The below post has been written by Paula Gil Baizan. Paula is a relatively new mum (7 month child) and an experienced manager within the emergency aid sector. She is guest blogging for us on her honest reflections on being pregnant and a new mum while still trying to maintain links to the work place and her life BB (before baby).
For my ‘after 4 club’ pals
It is 11am on a Tuesday and I haven’t had a shower. I’ve spent my morning scraping dry porridge off the kitchen floor, pureeing broccoli and scrubbing off stains from a tower of muslin squares. I’m also sporting a batik-like stain on my top from my son saying ´mamama’ with a mouthful of blueberry puree during breakfast. I’m tired but happy. In one week my baby will be 7 months old and it will be 8 months since I’ve been on maternity leave from my job in a humanitarian organisation.
Before I had a baby, my work was my life and my life was my work. I was starting exciting projects, meeting interesting people and working in the field as much as possible. I was interested in exploring new approaches and championed innovation. I was passionate and available 24hrs — even if that meant not seeing my husband very often. So when I found out I was pregnant, I hoped that the dedication and commitment I’d put into my work would come back to me in equal heaps of understanding and support.
I found out I was pregnant on a Saturday, and on that same Monday I was offered the opportunity to choose between taking a regional post in Nairobi with my current organisation, or accepting an offer to work in North Africa with another organisation. The first thing I did was to call the other organisation thanking them for their interest but explaining I couldn’t take the job because I was having a baby. “Oh I’m sorry”, was her first reaction. “I mean, congratulations”, she corrected. I then tried to take the Nairobi opportunity, but that didn’t work either. Insurance wouldn’t cover for my regular checkups and emergency treatment at the same time. If I’d gotten pregnant in the field maybe… but as a pregnant woman from head office I had to choose one or the other. I think this has been looked at since then, but at the time I got another “I’m sorry”.
My bump started showing very quickly which meant people in the office had to recognize my pregnancy well before I made the official announcement*. The reactions I got from other women colleagues ranged from joy to disappointment. When I said I would take a year off I would usually get a faintly superior smile of condescendence. I found this incredibly annoying, but then I realised there is a whole generation of women in this sector who have passionately struggled to ensure there was a clear space for them (and every woman that followed) who now might feel a bit let down when one of their peers decides not to take advantage of it. I might become a social pariah for saying this, but irrespective of their marital status and progeny there is a worrying number of lonely women in the humanitarian sector and we should talk about it (editor note: and then there are SAFHAWs but we need to still talk about it).
Being pregnant also meant I had to slow down, not only because it’s the sensible thing to do but also because I had already lost a baby three years ago. So with this pregnancy I decided not to travel much. This changed the way other people perceived my work. It had a positive effect because suddenly what I did in the field was appreciated and needed. But it also meant that I was not considered for other opportunities and promotions. For me, it changed the way I approached my work and it also allowed me to re-align my priorities which can sometimes be very difficult to do in this sector where everything is tagged with ‘life saving’ and ‘emergency’.
Some months later I wrote a long handover note and left the office with a nice mani pedi voucher in hand. The first couple of weeks I checked my email almost every day (sometimes twice a day) and kept on following the news and the discussions on development blogs and publications. But the minute I gave birth it was like if someone used one of those mind clearing devices that Will Smith uses in Men in Black. In the first couple of months I was so concentrated on understanding what to do and how to survive with 3 hours of sleep a day that I didn’t have time to remember what life was like before. Then when I (kind of) got the hang of it, I tried to remember in between feeding the baby. I visited the office to show him off (and the only non pregnancy outfit that fitted) and I even attended a meeting. But still I felt so far removed from the people and their conversations** that it was difficult to relate to that person I was before having my baby. But now that he is 7 months old and I’m thinking of going back to work, I’m not even trying to remember how life was before. I don’t feel I need to. Thank you Will Smith.
What I’m trying to figure out now is how do women in this sector do the whole baby and work thing? Can we really have it all? I know some women have made it work and have rewarding jobs working and bringing up their children in places like Sudan (‘where nannies are cheaper’). Other have married other people in the sector who are happy living in Democratic Republic of Congo or moving to Bangladesh and looking after the babies.
But what happens to the other women who, like me, don’t have a partner who is able to leave everything and move to the Philippines to look after the baby? How will I ever get back on the ladder if getting a job in the field is not as feasible as it was anymore? Should I just accept my fate and open a shop in Muswell Hill?
If anyone has an answer to any of these questions I’d really like to know.
Paula Gil Baizan
* Note to self: announcing you’re pregnant at the end of a team meeting by saying “by the way I’m not fat, just pregnant” is probably not the best idea.
** Warning: After you’d had a baby no one will talk to you about anything else but babies. Even if your baby is not around and all you’d like to do is have a drink and talk about Mali people will still think it is important to honor your condition and talk about nappys.
There are a few other posts on the blog about balancing work and life which might be an interested read after reading Paula post.
Work life balance: How we can put “work” and “life” on equal levels.
Can women establish a healthy work/ life balance in the aid industry?
It would be great if you can all post articles and/or links that you have on humanitarian women writing about these issues….we’ve all talked about it but it’s difficult to actually see it written down anywhere!
This is such a great post! Thanks so much for sharing, Paula. And I remember getting an email from you when you were on maternity leave before the baby came and you were in fact checking emails and asking me to send you reading on urban disasters. LOL. I think I would be the same way. Wanting to maintain those links.
Love how you’ve written about the opportunities that came up while you were pregnant and the decisions you had to make (or those that were made for you with an ‘oh sorry’). I was on the hiring end of a woman who told me in her second interview she was pregnant. It’s a whole other post on my reactions and how it all worked out in the end, but I would by lying if I didn’t say it was totally on my mind. Our organizational cultures still do not allow us to take pregnancy and maternity leaves in stride. Not sure WHAT we have to do for this to change still, but at least talking about it openly is a great first step….interested to hear other views! And thanks again for writing such a great piece.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts and feelings and writing this great post. I suppose that this is a very difficult topic for many people. I don’t have kids yet but I have some friends working in development who have had babies more or less recently and I am curious how they will manage working it out eventually. One very explicitly told me that she is considering looking for another job because she will not be able to travel anymore because of her partner’s job not allowing him to look after their son during her prolonged absence.
It seems really hard to find solutions, especially when you live in places where you don’t have many family or friends around to support you at times or offer some “emergency baby-sitting services” or something like that.
From what I have experienced and what you write, there is still a large gap between the “family-friendly” policies which many organizations have been developing and the required change in organizational culture. This seems to be a general issue in other branches, too, and there is seemingly even less of a discussion around this in the development sector, maybe because there are so many women who, once they have babies, leave the sector and are looking for other jobs (which is my assumption, not backed by any empirical data). So thanks a lot for raising this topic and writing about your experience.
I wish you all the best for finding out what will work out best for you!