If you’re fired while pregnant or on maternity leave, it can feel like lightning is striking twice. Not only have lost your job, you’ve lost it at a particularly financially and emotionally tricky time.
How do you even begin to recover from the trauma? While every situation is different, take a deep breath and consider these seven pieces of advice we gathered from women who’ve been in the same situation.
1. Accept and confront your emotions.
The first thing you should know is that you are far from alone. Kylie Ostle, a mother, recalls being "seriously excited" about returning to work. She had childcare sorted, her work clothes dry-cleaned, and was feeling mentally and physically ready for her new life as a working mother. Ostle recalls that she was let go by email two weeks before she was due to return, and it still “haunts her and gives her anxiety” four years later.
While it may feel incredibly dark for a period, time — and support — will help you cope with the feelings.
For example, it can be very therapeutic if you can talk to someone else who has been in your shoes. Alice, an attorney in D.C., told us she found herself suddenly fired when she was eight months pregnant. She was completely shocked since she had never been fired before and the layoff was entirely unexpected. When she told her friends, one of them sent her to talk to a friend of hers who had been through something similar just a year earlier.
“It was so helpful to hear that she had bounced back because I felt like my world had literally ended. She really got what I was going through and her encouragement meant so much to me.”
Depending on how you feel and the circumstances, you may need to go beyond the usual embrace of your family and friends. Don’t be afraid to seek out professional help and guidance particularly since postpartum depression can come into play at a confusing and hormonal time.
2. Consider the facts and quickly determine whether you want to pursue legal action.
You may be surprised to find out that you can be terminated while you’re on maternity leave. While it’s illegal for your employer to fire you only because you’re on leave, lawyers say there are multiple other legitimate reasons they may claim you were dismissed. If you do feel you have been a victim of pregnancy or motherhood discrimination, you may contemplate filing a lawsuit or complaint with your former employer. There may be a statute of limitations on certain kinds of discrimination claims, so be sure not to delay for too long if you are interested in bringing suit.
Do bring all the documentation you have with you to show any objective evidence of prejudice for an employment attorney to review. Many will offer a free consultation and help you understand your odds of financial success. Be aware that if you are fired and receive any severance or payment, you may be asked to agree to forego your right to legal action.
For example, Jamera Lee Massop was an administrative assistant and was fired while six months pregnant. Her employer offered her a small settlement when she threatened to sue, but it came with a requirement that she commit to confidentiality. If something similar happens to you, be sure to read the fine print very carefully in these situations and get legal assistance if you need help understanding what you are being asked to sign.
3. Negotiate your severance or exit package, if possible.
Particularly if you are not being fired for cause, you should ask for severance pay. Whether it’s offered or not, it certainly can’t hurt since the worst that can happen is your employer says no. If you are offered some severance, carefully examine your exit package. How much are you being paid? Will it cover your maternity leave (if you haven’t yet taken it)?
In Alice’s case, she negotiated an exit package that covered three months of paid maternity leave. Her employer also agreed to extend her COBRA coverage for a few months as part of her severance agreement, which was very important to Alice considering how much it would have cost her to have a baby without health insurance.
Since you may not be able to get another position before your baby is born, you should ask for as much as possible from your former employer. While you may not receive everything you request, you certainly can (fairly) play the sympathy card if you are pregnant or a new mother. Put your pride aside for a good cause — you and your baby will need all the cash and healthcare coverage you can get.
4. Find out whether your employer will serve as a reference.
Depending on the nature of your firing, your employer may be happy to write you a letter of recommendation or serve as a reference. This is particularly true if you are fired due to no fault of your own beyond working in a restructured organization, for example.
While this is no different than what you should do if you were fired in different circumstances, depending on where you are in your pregnancy or maternity leave, the gap created in your resume may be longer than it would otherwise typically have been, so it’s especially important.
5. Be conscious of your interview timing and the negotiation implications.
Don’t let being pregnant dissuade you from pursuing a job search. If that’s what you want (or have) to do, it may be harder than usual — but know there are success stories. For example, Latoya Peterson, Senior Digital Producer at Al Jazeera America, shared:
“I interviewed at my current job while pregnant (and got the job). Legally you don’t have to disclose anything (and it is illegal for them to fish for that kind of information). However, because my relationship with the folks at my new employer pre-dated this hire, I didn’t want to damage that relationship… My show producer essentially said, ‘If it’s not a problem for you, it’s not a problem for us’.”
If you are very far along in your pregnancy, you may have to decide fairly quickly how soon you are willing to work again if you are offered a new job. You may want to wait until after your baby arrives to begin looking for work if you plan on taking a longer absence since your prospective employer may not be able to wait several months for you to come on board. Or, you will have to negotiate some sort of arrangement for part-time or phased in work if that’s what you’re looking for. For others, finances may mean taking a more limited or almost no maternity leave. Regardless of your situation, be prepared to negotiate and ask for what you need because you are in a non-standard situation.
6. Examine your finances and make a plan.
If you can’t find a new full-time job while you’re pregnant, you may have to compromise for the sake of financial stability. After Jamera accepted her employer’s offer for settlement, she “pounded the pavement for work.” Within two days, she landed multiple temporary positions to cobble together an income. Even though she had to work in retail in tiring positions, she was “grateful for the work.”
Whatever your situation, be cognizant of your expenses and budget accordingly. You in a vulnerable position, so keep a close eye on your savings.
7. Try to see the silver lining.
For Jo O’Connell, being let go during her maternity was shocking, at first. She recalls thinking, “After almost three years of providing my blood, sweat and tears, working long hours into the evenings and often weekends too, they were making me redundant.” However, later she said, “I couldn’t have been happier.” Her advice?
If anyone is in the depths of despair about being made redundant, or the threat of it is looming over their heads, my advice is to make the leap. Consider working for yourself and imagine a life without a boss. Become the boss.
While it’s never easy to be fired, it can be particularly hard when it happens during this time of your life. Whether it’s fair, discriminatory or you’re simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, your ego may not recognize the difference. Feeling bruised and embarrassed for some time is natural, but remember that you will in all likelihood land on your feet!