Ten years ago, I was in the office staring at my computer screen, guarding a precious and vulnerable secret when I felt a stabbing pain in my abdomen. I rushed into the bathroom with my cell phone, and from behind the aluminum stall door, I googled, “Am I having a miscarriage?” I desperately scrolled to the bottom of message board threads all the way back to 2002 for any futile signs of hope that my blip from the ultrasound weeks prior would make it.
Within 24 hours, I was back at work, which was frankly where I wanted to be. It was comforting to feel capable. On my way home, I went to a follow-up doctor’s appointment to confirm if there was anything “left to take care of.” In the gray office, I looked at the nurse, a safe harbor of calm, and said to her, “I failed.” Tears finally escaped and rolled down my cheeks.
After years of committing to studying harder, working longer, saying “yes” to anything that I could for my career so that someday I could “have it all,” this felt like my body saying “no” to something much more important to me. I felt so very alone.
The brush with loss was my first foray into working motherhood. Before I had my first child—before the belly and the pregnancy leave (which I was so fortunate to have)—I was already managing the dynamics of balancing work, starting a family, and my own considerable ambition. But the truth is, I was not, in fact, alone.
From that moment forward, I often told my story behind closed doors, in an effort to build community around this extraordinary—and also somehow completely ordinary—milestone. In 2020, inspired by both the pandemic’s dire effect on women in the workforce and their profound strength through it, I began writing my new book Carry Strong: An Empowered Approach to Navigating Pregnancy and Work to extend that community. I interviewed hundreds of inspiring women who shared their hard-earned expertise and deeply personal stories so that their hindsight could be someone else’s foresight.
Whether pregnancy begins abruptly or after proactive egg retrieval or after decades of mental gymnastics to weigh the pros and cons of timing, there is no question that the whole journey is a rollercoaster. And at work, even the most textbook of pregnancies can feel overwhelming. You pass one checkpoint and then there’s an appointment, a test, the sharing of news with your unsuspecting colleagues, the symptoms, a big moment at work or a new boss, then new symptoms, more appointments, more questions, and, yes, celebrations.
For Lauren Smith Brody, CEO of The Fifth Trimester, a resource for new moms going back to work after having a baby, and co-founder of the nonprofit the Chamber of Mothers, making meaningful connections with others is essential to handling these hurdles. “When you’re going through something so hard for the first time, it’s so easy to think: I’m just not trying hard enough, or there’s something wrong with me. You blame yourself and feel guilty. But that gets us nowhere,” she says. “Instead, look around you, and find connections with other colleagues or friends—pregnant or trying or not—who may need some of the same solutions and work together to speak up. You’re helping yourself, yes, but also anyone around you whose voice can’t be as loud.”
With my second child, despite the fact that I had been pregnant at work before and was bolstered with a community of support, I still felt the weight of navigating new, unanticipated challenges. I worked right up until the day before I would be induced because of a high-risk condition I had been managing for the last five months. But I also now recognized my strength in these moments too. Before heading home and to the hospital, I gave a presentation to a group of interns, probably terrifying them that I would go into labor at any minute. Instead of feeling nervous or exhausted, I felt incredible. This ordinary moment was elevated. It was as if the same positive, capable feeling that work had given me after suffering my first loss was amplified, so close to the end of this next chapter and with my giant belly.
I asked many women in my book who they would most like to thank for their support during this time. Kathryn Sukey, Head of Design at Draper James, simply responded, “myself.”
That’s just it. There is transformation through the fear, joy, and connection in these moments, where we cultivate a stronger, more authentic version of ourselves. Becoming a mother gave me resolute clarity of perspective with a newfound confidence—empowering me so others could be too.
Here are three things I learned on my journey to working motherhood to support you now or in the future:
1. You are not alone. Whether you realize it or not, many, many women (and men) are experiencing the same feelings of fear, desperation, worry, but also hope, drive and joy that you are. A contributor recounted the first time she entered an overflowing fertility-clinic waiting room—and suddenly felt like the whole city was in the same boat—sneaking in as the sun came up to be poked and prodded before running off to work. While everyone’s experience is incredibly unique, there are others walking the same path beside you.
2. Your community is your asset. It’s incredibly important—even, and especially, in the darkest moments, but also in the moments of celebration—to create a system of support. Curate a personal board of directors, including hype-women and the tough love types who will tell you the hard things you may not want to hear—maybe you shouldn’t make a big move right now or you need another advocate in your corner with you for what’s next. Value your network of mentors, advocates, and allies–and pay it forward. Remember that different perspectives are invaluable, but each decision is your own.
3. Together, we can flip the script to create a more positive and empowering pregnancy experience. The antiquated stigma around pregnancy and work will take time to fade, but we all have an opportunity—and responsibility—to repave the path for those who will come after us. Neha Ruch, founder of Mother Untitled, recently shared with me the importance of “elevating the more positive possibilities” for working mothers, infusing all of the many phases with power and dignity. Be that boss who made you feel safe and empowered when you shared your pregnancy news. And if you didn’t have that boss, become that boss when you get the opportunity for others. Be the co-worker ally who truly listens, who says, “I’m here for whatever you need” and really means it. And most importantly, with your community of support beside you, take up space and raise your hand– for you now and as you become a role model to someone really special.
Stephanie Kramer is the author of Carry Strong: An Empowered Approach to Navigating Pregnancy and Work (Penguin Life, May 2023). Stephanie is CHRO of L’Oréal USA and teaches management communication on the graduate business program at the Fashion Institute of Technology where she serves on the program’s Industry Advisory Board. Stephanie has two young children.