I Was Laid Off When Six Months Pregnant—Here's Why We Need Better Protections for Working Parents

Every company and every state offers vastly different protections for working parents. But learning your rights as a parent doesn't have to be mission impossible. Here's how to start.

Pregnant office employee maternity leave stress
Photo: Getty | Yacobchuk

I found out I was pregnant while I was the editorial director of a website at a well-known media company. When I took the job, starting a family wasn't top priority for me and my husband. So, while meticulously negotiating everything from my salary to vacation time, it never crossed my mind to ask about maternity leave.

Truth be told, I just assumed they offered one. Fast forward two years later and imagine my surprise that—on top of all the normal first-time parent/pregnancy anxiety and to-dos—I was cobbling together my own maternity leave plan. Yup, that media company had no official maternity or family leave policy (and they even published a pregnancy magazine)! Not a soul in HR had the energy, training, or information to guide me. I was on my own for the hair-pulling, maddening process of piecing together how short-term disability or the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) even applied to me, my company, and my state (which was New York at the time). And all that effort was for nothing because, in a blink, my efforts became null and void.

I was a few hours late to work because my 30-week sonogram took forever since my daughter wouldn't stop moving around. The office was eerily quiet but it was Friday, so I didn't think much about it—until the head of HR appeared at my desk. We went into an empty room where words like "restructuring" and "eliminated" were thrown around. But they didn't register. Instinctively, I placed my hand on my growing stomach and slowly smiled. "Well, you do know that I'm six months pregnant?" I stared at him, waiting for his embarrassment and apologies, positive that my unborn child would save the day. Right?

Wrong. He didn't even look me in the eye while handing over a pitiful severance package and separation agreement. "Leave your building pass and laptop behind," was the only thing he said. Despite being filled to the brim with pregnancy hormones, I was too numb to even shed a tear. I ran out of the building. I was completely screwed. Who would hire a six months pregnant lady and approve a maternity leave before I even learned where the bathroom was located? I decided it was best to skip the 9 to 5 grind and go freelance—which wasn't an ideal solution either. The hustle of finding freelance work is a full-time job, too. Once said work was locked in, I had to keep my clients happy so they'd keep hiring me. That meant drowning in deadlines up until mere minutes before my emergency C-section. So I gave myself a three-day "maternity leave" while I recovered in the hospital. Once home with my newborn, I worked around naps, breastfeeding, pumping sessions, and tummy time.

You're Not Alone in Pregnancy Discrimination

I thought my situation was unique—chalking it up to bad luck and a lazy company. But according to Daphne Delvaux, Esq., employment lawyer and founder of the Mamattorney, one thing many women (myself included) do wrong is rely on their company to understand the laws—even if a handbook or company-wide policy does exist. The onus is actually on us to research our rights. "Policies are not the law. There are internal guidelines that legally don't mean anything," Delvaux explains. "But going to your employer and saying, 'I understand these are my rights—this is what I researched—can you please confirm?' They really have no option but to say, 'OK.'"

But then there's a situation like in the case of Maia*—whose company never even gave her a chance to present any research or legal findings. Newly pregnant with potential complications, Maia decided not to disclose during her job interview that she was in her first trimester. (And she's not required to do so by law.) This was strictly out of an abundance of caution while waiting for the results of a few important tests. But when Maia quickly received—and accepted—an offer, she wasn't worried about telling her boss after she started. She thought the company prided itself on being family friendly, with flexible hours and solid work-life balance.

At the end of her first week of work, at 11 weeks along, Maia's test results finally came back, giving her the greenlight to share her news. Maia had felt extremely uncomfortable not being transparent, so she immediately wanted to tell her boss the news. Her boss came across as an "over-sharer" and "talker" and was a family man, so Maia expected nothing but good wishes and lots of unsolicited parenting advice. Instead, they met for less than five minutes. Over the weekend, Maia told her husband she was confused and worried about her boss' curt reaction. Then, on Monday, her boss called her into a two-hour meeting which she says was filled with verbal abuse and personal attacks. After that, she says meetings were inexplicably canceled and Maia's workload diminished down to nothing. Maia kept a log that definitively showed how things drastically changed once she told her boss she was pregnant. She had worked for the company for a total of 11 days when she was invited to a final meeting, where she was fired for what she says are flimsy reasons, including being on her phone too much, not taking notes in meetings, and an "unenthusiastic" attitude.

But Maia knew she was terminated for no other reason than being pregnant. The company did not want to bear any responsibility for her maternity leave—or any other family-related accommodations she might need. Maia hired a lawyer, as she was within her rights to sue for wrongful termination.

