When I found out I was pregnant last year, I was elated. And totally freaked out.
See, I’d recently made a big career change, leaving higher education after almost 10 years to join Culture Amp, a high-growth tech startup. So much for that 401K with great matching, years of accrued leave, and the security that comes with working for an institution that’s been around for hundreds of years. Had I made a big mistake jumping from stability to startup right before deciding to start a family?
Then, in the midst of my existential crisis, I started throwing up. Not just a little, in the typical cute, early-pregnancy fashion. I threw up a lot.
It began the Monday before Thanksgiving. I called out of work for a few days with “a stomach bug.” I figured I’d use the holiday to adjust to the morning sickness and then I’d be back on my feet. But it didn’t stop. By Friday, I was so sick I couldn’t even keep ice chips down—let alone get out of bed.
After an emergency visit to my OB-GYN, the verdict was in: I was one of roughly 1-3% of pregnant women (including Kate Middleton!), identified as having developed hyperemesis gravidarum (HG). HG is a pregnancy condition marked by symptoms such as severe nausea and vomiting that can last the duration of a pregnancy. Apparently, this wasn’t going to be one of those blissful, glowing pregnancies you see on TV. Far from it.
Culture Amp’s mission to build a “culture-first” company that put employees at the forefront hooked me on the spot during the interview process. But 90 days into my new role, there was no way I could get myself out of bed—and, honestly, I wasn’t sure if that’d change over the next eight months. So right off the bat, I was going to get to see just how true to its values my new company was.
I made a video call from bed to tell my boss what was going on. My heart was pounding in anticipation of what she’d say.
To my surprise, she didn’t react with horror or panic. Instead, she congratulated me, told me she was sorry I was so sick, and asked how she could help. In past jobs, this might have meant looking through the company handbook for information on unpaid medical leave. But instead, what we did was work together to explore a flexible work policy. We didn’t focus on what couldn’t happen, but on what could. We took apart the pieces of my role and put them back together in a way that would work in my new (and, for lack of a better term, “pukey”) circumstances.
Other than telling my boss, I did my best to keep the situation under wraps for the first few months, nervous about announcing my pregnancy before I made it to the second trimester. This took some creativity and maneuvering—you can’t exactly let on that you have persistent vomiting with no explanation and expect people not to treat you like you have the plague. Instead, I tried to hide the fact that I was actually vomiting and told anyone who noticed that I was having some health issues, but that they weren’t anything to worry about. To be honest, the fact that my illness first hit at the end of the year when everyone was distracted by the holidays also helped me slide under the radar.
When the second trimester began, I finally told the rest of my team. I didn’t want to keep being dishonest with them—and I needed their help. Across the board, everyone was incredibly kind and supportive. From volunteering to help out with my projects to moving meetings to the middle of the day when I felt the best to giving me pregnancy pops to help with nausea, they were wonderful.
Of course, even with the support of my colleagues, doing my best to do my job and enthusiastically connect with new members of our community (while trying not to throw up) was tough. To top it off, the medication I took for HG is also sold as a sleeping pill. If you’ve ever taken a sleeping pill a bit too late on a plane and woken up upon landing still in a haze, you’ve had a taste of what living on them day after day is like.
To make it work, I got creative with my schedule. I worked whenever I could—be it early in the morning or late at night. I worked from home and took naps during the day. I wrote emails in the middle of the night and scheduled their delivery so no one would know they were written at 3 AM. I added co-workers to meetings (with their approval, of course) so that someone could cover for me if I had to cancel at the last minute.
I know how lucky I was to have such a supportive boss, team, and company. But the good news is that not everything that helped me during my difficult pregnancy was formal or company-sponsored policy. For example, during my pregnancy, some colleagues and I started our own parents’ group and met once a month to chat about life with kids and the ever-present challenge of work-life integration. HG also turned out to be an excellent opportunity for me to practice prioritizing, as well as to implement some tricks that are also helping me now that I’m back from maternity leave and working while seriously sleep deprived.
Above all, my experience with HG reminded me of the importance of not being afraid to think differently. Especially in our work lives, it’s easy to become complacent and assume that things have to be done the way they’ve always been done.
But just because flexible work policies aren’t common or formalized in your workplace doesn’t mean you can’t work with a direct report to develop a creative plan for how they can do their job well while also taking care of their health during pregnancy. If you’re in a position of leadership, think about how you can pioneer policies and a culture that set up pregnant women (and others!) for success.
Being pregnant—even with a pregnancy complication like HG—shouldn’t mean you aren’t able to pursue your career goals. After all, if I was able to meet the expectations of my role while throwing up for nine months, imagine what I can do now.