Pregnant and working: a challenging choice

In the not-too-distant past women quit their jobs when they became pregnant. Now more and more are staying on the job as long as possible before beginning maternity leave. There are more than 1.5 million pregnant working women in the job market today.

Why are these pregnant women working? Most important, they say they need to earn money for their families. Trish Pfingsten, a Seattle travel agent, is pregnant with her first child. Both she and her husband agree that she has to work.

''We got married in September, bought a house in December, and I got pregnant in April,'' says Mrs. Pfingsten. ''If we want to keep the house, I've got to work.''

But, like many women, she says her career is also important. ''I wouldn't give it up,'' says Mrs. Pfingsten.

Sandy Elliot, a working mother in Seattle who is pregnant with her second child, shares her job with another mother so that she can have some days free with her son.

''Last time, I quit my job at seven and a half months because it was around Christmas and we were moving. After Christmas was over, I sat around and twiddled my thumbs until David was born.''

Mrs. Elliot considers herself at the forefront of a ''minirevolution.''

''Many women who have put off having children because of their careers are starting to have babies,'' says Mrs. Elliot, who was married for five years before having her first child. ''Some people seem to think that pregnancies will make the whole economy collapse. I think it will take a few years for business to get used to having pregnant women and mothers as workers, but we will cope.''

Phyllis L. Gillis, coauthor of ''The New Pregnancy'' (New York: Bantam Books, to make a choice between a career and family; they want to do both.''

It's important to pregnant workers that their husbands support their interest in working. A man needs to appreciate his wife's contribution - and sometimes broaden his own. On the mornings that Mrs. Elliot works, her husband, Dave, gets their son up, makes him breakfast, and gets him ready for nursery school. Ms. Gillis sees a similar philosophy among young fathers.

''They are taking joint responsibility, and seeing it as fun and not just a duty,'' says Ms. Gillis. She advocates that families avoid the myth that women should take it ''a lot easier'' during their pregnancy. She instead urges common sense.

Her coauthor, Susan S. Lichtendorf, adds: ''You have to have a firm belief in what you are doing. Sureness sets a positive atmosphere at work.

''But you also have to make a realistic assessment of your life,'' says Ms. Lichtendorf. ''You can't do it all - work, entertain, go shopping. You have to pick areas of priorities, and cut down on other activities.''

Pregnant women talk of challenges at work. Martha H. Izzi, director of program development at Boston-based COPE (Coping with the Overall Pregnancy/Parenting Experience), says there can be mutual suspicions between worker and employer.

She has heard management say, ''She's pregnant. We've trained her, invested money in her, and now we have to hold open her job. Chances are she won't come back.''

Women, on the other hand, similarly distrust employers, Mrs. Izzi reports. ''He doesn't care about me,'' a woman may think. ''I have to behave as though I am not pregnant. I can't miss any work or make a big deal out of it.''

Ms. Gillis advises pregnant women to be straightforward with their boss, without being negative.

''Women have to sit down and negotiate,'' she says. If it appears a boss resents a pregnancy, a pregnant woman can ask to hear his or her concerns and work them out. Perhaps the boss notices that the worker gets tired at the end of the day and is afraid she can't handle her job. The employee might suggest coming in early and leaving midafternoon.

''Never get into a confrontation,'' advises Ms. Gillis. ''If (the employer) perceives a problem, chances are it's legitimate. But you can probably alleviate it.''

Other pregnant workers have no problems with employers. Trish Pfingsten, who works with commercial travel accounts, plans to work right up until the time she delivers. She'll take five weeks off and then come back to work. A neighbor woman will babysit.

''The hardest part has been planning the time off and making sure my accounts would be handled,'' says Mrs. Pfingsten.

The reaction of coworkers to pregnancy varies. While many are understanding and helpful, others simply ignore it, and some become protective.

''People are not used to seeing pregnant women work,'' says Ms. Lichtendorf. ''The woman has to make it as pleasant as possible. Don't dwell too much on the pregnancy, like continually talking about it.''

In some fields, such as engineering, where there are many more men than women , acceptance is sometimes hard. But many women report that large companies or firms that have traditionally had lots of women workers are better about accepting pregnant workers. Martha Izzi reports that some companies have hired a ''parent coordinator'' at the corporate level to help employees and future employees. One company has a computer listing of day-care facilities in the nearby area.

Working during pregnancy ''helps you prepare for the double life afterward,'' says one mother. Martha Izzi points out that families face a ''very different'' kind of life after six weeks maternity leave. Husbands and wives need to deal with day care, housework, juggling heavy work schedules, and making time to spend with their child. Many women decide they'd rather stay at home with the child for a longer time than they originally planned.

''Being a parent is taken for granted,'' says Mrs. Izzi. She suggests that couples begin to live on one salary in the second or third month of pregnancy.

''It will allow them to see what it will be like if the mother doesn't return to work. And if she does, it will give them a head start on provisions for day care.''

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