibility, a homelike setting, a small group of children, affordability. Main disadvantages: no standard of quality in states that don't require registration or licensing; potential lack of supervision.

Child-care centers- Advantages: structure, educational activities, socialization, more accountability. Main disadvantages: rigid schedules, less personal attention.

Nannies, baby sitters and au pairs- Advantages: flexibility, convenience, one-on-one care in your own home. Main disadvantages: cost, no standard of quality (they're not licensed or registered), responsibility for paying employer taxes.

Easing Back to Work

Consider a gradual return to work to make the transition easier for you and the baby. For example, work three or four days a week for the first month back. Arrange flex time so you can work, say, 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Or share a job with a co-worker, each of you working part time. One fact that will boost your negotiating power is that it would cost between 75 and 200 percent of your salary to replace you — strong incentive for your employer to accommodate you.

If You Work For Yourself

Self-employed women have neither disability payments nor a boss's good graces to support them during maternity leave. On the other hand, they do have flexibility, but taking advantage of it means having to plan ahead — ideally even before you get pregnant. Here's how.

Protect yourself financially. "Every self-employed person needs a cash reserve to live on if she doesn't have other income coming in," says Gene Fairbrother, lead small-business consultant for the National Association for the Self-Employed in Washington, D.C. This reserve should equal at least three months of your contribution to your family's living expenses, he says.

Keep clients in the loop. Tell your clients you're pregnant at least three months before you plan to stop working. "Don't surprise them with an e-mail saying you're going into the hospital next week," says Fairbrother. Let them know when you'll be out of contact and when you'll be available for conversations; also have contingency plans, such as farming your work out to a trusted colleague who can cover for you.

Be realistic and flexible. How much work you can handle after your baby is born will depend on the type of work you do, your newborn's demands and your own comfort level. Until you actually have a newborn to care for, you may not realize how little time (or energy) you might have. Don't be overambitious.

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