Pregnancy discrimination nearly killed my baby – I'll never forgive my manager
Pregnancy discrimination nearly took the life of Oonagh Van den Berg's firstborn child, Autumn.
The Northern Ireland native was 29 at the time, working in Singapore. Her pregnancy wasn't planned and she was single. Although she was embracing the idea of raising a child on her own, Oonagh soon realised that she was in an "environment where people weren't familiar with single mothers."
Opening up about the horrific pregnancy discrimination she went on to face, Oonagh tells me: "It was an absolutely, incredibly horrible situation, and I wouldn't wish it on anybody."
The truth about pregnancy discrimination
Just before her 30th birthday, having a child was most certainly not on the cards for Oonagh. "I was single, my career was everything. I was living – in inverted commas – my best life."
In fact, she wasn't even "bothered" or viewed it as pregnancy discrimination when her new boss – a female – told her not to get pregnant for 18 months due to the intensity of the role. That is, until she discovered she was expecting.
In a new country, facing life as a single mother and without her usual network of friends and family, the questions came in quick.
"Every day they were asking me what I was eating, and where my husband was," she reveals. "Perhaps it was down to cultural differences, but it was clear that I was in an environment where people weren't familiar with single mothers. It was very embarrassing."
Overworking during pregnancy
To offset this, Oonagh – who works in financial compliance – threw herself into her career, to the point of overwork. "I was very conscious of how my pregnancy could be viewed as affecting my performance, so I worked much harder than I should have."
She tells me how, at seven-and-a-half-months pregnant, she delivered a full day of training, on her feet. "No one thought it was a problem. At the end of the session, I was rushed to the hospital. I thought I was going into labour. But it was Braxton Hicks contractions and exhaustion."
Oonagh, now 40, flew back to her native Northern Ireland in preparation to deliver her daughter, Autumn. After she arrived home, she received a phone call from Singapore regarding her work bonus. Her manager argued that because she was pregnant, she shouldn't get the actor pay. "You're on maternity leave, isn't that bonus enough," she was told. And things were about to get worse.
I'll never forgive my manager
"I've never spoken about this publicly," Oonagh says as she recounts experiencing some leakage of fluid after speaking to her manager. It was an amount that she deemed too small to be her waters breaking.
Two days later, when she went to a hospital to receive a steroid injection in preparation for a medically required cesarean delivery, she was immediately taken to the delivery suite. Her daughter, Autumn, was born by emergency C-section an hour and fifteen minutes later.
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"I was rushed down because I'd actually been in active labour since Monday," Oonagh's voice breaks, "I nearly lost her. I was so upset that I hadn't got my bonus due to being on maternity leave, even though I had worked as hard as I could, that my waters broke, and I didn't realise.
"It turns out, I'd actually had leakage of fluid throughout my last trimester, which I didn't notice. My doctor said it had probably been due to overwork. I'll never be able to forgive my boss, or the other woman who was involved, because my daughter nearly died as a result of them."
Oonagh's ordeal didn't end there. When she arrived back in Singapore, she was informed that there was no longer a job available for her.
"It was hard enough as a single mother. But I was also on my own, in a foreign country, with no family," she said. And due to regulations in Singapore, Oonagh only had 30 days to find a new job or she'd lose her visa.
Pregnancy discrimination and mental health
Understandably, Oonagh found it "incredibly, incredibly hard" to adapt to life as a working mother, and it ultimately took a toll on her mental health. This is something she says too many career women deal with in silence: "The job hasn't changed, but your entire life has – it's a massive adjustment which you can't read a book to prepare for."
Further, after she stopped breastfeeding Autumn, she suffered a hormonal imbalance, which rendered her unable to think and multitask the way she used to. "It was frightening as I didn't recognise myself anymore. My career was the one thing I had certainty on knowing I could do well, and suddenly I felt I failing in all aspects of my life.”
She chalks much of this up to the discrimination she faced in the workplace. "If I had the support of my direct management from the beginning, things would have been so different. But I was worried that speaking up would damage my career.
"I was well within my rights to legally submit a discrimination complaint, but you don't want to be known as 'that person' – it can be career-limiting. Compliance is a small industry."
A second pregnancy
Oonagh's second pregnancy was high risk, and while she says it was "ridiculous", she again felt the need to prove that maternity wasn't holding her back.
"I was in conference calls till one or two in the morning until I was eight months pregnant. And given the global nature of my work, I was still flying long distance towards the end. Finally, my doctor told me: 'you need to choose: you need to stop working or this baby is going to die'".
Her daughter, Amber, was born four weeks premature, and spent her first nine days in the ICU.
This is another situation that Oonagh finds difficult to forgive herself for, and she takes particular umbrage with the maternity rights in parts of Asia.
In Hong Kong, where Oonagh delivered her second child, women are only entitled to 10 weeks of maternity leave. "I was worried about taking early maternity because you have less time when you've actually delivered the baby. Recovering from a C-section [which she had with both children due to medical reasons] takes 12 weeks in itself, but you're expected to be back by 10, or less."
Oonagh's message for other working mothers
Now, Oonagh is a fierce advocate for maternity rights in the workplace - something that led her to share her story, after many years of keeping quiet.
Several years ago, she accurately surmised that one of her female colleagues was struggling after coming back from maternity leave. On the individual's behalf, she went to the HR department, and arranged that the woman take some fully paid leave. Then, when she returned, she was allowed to work from home until she had fully adjusted.
"When she came back she was on fire," Oonagh states, "you couldn't ask for a more committed employee. She was amazing. But if we hadn't helped initially, I believe she would have burnt out within a few months."
"Employers need to recognise the signs, and that pregnancy affects us all differently" she tells me. "Companies need more education, not just about how women are treated during pregnancy, but afterwards too. Are they ready to come back after the fixed amount of time? Many of us aren't, and we don't feel like we have a choice - our jobs may not wait for us."
Oonagh is now the founder and managing director of RAW compliance and Virtual Risk Solutions (VRS). "I actually thought I could run both my kids off an Excel spreadsheet," she laughs. "But really, whilst I am proud of my career, it's my girls that are my proudest achievement."