The Accidental Activist
Original published 12-18-08
My company held mandatory sexual harassment training last week, and while I joked with the rest of my co-workers that everyone at the office already practiced sexual harassment quite efficiently, I ended up learning a lot, but not about harassment.
While we all waited to get to the juicy sexual harassment scenarios on the Power Point presentation, we sat through a run down of basic workplace conduct. One section focused on discrimination of protected groups of people, of which there are 13 in California. The trainer stopped after listing race, religion, sexual orientation and disability because she said they were too numerous to remember. Then what she said shocked me. First she noted that pregnant women were also a protected group, then she added that she once made the mistake of hiring a pregnant woman.
I did a Fred Flintstone double take. Did I just hear a woman — who moments before mentioned that she was the mother of a two-year-old, imply that if she knew a woman was pregnant she would not hire her? She followed by encouraging everyone to write their Congressperson if they wanted to change the law that made pregnancy a protected status.
As the only mother in my office, I was alone in the conference room in my outrage.
I looked around at my fellow employees. Was not each of them born? Were they not nurtured in their first months of life? Would my very capable and competent boss sitting next to me have been hired or promoted to his current position and built our company to its current success if he had carried and birthed his three children?
The fact is that until men become pregnant — not including the now-famous transgendered man who gave birth — or babies are born in incubators, then women must bear the children of our world. If women, particularly single women, are denied employment because of pregnancy, then who will support them and their children?
I told a lesbian friend of mine about this incident. She wanted children herself, and many of her friends were single lesbian moms, so I assumed she would share my indignation. Instead, she recounted how her 30-something niece was recently denied a position at a company because she told her potential employer she was pregnant. My friend knows this is the reason because the employer, a friend – and a single mother, told her so.
Astoundingly, my friend agreed with the supervisor’s decision not to hire her niece. “It’s not a good business decision to hire a pregnant woman.” What’s more, she added, “My niece should have been smart and put her career first. She could have children later. Or at the least she should have kept her mouth shut.”
There were so many things wrong with my friend’s way of thinking I didn’t know where to start.
I appealed to her as a person of great integrity. If I couldn’t sway her with the obvious argument that society needs to support, nay, celebrate and worship those who continue our species, then certainly she could appreciate that a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy applied to pregnancy has the same fundamental flaw as the military’s – it is basically dishonest. To hide something so significant about oneself – whether one’s sexual orientation or pregnancy, is a deception.
My friend’s disagreement with me on these points was frustrating, but her advice that her niece to wait to have children later in life is what made me realize I must get on a soap box and yell at the top of my lungs, “Don’t wait, have children now!”
I myself used to think like my friend. We are lead to believe that technology can keep the biological time clock ticking indefinitely. Women have children in their late 30s, 40s, 50s and even later these days, so the media reports. But these women are the exception. The truth is that a woman’s fertility declines steeply after age 35, and by 40 she has less than a five to 10 percent chance of conceiving naturally.
Not only are fertility treatments expensive, with the average cost of in-vitro fertilization around $15,000, and mostly not covered by insurance, they are not guaranteed. The average success rate for IVF is 20 percent, with that average plummeting for women over 40. Also, because “success” is calculated without counting women who discontinue a cycle of IVF, the reality is that many more attempt it and fail.
For each heartwarming account of a woman over 35 having a baby – or twins, triplets, etc., there are dozens of women like her who spend years and many 10s of thousands of dollars, enduring the pain and suffering of hormone injections, IVF surgery and significant disruption to their lives; and their only outcome is heartache. Sadly, for many of them, it is because they waited, because of their careers.
My friend did not know this. Her sister had a baby, naturally, and unintentionally, at age 41, and my friend did not realize this was rare. Had her niece waited, she may not have had children.
A cynical view is that many doctors are men and don’t really care about women’s fertility, or they don’t tell women the truth about fertility because it is more profitable to treat them for infertility later. After all, thanks to women postponing pregnancy, fertility medicine is a growing multi-billion dollar industry. I told my gynecologist for years that I wanted to have children. Never once did he mention that I should hurry it up.
Of course there is adoption, which can be costly and take many years, and there are many foster children dreaming of a loving home; but for some of us, it is our deepest desire to give birth to child that is biologically related to us. This longing kept me up nights. I woke sometimes in tears, feeling empty and lost. Perhaps the death of my dear brother in his 30s compelled me to want to continue our family lineage. Whatever the reason within me, I was desperate to have a child of my own.
I was one of the very lucky ones. I spent only two years and all of my life savings to conceive my son. But many women who wait will not fare as well. I say this to scare them. I wish someone had scared me.
A woman I used to know many years ago recently contacted me on Facebook. She heard I had a child last year. She asked my advice about motherhood, as she is considering having a baby at 40. Having a child was the best thing I did in my life, I told her. Don’t wait.
It’s 2008. If we want a family, we no longer have to wait for the right man. We have many alternatives. The one option we don’t have is turning back time. Even Cher knows that.
We as women have many obstacles. We have women, even progressive, feminist women like my friend, who because of their attitudes about pregnant women are unwittingly contributing to the unhappiness and poverty of many women and families; and we have employers and doctors who don’t understand or care about our fertility timeline.
To my sexual harassment trainer I quote Olympia Dukakis’ in Moonstruck: “What you don’t know about women is a lot.” Pregnant women are in a protected class for a reason. We are all here because of a pregnant woman. If you think employing a pregnant woman is a bad business decision, you need to rethink what business you are in; unless you think your life and your child’s life is worth less than a company’s bottom line.