Q: I have worked at a smallish company (about 100 employees) for six years. Only one other employee has ever taken maternity leave there. Earlier this year, I was thrilled to find I was expecting. I was working on a list of transition items when I unexpectedly went into labor eight weeks early and delivered my son, who ended up spending the first six weeks of his life in the NICU.
Three days after his birth, while I was still in the hospital, my supervisor called, wanting to discuss work-related issues. When I did not immediately pick up, she called my husband. She told me I needed to come into the office the next day at 8 a.m. to sort my work in progress. Against my better judgment, I did. She arrived two hours late and was upset that we didn’t have more time to meet. Afterward, she emailed me a list of tasks to accomplish by the end of the week. I did most of them, but then told her I was on maternity leave and stopped checking my email. I think our firm’s leadership told her to back off.
Now that I am back at work, I am struggling to forget how she treated me. Any advice?
A: Consider this a crash course in work-life balance. On one hand, you’re responsible for supporting a helpless, underdeveloped creature that depends entirely on you for survival — and then your baby arrives two months ahead of schedule.
My most charitable take is that your supervisor’s sole exposure to working moms has been “inspirational” tales about champion childbirthers who email from the delivery room and are back at their desks two weeks later, and so she didn’t fully grasp that she was making unreasonable demands of someone recovering from a traumatizing medical event.
My less charitable take: She’s an incompetent, self-absorbed ding-dong.
At any rate, your higher-ups were smart to collar the ding-dong before she got them into legal trouble. According to employment attorney Tom Spiggle of Spiggle Law Firm, it’s generally permissible for employers to briefly contact employees on family or medical leave for updates or quick questions related to work. But demanding that they interrupt their recovery to come into the office and complete a series of tasks could constitute interference with their rights under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, not to mention potentially jeopardizing any short-term disability benefits you’re entitled to.
Now that you’re back at work — I hope after a long, peaceful period of recovery and bonding with your little gate-crasher — you may want to discuss your experience informally with HR, for your sake and other prospective parents’. Spiggle cautions against threatening legal action if you want to stay with this company, but simply asking for clarification on leave policies might inspire HR to revisit those policies and ensure that managers are properly counseled on them. Bonus: Having that conversation on the record could be helpful if your supervisor tries to retaliate against you for having taken leave.
Speaking of: I don’t know if forgetting your supervisor’s behavior is possible, but you may be able to move past it if you tell yourself she was so overwhelmed by fear and uncertainty that she couldn’t see beyond the wants of the moment, and doubling down on her demands was the only reaction she was developmentally capable of. Consider it practice for the toddler years.