I had timed everything perfectly. My 4-year-old was on the couch watching “Paw Patrol” while I bopped around the kitchen, lulling my infant to sleep in the baby carrier. I had 15 minutes before I had to lead a webinar, and I needed him to sleep. I couldn’t risk him crying and having to explain the noise. My job knew I was a mom; they just had no idea I had given birth to an entirely new human six months ago ― and I was too deep in the lie to risk getting caught now.
I worked for a city agency remotely as a contractor. It started as a temporary seasonal gig one summer but when fall rolled around, they kept me on. They kept extending my “temp” position until it began to feel permanent, minus any real benefits or paid time off. In the four years I worked for them, I worked hard to prove myself invaluable. Yet, they never offered me a permanent position, and I was too scared to ask for one. I felt like I had hit the mom-job lottery, working remotely with a flexible schedule, and I was afraid to push my luck.
Then I got pregnant with our second child. After the overwhelming exhaustion that is the first trimester wore off and the pregnancy had entered the “announcement” phase, I wasn’t debating whether to tell my job ― I just didn’t know how. Was this the kind of news I shared over email? What was the remote-work pregnancy disclosure etiquette? I started to wonder if I would even bring it up at all.
Before I had the chance to figure out how to work my pregnancy into the conversation, I was offered the chance to lead a project that would begin, you guessed it, the week of my due date. This was a huge opportunity and turning it down would mean walking away from a raise. So, without even really thinking about the logistics of how I’d pull it off, I accepted the project.
After I got off the phone with my supervisor, the excitement about my raise started to wear off as the reality of what I had just committed to started to sink in. I decided I wasn’t going to tell them I was about to have another baby. I was scared they wouldn’t trust that I could handle a newborn and my workload at the same time. I worried that if I told them I could be in labor during the first few days of the project, they’d offer it to someone else.
I knew they couldn’t fire me because I was pregnant, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t passively lighten my load. I had seen it before ― other women being passed over for opportunities because they were about to go on maternity leave, or had just come back from one. Plus, as an hourly worker with no benefits, that meant no paid time off, and we needed the money, so I committed to keeping the pregnancy a secret.
When my husband got home from work that night, I told him about my plan. He thought I was insane, but he was used to me biting off more than I could chew work-wise, so he knew better than to try to convince me otherwise. “I just don’t know how you’re not going to accidentally slip,” he said.
It turns out it’s easy to hide a pregnancy when you work remotely. As my stomach grew, I strategically positioned the camera to hide it from view. As my due date neared, it got harder to hide. I’m sure my team probably thought to themselves, man, she got fat ... while staring at my swollen face over Zoom as I struggled to catch my breath every few seconds. I thought about telling them so many times, but I had made it nearly nine months, and the project I was leading was about to launch. I was committed to the lie and past the point of no return. It was similar to when you forget someone’s name, but you’ve known them way too long to admit it, so you just keep hoping it never comes up.
At one point it dawned on me that even though I was very careful not to accidentally mention the pregnancy during a work call or in an email, I was blasting it all over the internet through my social media accounts. I frantically Googled myself to see if any evidence of my pregnancy could be found online. I deleted my last name from my Instagram bio, scrolled through my followers to make sure no one even remotely connected to my employer was following me, and hoped for the best.
At 38 weeks, my body decided it was done being pregnant and I developed gestational hypertension. On the way to be induced, I sent emails to my team saying I had a “family emergency” and would be out for the day. After a 15-hour induction, I gave birth to a sweet 6-pound baby boy, and the hole I had dug for myself got a heck of a lot deeper.
“I was scared they wouldn’t trust that I could handle a newborn and my workload at the same time. I worried that if I told them I could be in labor during the first few days of the project, they’d offer it to someone else.”
When my husband returned to work after his way-too-brief parental leave, I navigated breastfeeding a newborn between meetings and caring for my older son. My supervisor and I had become close over the years, even though we’d never met in person, and we often shared stories about our children over email. It felt so weird for me to be talking about my older son without mentioning that I had a whole other person in my family now. But even though the project I was working on was well underway and I no longer had to worry about getting passed over for opportunities, I figured they would think I was crazy for having kept this a secret in the first place.
Three months into my ruse, COVID hit, and things got even more complicated. My older son’s school shut down, first for “just two weeks...” and then, similar to my temporary contract employment, things just kept getting extended without any talk of whether it was permanent. Emails between my supervisor and I got even more personal as we shared the struggles of juggling impromptu home schooling and work. She told me deeply intimate things about her life and her struggles as a wife, mom and fellow human during the pandemic. As I held my newborn baby while writing back without any mention of his presence, I felt like a terrible person for not being equally as vulnerable and open with her.
I would think about telling her often, in between my stories about bread making or my older son’s Zoom lunch dates with his preschool teacher. I thought maybe I’d just casually mention the baby, as if she’d always known about him. Maybe she’d worry that in all the craziness of the last few months she forgot I had a baby, we’d both just never mention it again and I could rid myself of the guilt that was gnawing at me. I held myself back from telling her, though, mostly because I realized how ridiculous it was that I even felt like I had to keep it a secret to begin with.
It became a joke among my friends ― my hidden baby. Some of them genuinely didn’t understand why I kept him a secret, asking me “...you just didn’t feel like telling them or…?” Others were impressed that I managed to keep such an enormous secret throughout an entire pregnancy and for six months of being a mom to a child I never mentioned. My more level-headed friends encouraged me to come clean, but after all the soul-baring emails my supervisor and I had exchanged about our lockdown lives, I just didn’t have the heart to admit what I’d done.
Once my project wrapped, I was laid off and thereby spared from ever having to admit I had been hiding a baby. Now that I’ve had some distance from it all, I realize just how sad it is that I felt like I had to carry the lie of omission in the first place. Despite laws to protect a pregnant person from being fired or discriminated against, the problem persists and is pervasive.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, nearly 85% of women will become mothers at some point during their careers. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act passed in 1978 technically protects a pregnant person’s workplace rights. Yet, tens of thousands of discrimination claims are filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and Fair Employment Practices Agency each year. I’d like to think my story is an outlier, but unfortunately, the data says otherwise.
A year later, I was hired full time by a family-friendly company. Now I no longer need to time naps around work calls or hide the number of people in my family. I have unlimited paid time off and health benefits. The organization embraces parenthood and prides itself on hiring moms with gaps in their resumes due to raising kids, a demographic that often finds themselves snubbed by hiring managers. As I toss Cheerios onto my now toddler’s tray during team sync, I’m glad to be past the point of having to live a lie. And no, my former employer still doesn’t know I hid my pregnancy, birth and six months of my son’s life from them ― although I guess the secret’s out now.
Christine Hernandez is a birth doula, educator and writer focused on pregnancy, parenting and chronicling her own journey through motherhood. She lives in New York with her husband, their two children and a tabby cat named Eloise. In between raising humans and watering her plants, she writes parenting and early education resources for Winnie.com. You can find her on Twitter at @ahhitschristine.