I quit the postal service in December, a couple months after finding out I was pregnant.
It was my choice, but I had no choice: as the holiday season neared it would be increasingly common to be scheduled seven days a week, 10 to 13 hours a day. This was both physically and psychologically impossible, but during the holidays, working less than seven days a week simply wasn’t allowed. My boss knew I was pregnant–I had told him–but he ignored my requests for a day of recovery time each week. When I finally called in sick one Sunday, out of sheer exhaustion, he threatened to write up a formal disciplinary note; sick days were considered “abandoning duties.” I knew it was a risky move, since I had been reprimanded after missing a day earlier that year due to strep throat (confirmed by a doctor’s note), but I mistakenly thought they would have sympathy on a pregnant woman.
Labor laws were no help. As a non-career carrier, what work you are allowed to refuse to do is a very grey area, even for my unionized workplace. I was a second-tier member of the union with no accumulated paid time off and no maternity leave; I was a federal worker, so I was exempt from Connecticut law and had no sick leave; and I’d worked there less than a year, so I didn’t qualify for Family Medical Leave Act guarantees of unpaid time off for prenatal appointments or post-delivery recovery.
My union steward only told me to do whatever management asked. When I asked what I should do after management expectations became unreasonable, she said, “I don’t know, suffer?”
My last day was a frigid and rainy Wednesday. I was lost on a long, unfamiliar route–dirt roads darkened by the early winter sunset–in my truck overloaded with parcels and mail. Still in my first trimester, I was starving, tired, and needed a bathroom, with only the woods to serve as one. By the end of the 13-hour shift I found myself casually considering ending the misery and letting my truck drift off the road. I didn’t, but when I finally made it back to the post office, the door was locked and the lights were out; my supervisor had forgotten I was still on the road. I stood in the rain outside and cried. Then I decided I would never come back.
After my “voluntary” resignation, it became clear that searching for a new job would be even more dreadful than normal because of the pregnancy. My husband and I needed the second income as soon as possible, of course, but the deadline for getting hired was determined by my ever-expanding stomach. My ability to hide my body under a long sweater decreases by the week, as does my desirability as a candidate. Some expecting mothers gaze at their profiles in a mirror with joy and awe; as my anxiety grows, I practice different postures and different ways of sucking in the stubborn bump.
Pregnancy discrimination laws were not written for workers like me, whose resumes are an assortment of lateral movements between service and blue-collar positions. It’s hard to prove that your obvious pregnancy was why you weren’t hired when your “qualifications” are tenuous at best; the handful of successful discrimination cases filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission tend to feature a rescinded job offer after notice of an applicant’s pregnancy (or some bumbling manager’s outright admission of discrimination). I never heard back from the temp agency I spoke with the other week, but I’ll never find out why; did they notice the bump? Or did I just have a bad reference? Without a distinct career path or an accumulation of coherent qualifications, unemployment feels like a basic condition of pregnancy.
A friend recently told me about a new hire at her own workplace. “Our IT guy hired someone while she was four or five months pregnant,” she said, “because he ‘thought she was just fat,’ and he got a lot of shit for it.” That kind of thing is my best case scenario.
Misogyny doesn’t fully explain this grey-area discrimination. It’s obviously a gendered experience, but pregnant bodies inspire contempt because they threaten disrupted operations and lost profit. A pregnant body can’t always be forced to work seven days a week, a loss of control over labor that infuriates capitalism. In more privileged work spaces, pregnant workers can demand reduced workloads or paid time off, and can exercise the legal rights that are written with them in mind. But more vulnerable workers, in service and blue-collar sectors, must neutralize their body’s threat to profit. We will perform manual labor, hide our pregnancies on the job (like a postal service coworker who worried about her hours getting cut), and manage with minimal unpaid time off in one of the 46 unlucky states that don’t require paid family leave; meanwhile, undocumented workers have little to no legal recourse at all, even for overt discrimination.
My cousin was recently fired from a position while on unofficial, unpaid “maternity leave”; because she was a recent hire, she didn’t qualify for FMLA. After her termination, she was denied unemployment because she was attending a trade school, and thus, she not “available for work” or “actively looking for work.” There would have been no work for her to look for or be available for; in rural Connecticut, the few available living-wage jobs tend to require pursuing a new associate degree or certification.
Even so, low-wage workers in an underserved pocket of Connecticut like my cousin and I are still among the more privileged pregnant workers left behind by existing policy: we’re white and we’re married to employed partners, with supportive families nearby. Imagine the discrimination against pregnant workers of color, workers without a social safety net, or with other disabilities; imagine the toothlessness of anti-discrimination policies compounded by race and citizenship status.
Progressive politicians who focus on expanding paid maternity and paternity leave tend to leave these more fundamental labor issues unaddressed, because their proposals presume middle- and upper-class privilege—not because universal policies are impossible, but because the rhetoric of universality obscures material reality. I want six months of paid maternity leave, of course, but I don’t trust those who didn’t anticipate gaps in existing policy, that left me behind, to give it to me. I was pushed out of a steady job because these same progressives never saw the need for federal paid sick leave or a more universal FMLA; I’m stuck begging for a livelihood halfway through a pregnancy when there could be expanded unemployment benefits and paid leave untethered from employment status. Politicians without experience of these realities tend not to write effective, universal policies.
My union didn’t protect me, but I believe in the collective power of more radical unions to fill gaps in policy. Workers are the experts in how discrimination and coercion actually happen. Because labor laws and discrimination policies grafted onto a system structured by a power imbalance between employer and employee will always be insufficient, unions have to challenge it in the workplace and in the political sphere. Worker movements need to introduce more radical demands, like wages for housework, job guarantees, and universal basic income.
As for me, I’ll be putting “an end to wage labor” on my baby registry.