"This is where federal laws do apply and under it, the discrimination of pregnant women is generally illegal," confirms Delvaux. "Employers won't say, 'Oh yeah, you're pregnant so you're out.' It's always something made up to justify a termination. My job is to not only prove that pregnancy was the real motivation but also to disprove that whatever they're saying—be it budget cuts or performance issues—were not the real reason. We do that by pointing at other employees who are not pregnant and comparing them to each other."

Maia, who's lawsuit is still ongoing, had no choice but to find another job almost immediately. Her husband was out of work, they'd just signed a lease on a bigger apartment, and she needed health insurance—stat. Now in her second trimester, she knew she'd have no choice but to disclose her pregnancy before accepting any job offer. Luckily, she found a role at a company that was supportive of parental leave. The catch? She was their first pregnant hire, so it was all on Maia to figure it out and present her findings. Again.

While it's frustrating to do all that emotional and mental labor, Lauren Brody, author of The Fifth Trimester and co-founder of Chamber of Mothers, wants working moms to reframe it as a power move. "Any time you point out something that's within your rights, you're not just helping yourself but also helping anyone around you, who for any reason, isn't able to speak up to the degree that you are," she says. "And you're probably helping your employer either be compliant with the law or be more progressive—both make them a more attractive and more profitable employer."

Whether you're being discriminated against for pregnancy or unsure what your company's maternity leave policy looks like (if they even have one at all), arming yourself with knowledge is your best defense. Here's four empowering things every working parent-to-be, new parent, and experienced parent needs to know.

Know your state's laws

One of the most important reasons you must do your research on parental leave is not only will policies vary by employer/job, they will also vary by state. "Depending on where you work, how long you've worked there, and how big the company is, everyone will have a different universe of rights," says Delvaux. "A woman who works for a large corporation in the state of California and has been there for 10 years will have the most rights out of anyone in the United States. But a woman working in the state of Louisiana for two months at a small employer will have little to no rights. It's very hard when you're researching your rights because you might be looking at a resource from another state that actually doesn't apply to you, so that can be very confusing."

That's why Brody refers her clients to A Better Balance, which has a comprehensive, state-by-state (and, in some cases, city-by-city) guide to what rights you have when it comes to parental leave. "New York City, for instance, has rights around breastfeeding or pumping breast milk in the workplace that include things like how close you have to be to running water," she says. "It's really very, very thoughtful what they've spelled out that you need to have available to you."

Know the federal laws

Whether or not your company has an official maternity leave, you are entitled, through federal law, to use disability rights under ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) during or after pregnancy. "You can use those rights to request an accommodation—including a modified schedule, more breaks, a tele-work schedule, or accommodations plus additional time off," explains Delvaux. "Disability rights are federal law, so you're not forced out of a job just because of physical or mental restrictions."

This law applies to everyone in the United States, whether you're pregnant or not, to require that employers make some required modifications so that termination (or the employee quitting) isn't the immediate solution.

Know the timing

Brody offers two very distinct but important reasons that she's a big proponent of announcing pregnancy to your employer as early as you can. First, the more time you have available, the more control you have over your parental leave plan—and return strategy. "It lets you figure out the parts of your job you want to keep after your leave and which parts you've outgrown," says Brody. "It's a wonderful opportunity where rather than slough off duties, you can grow other people into them, giving you the opportunity to do bigger, more thoughtful work."

The second reason to let your boss know about your parental leave plans as early as possible? Legally, the earlier you let your employer's HR department know, the sooner you're protected against discrimination. "If you haven't told anyone that you're expecting, you aren't in a protected class in that regard," Brody explains. "So if people do discriminatory things against you because they assume you're pregnant—but you haven't announced it—you don't have as strong of a recourse. Once you've announced, you do have a level of protection in place."

Know when—and how—to seek counsel

If you're in a situation at work that is feeling too toxic to handle on your own, it's in your right to reach out to a local attorney. Delvaux emphasizes finding one who not only practices employment law and has experience in parental rights, but also specifically has experience representing the employee side of things. "Knowing how all of these laws work and fit together is not easy, and it almost feels like it's intentionally made hard so it is inaccessible," says Delvaux. "Start by Googling lawyers in your area and visit their website. Most will have blogs to help explain your rights."

It's confusing, complex, and overwhelming when you feel your job is in danger because you're pregnant, going on parental leave, or need special accommodations. My biggest regret is that I gave into the fear and panic. The lawyer I met with thought I might have a discrimination case, but discouraged me from moving forward to focus on my unborn child. I do wonder if I could've helped others if I went through with the lawsuit.

That's why Maia's grateful for her story. Though it was a lot to start a new job and create/research her own maternity leave plan after such a traumatic experience, she's happy to have paved the way for her thankful co-workers, and hopes she can inspire other parents to learn—and fight for—their rights, too.

* Name has been changed due to pending litigation.

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