Today, I am honored to be joined by Dr. Julie Bindeman, Psy-D. Dr. Julie is a clnical psychologist and expert in reproductive psychology, who is here today to help us with the truly difficult topic of how to head back to work after a pregnancy loss. It is with sympathy and compassion that I share with you Dr. Julie’s wise advice:
Much is written about a woman’s return to the workplace after having children, as it is a huge transition (as if motherhood wasn’t enough of one!). However, there is very little available about a less trumpeted type of return to work: when the pregnancy ends with a loss.
If you have experienced a pregnancy loss, most likely, it is one of the most (if not the most) difficult experiences you’ve encountered. Navigating the loss within a family is complicated enough without having to think about sharing the news with an employer. And then figuring out what your return might look like.
Few companies have formal bereavement policies (particularly with pregnancy loss) beyond offering a few days or applying the leave to the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). The first thing an employee must do is convey that the loss occurred. This is a very subjective decision as many women who have learned of a loss occurring early in pregnancy haven’t disclosed their pregnancy status, let alone that a loss happened.
Later losses, when the pregnancy has been shared with others or is visually obvious, should be communicated. Ideally, the employee communicates this news to a supervisor, who can disperse the information to others as needed. Some people prefer an email to be sent to necessary coworkers that gives an overview of the situation and states what the newly-bereaved parents need.
Frequently, loss moms will underestimate the amount of time they will need before returning to work. Loss involves not only the physical, but also the emotional. Whereas the physical healing might take several weeks, the emotional is more difficult to predict. Each individual and couple is different. Prior to returning to work, it often makes sense to touch base with whomever you communicated with initially to let them know of your plans. Stopping by the office or ramping up by starting with a part-time schedule (if you are able) are frequently-used ways of returning to work after a loss.
Also, consider having a point-person communicate on your behalf what your needs are. How do you want the loss to be acknowledged (if at all)? What is your return plan? What are some ideas on how people might interact with you? These decisions are difficult, given how hard it is to predict what your needs might be. The conclusions you reach might be informed by your general needs and personality. Do you generally share a lot with others? Are your coworkers also considered friends? What is your office culture?
Another consideration that is hard to predict but worth thinking about, is to figure out who your “safe” colleagues are. And where your “safe” spaces are in your workplace. Often, the initial distraction of work is a welcome change. That is, until someone else at work announces her pregnancy, or someone walks in visibly pregnant. All of a sudden, what has felt fine might change in an instant, and you may feel a sudden need to flee or cry. Both of these instincts can be very scary in such a public setting, such as work. Figuring out your safe people and places ahead of time will enable you to have an “exit plan” in place in case you need it.
If prior to the loss, your pregnancy was noticeable, it might make sense to arm yourself with answers to the following two questions that tend to serve as triggers for many women. The first is the seemingly innocent: Did you have the baby? Or, how’s the baby? What can be really challenging is if this question comes from someone who wasn’t told about your loss (perhaps a security guard, someone who works in a different department, etc.). It is so hard to not feel anger in addition to sadness. A simple, “I lost the baby” is a fine response to this difficult question.
The second question many women struggle with is: How many kids do you have? Often this is a way for office workers to get to know one another as chit-chat, and as a result, this can feel like a minefield. Do you answer honestly, “I have ____, but one died.”? Or, do you answer with the number of living children you may have? Do you answer that you have none? While you don’t need a consistent answer, it can be helpful to think in advance about how you might approach the question (knowing that it is OK to answer it differently depending on the occasion or audience).
A final consideration to think about after returning to work post-pregnancy loss is how you might want to mark your child’s estimated due date. For some, just keeping their child in mind on that day is enough of a marker. Others prefer to take the day off of work to mark this day however they see fit. This might be something to extend to the first anniversary of your loss as well.
There is no protocol or etiquette when it comes to returning to work after a pregnancy loss. This tends to be unchartered waters for most companies to navigate. Often times, they will do their best to allow for flexibility. Navigating this transition back can help to focus you on who your allies and supports might be as you work through this difficult time.
Dr. Julie Bindeman is a reproductive psychologist and co-owner of the practice Integrative Therapy of Greater Washington, located in Rockville, Maryland. Dr. Bindeman assists individuals, couples and groups around issues of fertility, pregnancy loss and perinatal mood disorders. She frequently writes and speaks on the topic of Reproductive Health and seeks to make this information accessible to the general public. She is the Wellness Director of the website Reconceiving Loss and the co-founder of the Muchness After Babyloss challenge. Her practice website is: www.GreaterWashingtonTherapy.com. Information about Dr. Bindeman’s reproductive health work can be found at: www.drjulieb.com
For help and support returning to work after a live birth, consider joining other new working mamas in the Mindful Return E-Course. New sessions are starting soon.