Correction: An earlier version of this story identified Elizabeth Siler as an associate professor at Worcester College. She is a professor at Worcester State University in Worcester, Massachusetts.
When Katy Lucey began to miscarry at work, she tried to hide what was happening from her colleagues. Her body tightened in painful contractions, to the point that she doubled over in pain.
“Now knowing what labor is like, it is like that,” she says. “It was terrible. Not only do you have the physical reminder, it’s an emotional reminder, too.”
- Many women are encouraged to keep the pregnancy private until after the first trimester.
- Some don't feel close enough with their coworkers to open up about any personal life details.
- But others stay silent because they fear pregnancy-related discrimination or other shame or stigma.
Eventually she was in such pain that she told her then-boss she was sick and needed to leave the office. But he wasn’t as sympathetic as she’d hoped. He asked her to stay available for a call and to update him when she got back online.
Maybe, she admits, that’s because she wasn’t completely honest with him about what was happening.
“I’ve been very open with everyone I work with [now]. ‘You remember that day? I was having a miscarriage,’” she says. “But for some reason, in the moment, I couldn’t say it.”
Miscarriage is common. Around 10% of all pregnancies end in miscarriage, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. But so many women are reluctant to talk about it with their employer or coworkers, out of shame or fear of discrimination.
A culture of silence
Because almost 80% of miscarriages happen in the first trimester, many women are encouraged to keep the pregnancy private until they are at least 12 weeks along. After crossing that threshold, some feel “safe” sharing the news with friends, family and coworkers.
“What that notion means is ‘don’t let people know you’re pregnant until you’re pregnancy is far enough along that it’s not going to be lost,’” says Mindy Bergman, professor of psychology at Texas A&M University. “That’s what we mean when we say ‘safe.’ So there’s already from the very beginning this stigma, this shame for the potential of losing it.”
After her miscarriage, Lucey says she felt “broken,” like she had failed at “being a woman.” She dreaded having to tell the few people who knew she was pregnant. But she eventually found more comfort by opening up.
“What’s so crazy is through having my miscarriage, I found out how many people I knew had miscarriages,” she says. “And I’m like ‘I wish you would have told me.’”
In a male-dominated workplace, especially, women may dread having to have the “pregnancy conversation” at all — much less a follow-up about a miscarriage that can be so painful.
“The reason I think that it’s so taboo is you’re doubly failing,” says Elizabeth Siler, associate professor of management at Worcester State University. “The reason you’re failing is because you’re pregnant, then you’re failing at being pregnant. The idea that the workplace is neutral is not true. We pretend it’s neutral, but it’s male.”
Some women don’t feel close enough with their coworkers to open up about aspects of their personal life, let alone about something as potentially painful as a miscarriage.
But other women may stay silent because they fear pregnancy-related discrimination or other ramifications to their job, Bergman says.
“[Revealing a miscarriage] certainly gives the sense that this is where your life is, so now whether or not you are a mommy, you are on this mommy track,” she says. “There’s all the research that shows the motherhood penalties, so I’m not sure why you would want to reveal it unless you absolutely had to, given the awareness.”
In some industries, especially those involving manual labor, the pregnancy and miscarriage conversations become even more important. In those cases, the day-to-day work may not be safe. Some workplaces, however, don’t seem to care — a heartbreaking New York Times investigation from October interviewed women who said they lost their pregnancies as a result.
“At work, we assume having a body is a bad thing. When your coworker gets sick, you’re like ‘Oh no, now I have to cover,’” Siler says.
Lucey, a marketer in Atlanta, acknowledged the privilege she had in her job, to both work from home that day and also to rely on her supportive husband. But she also carefully considered how disclosing her miscarriage could be perceived by the men in her workplace.
“I think a lot of times when women are going through this at work, they don’t want to be seen as lesser-than,” she says. “They don’t want it to affect their standing in the company or their job performance. That’s also why they don’t say anything.”
More awareness of the prevalence of miscarriage, coupled with a greater understanding for women and their bodies, could help women navigate this issue at work, Siler says.
“We should talk about it at work because it’s normal,” Siler says. ”This is something that happens and it’s OK.’ … Every pregnancy does not end in a living, healthy baby. We assume it does. This is normal, it happens all the time, and we shouldn’t be ashamed of it.”