Fear of consequences

“You look serious. Why don’t you smile more?” is what I hear my boss say before I have to make the split-second decision whether I want to swallow the champagne in my mouth or spit it right into her face. But I’m lacking energy and courage, so I swallow, force a silent laugh and smile.

Only one hour ago, I was listening to a speech from a semi-famous US author, who had come to Germany only for the occasion of talking at her publisher’s German office summer party. She was funny, I think. I don’t remember much, because five minutes into the speech I felt like I’d been stabbed in the stomach. The pain wouldn’t go away and I started sweating and feeling as if I was about to lose consciousness.

Because there weren’t enough chairs for all, and since I was very junior, they had told me to just go and stand in the back before the speech started. I started panicking because I didn’t know what to do. Fainting would cause a scene. But I could barely keep myself upright, and the pain was getting worse with every breath.

So I walked out of the room as quietly and ‘composure-containing’ as possible, trying not to draw too much attention. When I finally made it to the restroom, it was a little bit of a shock to see the amount of blood running down my legs. The pain was excruciating, but I wasn’t that far away from the main room so I had to be quiet. Biting down on my jacket helped. It took a while until the bleeding stopped and I was able to stand up again.

I had just miscarried, at 12 weeks pregnant. It happens. Quite often actually, I knew. My doctor had told me about the odds just two weeks earlier. Knowing that didn’t help in the situation. While cleaning myself up as best as possible, I realized I had to go through with this evening as if nothing had happened. No one from work knew. I hadn’t told anyone, because I was on a fixed-term contract and wanted to stay there permanently. Surely, they wouldn’t consider me for the permanent position if they knew I was thinking about having a baby. So I walked back out (the author had just come to the end of her speech, too) and started chatting and laughing with colleagues and authors right away. I also started drinking now, because I needed something to numb the feeling that started welling up inside of me. And it worked. Nobody noticed anything.

But the problem was: It shouldn’t have been my first and foremost focus to think about how to best deceive everyone. I should have been able to tell someone, get support and maybe even a taxi to see a doctor.

The fear of consequences for women talking about (early) pregnancies or family planning are real. From the moment the employer reads anything else than “male” on the application their mind immediately goes to “Do I want the hassle? What if she decides she wants babies, and don’t they all get to that point eventually?”

On May 1, everyone talks about workers’ rights. But we need to make sure we talk about women’s rights, too. It doesn’t start with having kids and being forced to work part-time/earn less/say good-bye to career prospects. It doesn’t start with the gender gap. That’s where it ends.

It starts with the application process. It starts with seeing a woman at work as a burden instead of an asset. It starts with the general underestimation and emotionalization of women. It starts with the upbringing of people in a world where women and men are not equals by any means, and with people being in charge who actually don’t mind and really don’t want to change any of it.

I don’t know how to solve the problem. Making paternal leave obligatory for both men and women could be a start. Having women quota for every employer. Making it harder for employers to fire people. And last, but not least: Limit the number of fixed-term contracts one employer can hand out in general.

I really don’t know if this would solve the problem at all. But I do know I never wish for anybody else to feel as hopeless and helpless as I did. Mourning the loss of life on your own, while faking happiness among strangers. Only because the alternative might be losing a job.

by Rabea Rittgerodt

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