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[OPINION] Being pregnant is not a choice, having a baby is

I am the mum of four planned children. There are, in my view, many unplanned pregnancies, but all children are planned.

In the 1990s I had a corporate career and measurable opportunities. I have no unpleasant memories of a glass ceiling or the discrimination women face in the workspace. Maybe I was lucky. I felt my promotions were earned, my expertise was acknowledged, I had tremendous opportunities to explore and become competent in various fields of human resources.

However, the labour law was (and remains) flawed regarding moms in the workplace. I was in a two-income household so I didn’t feel the effects of the discrimination until I started looking at maternity policies as part of my job.

My last position was in international marketing. I worked in eleven African countries and my mandate was to research and develop HR policies and benefits for our employees in those countries. This meant forging relationships with competitors in our field, the government departments dealing with labour legislation and being familiar with general practices and principles in those countries. In doing so, I had reason to question some of our labour legislation at home. Then and now corporations can make innovative decisions which will bring equality and equity among their staff complement by scrutinising development areas.

In her book Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg writes that she only thought about pregnancy and pregnant employees once she herself was pregnant and had to walk a mile from her parking to her office. We need more women and men to champion opportunities for families with working moms to plan their families without it being a secret or having to be apologetic at work. HR career plans can accommodate family planning if the company chooses to acknowledge realities around pregnancy, job opportunities and how many high-skilled, high-earning, competent women are flushed out of the system when they choose to be mothers. It is possible to be both.

In South African in the 1990s maternity benefits implied I had 6 months off to have and be with my baby. The first three months were fully paid and the last three months were paid at a third of my salary and I could claim the rest back from the Unemployment Insurance Fund (that meant I was claiming back my own contribution?).

I found that to be blatantly discriminatory. At some stage, as part of my research I approached the head of industrial relations and labour law at our firm. I asked him how we justified paying a man who had an injury or operation that was unplanned but necessary his full salary for 6 months or longer, but our maternity payments and benefits were so glaringly unfair. He did not see his way clear to hear me, to apply logic or physiology to my question. I felt like I was talking to him from underwater and in very slow motion. That conversation has remained incomplete.

Among my investigations on the continent, I discovered that nursing moms are allowed an hour a day to go home and breastfeed their babies after they had returned to work from maternity leave. In our Burundi office, I experienced a brother bringing his niece to her mum to be fed. It was an unforgettable moment. She told me it would be impractical for her to find her way home and get back to work. She and the baby were less stressed if the baby came to her. I wondered whether policymakers realised that most working women, given the choice, would appreciate the option but would probably adjust their circumstances to accommodate their baby and their job. We seldom do one or the other - we are mostly multiskilled.

In 2017 no legislation covers this unless there is a collective agreement in place between unions and their employers. Currently, the full confinement period is unpaid and you have to claim from UIF, where you still get a portion of your salary, not full pay.

There are many companies who are progressive and have fair maternity leave benefits. As a mother, I feel more mothers should be allowed to spend 6 months or longer with their babies without having the extra and unfair financial constraints. Some are forced to leave their young babies with incompetent helpers who are unemployed and affordable. Women should not be penalised for having a baby.

Whether fathers and partners need more than 3 or 4 days off for paternity leave is a new debate and it is changing in the world where there is more balance between parents raising children. It is becoming more traditional for fathers and partners to be equal and active baby minders and carers.

It is my belief that companies could do more to promote reproductive health training and education for staff. Many men and women alike need the exposure. Employee care departments at some companies offer advice, family planning and counselling as a basic condition of employment.

Many mothers need to work to maintain their families and many want to have careers and babies. This possibility must be created; we cannot keep accommodating pregnant women as if it’s a favour or treating pregnancy as a shame or inconvenience. Like death, it is one of the surest realities of life.

The lady who works for us at home got married a few years ago and within a few months she scheduled a meeting with my husband and I to enquire how it would impact her employment contract if she were to have a baby. They were keen to start a family. As a result of that conversation we were able to plan what to do while she was off work and how we would ensure she received her full salary. We even discussed what our requirements of her were as our childminder and cleaner, so she could decide whether or not she could still meet our needs with a young family. She recruited the lady who worked in her place, trained her and everything was communicated, planned and organised. It worked very well and having that open line of communication convinces me that there must be space in the employment of women to have honest conversations about their family planning and if they have intentions to start or expand their families. Their jobs and work commitments and career ambitions can be accommodated.
It is not unreasonable to need time off to have a baby. It is a natural process for families to expand. Planning a pregnancy must surely be better for all involved -the company and the family - if there is a safe work environment within which to include it in your career plan.

There are planned and unplanned pregnancies, so the law may consider pregnancy a choice. Who has the baby, the morning sickness, the discomfort walking, sitting, sleeping, the stretch marks, the labour pains, weight gain, the heartburn, the confinement: these are really not a choice. I would maybe have preferred my husband to have two pregnancies and I would take two. That would be fair, but it is not reasonable.

Lisa Joshua Sonn is a social activist. Follow her on Twitter: @annalisasonn

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