It had been almost two years of trying and I still wasn't pregnant, so when that faint little plus sign appeared one warm summer Sunday, I was ecstatic. But there was one little problem: I had just started a new job. My dream job, actually.
It was August, and I had landed a job teaching at the best private school in town. A progressive and gorgeous playground for little minds, it was also the most expensive elementary school in the state, complete with catered lunches (normal cafeteria stuff — you know, like quinoa and tofu salads), a student-curated garden, and yearly class trips to the school's privately owned ranch in the mountains. It was every teacher's dream: an enormous classroom budget, a higher-than-average teaching salary, and a whole bunch of warm-fuzzies every time I stepped on campus.
Alas, from my very first day teaching at this educational wonderland, I had a secret. I didn't know how or when I was going to tell the administration I was pregnant, and I certainly didn't know what I planned to do when the baby arrived. I was happily married and in a fairly stable place in life, and I wanted to consider being a stay-at-home mom, but how could I? This school had just taken a chance on me, and I had worked hard to earn a place on their staff.
Because of health issues, I was forced to disclose my happy news earlier than I would have liked. I made an appointment with the headmaster and entered his office, trembling with nerves and morning sickness.
In only a few short weeks of working there, I discovered that the headmaster, Bruce*, was not an easy person to be around. Prone to arrogance and sexism, he expected everyone around him to laugh extra-loudly at his often-bad jokes. He was obnoxious at staff meetings and a bit awkward with the kids, but he did one thing extremely well: raise gobs of money from wealthy donors.
I sat down in Bruce's huge office, and before I could say a word he slid a folded-up Post-it across the table. I laughed nervously as I unfolded it. The note read, "When are you due?"
My heart dropped as I choked out, "Ugggghhhmmm..."
He laughed and said, "You want to know how I know? You look like shit and you haven't looked me in the eye."
A coworker had recently asked me if I was pregnant during lunch one day as I gagged at the smell of someone's egg salad. I didn't want to lie to her face, so I confided that indeed I was. I guess news had traveled fast.
Ashamed, I did my best to hold back first-trimester hormonal tears. I fumbled through the rest of the meeting and basically apologized for the little miracle I had growing inside me. As we ended our appointment, Bruce said, "Well, you know, Ashley, if you're going to have sex with your husband, these things are going to happen."
I left completely shell-shocked, confused, and embarrassed.
Over the next few months, as I suffered through your garden-variety pregnancy issues, my boss took it upon himself to use my "condition" as a jumping-off point for Bruce's comedy routine. As I walked into school one morning after vomiting repeatedly, he passed me on the playground and pointed at me saying, "Did you barf this morning? Oh man, I knew it!"
He was clearly pleased with himself. I half-smiled and continued to my classroom, rolling my eyes and clutching my box of crackers.
I often passed him on my route to my classroom in the mornings. I came to dread these interactions and tried to avoid them if I saw him from afar.
One particularly windy morning, Bruce looked at me, smirking, and said, "Wow, are you putting on some pounds? Are you getting fat?!"
Why yes, yes I was. Being that there was a human growing in my womb and I weighed 117 pounds pre-pregnancy, I was indeed putting on some pounds.
I'd had enough. I confided in a seasoned teacher who had been at the school for more than 20 years. She had befriended me, and I assumed she would give me wise counsel. Instead, she told me that every teacher in the school had run-ins like that with him.
"It's kind of just how he is," she told me, sighing. She proceeded to tell me that everyone did their best to ignore his antics because of his stellar fund-raising record. Bruce apparently had unusual skill in taking wealthy donors to the country club or golf course and coming back with large checks made out to our endowment fund.
I eventually decided to go to HR as these comments continued to spill from his mouth — except "HR" was just another school executive who also happened to be the financial administrator. So, obviously, no conflict of interest there. She listened politely to my concerns and gave some politically correct answer about protocol, filling out forms if I really wanted to pursue this, etc.
I felt dismissed. Would no one take this guy on?
So I finally did what I probably should've done in the first place: I went to him myself.
I made another appointment with him, and I was fairly certain he knew why. The second meeting went marginally better than the first. I bravely voiced my grievances to his face. I told him that he was being inappropriate and that I felt uncomfortable with his comments.
Bruce interrupted me and brusquely asked if I had any brothers. I told him I don't.
"Ah, well," he chuckled smugly, "if you did, you would understand that me saying that stuff is just like what brothers do, you know?"
I was angry, yet timid, not wanting to step on his toes and put my job in jeopardy, but I couldn't stand being treated like this any longer.
"Even if I did have brothers, you aren't my brother," I said, "It's just not appropriate. It's unprofessional, and it needs to stop."
He looked angry and uncomfortable, but he promised to knock it off.
And, for the most part, the comments about my appearance did stop. I knew my relationship with him had been damaged, though. He was even more awkward than before, and now he struggled to look me in the eye.
This turn of events at such a wonderful school both surprised and infuriated me. This was a progressive school where all families and students were accepted and celebrated. The lunch room had a special table where kids with severe food allergies and their friends could eat so they didn't feel excluded when their peers ate foods they couldn't. Teachers and students had countless assemblies and trainings about bullies and how to stand up for your friends. We even had a full-time school psychologist who was an amazing mediator for issues between friends or in the classroom.
There was a general culture of love, positivity, acceptance and tolerance for others. So when my boss took it upon himself to humiliate me for his own entertainment, it felt oddly ironic. Intimidating and ridiculing a woman for becoming pregnant? Not very progressive of him, if you ask me.
This negative attitude towards pregnancy and motherhood extended beyond Bruce. As my belly swelled, I endured snide comments from other employees about how terrible it would be to stay home with children. I was still undecided about my future at the school, but many of my coworkers made it clear that staying home was an anti-feminist choice. I was beginning to feel guilty for even considering leaving such a great job.
But as I neared the end of my pregnancy and the school year, I became more and more confident that I would not be returning to the classroom the following year. My husband and I decided together, after much prayer and pondering, that I would stay home. I wanted to be there for my son's every milestone, and the trade-off of a great job just was not worth it to me.
And maybe this job was not so great after all. I felt like I had to avoid my boss at all costs; he was a bully who did as he pleased with no ramifications. And honestly, it was hard to stomach working for an administrative team that was willing to try to shame me into silence to keep an endowment fund in the black.
I could've sued my boss for discrimination or sexual harassment; according to state law, making unwanted comments about someone's appearance does qualify as sexual harassment. At the time, though, I didn't want to ruffle any feathers or make a big scene at my "dream job," and I was too afraid that my reputation would be tarnished. Not the reputation of the man — the head of school, no less — who made unwanted comments about women's appearances, about his own sex life, about the events that led to the conception of my child. My reputation.
Now, as a happy stay-at-home mom with two toddlers running around the house, it really doesn't matter to me anymore. I feel empowered and thankful for my decision to quit my job and look back on my teaching career with mostly fondness.
My biggest regret is that I didn't use my situation as an opportunity to stop this man from continuing to bully and shame other women. Yes, I finally had a conversation with him that (for the most part) put our relationship back into a professional realm, but his harassment continues for others. Apparently, very few women are willing to risk their jobs to formally stand up against him.
It's heartbreaking that women in any workplace still have to wonder if standing up to men like this means risking their jobs at all — and yet this is still a reality for so many. My hope is that more women get the nerve to actually take the risk, and take him on, even if it means fewer camping trips, or — gasp — having to serve chicken nuggets or grilled cheese in the cafeteria.