Keeping the big news under wraps

Marie Laure Frere with husband Sean and their 3 daughters, (from left) Lucy, 3, Simone, 16 months, and Bixby, 2.
Marie Laure Frere with husband Sean and their 3 daughters, (from left) Lucy, 3, Simone, 16 months, and Bixby, 2. John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

By this point, Marie Laure Frere, a Newton mother of three kids under age 4, knows how to keep the early months of a pregnancy secret. Here’s her favorite trick: When she goes out with a group, she arrives first, and surreptitiously asks the bartender to make her drinks virgin.

“It’s like wildfire the minute you don’t put the cocktail glass to your mouth,” Frere said. “My husband’s family is the first one to start gossiping about who’s not doing what.”

As the world knows, Kate and Will, the Duchess and Duke of Cambridge, were trying to keep their pregnancy private, in their case amid speculation that grew ever more frenzied as they toasted with water, not wine, at a Singapore gala in September, and as Prince William accepted a baby outfit from a well-wisher. The couple kept the public guessing until Dec. 3, when severe morning sickness sent Kate to the hospital, and the Palace was forced to issue a statement weeks before the expectant parents had planned.

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But even women who are not the subject of an international baby bump watch know the challenge of keeping a pregnancy private for 12 weeks or, in many cases, longer. Their reasons vary: Some fear complications or miscarriage, others simply need time to get used to the idea. And a sizable number of expectant moms worry that, despite the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978, their status at work will be diminished.

The stress of keeping mum can be seen among the women taking Isis Parenting’s “Mom in the Making” class — many of them high-powered professionals — who often feel all eyes are on their bellies, said the course’s teacher, Dawn Ellis.

Angst is also clear on the message boards of TheBump pregnancy website, where users seek tips on excuses for not imbibing when out with friends. “Can you say you’ve been sick and are on antibiotics?,” one person wrote. “Say you drank too much wine the night before,” another advised.

The nervousness persists even though there has been a notable shift in the way firms operate over the years, said Betsy Myers, the founding director of the Center for Women and Business at Bentley University.

“Companies now realize that, from a profit standpoint, retaining pregnant women should be a priority,” said Myers, a former senior official in the Clinton administration. “Is what I’m seeing 100 percent [perfect]? No. But over 50 percent of new entrants into the workforce in 2010 were women. Fifty percent of middle managers in corporate America are women, and many middle managers are in their child-bearing years. If I’m a company, it doesn’t make sense from a profit standpoint [to drive them out]. If they leave, I have to replace them.”

Despite such corporate recognition, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reports that pregnancy discrimination claims rose from 4,287 in Fiscal Year 2001 to 5,797 in FY 2011. (A recent high came in FY 2008 with 6,285 complaints.)

“People are surprised this is still a problem,” said Christine Saah Nazer, the federal agency’s acting director of communications. “Pregnant women are having to choose between motherhood and their livelihood.”

In FY 2011, the most recent year for which statistics are available, 119 of those complaints were filed by Massachusetts workers, according to the EEOC.

Jeffrey Sankey, a Braintree-based discrimination lawyer, says the “vast majority” of employers behave the way they’re supposed to. When discrimination occurs, he noted, it’s usually subtle.

“Someone goes out on maternity leave and when they come back there’s been a re-org and they don’t have a job,” Sankey said. “The company hides behind the re-org. They don’t say it’s because of the pregnancy.

“And you certainly see it on the hiring end,” he said. “If someone is applying for a job but showing, the chances of them getting the job are significantly decreased. But of course the employer won’t say that’s the reason.”

In an attempt to strengthen existing anti-discrimination laws, in September, Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Senator Bob Casey (D-Pa.), introduced the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act (the bill is before the Senate’s Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions).

Though more than 30 years have passed since the federal Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 — and in this state, protections offered by the Massachusetts Maternity Leave Act and Chapter 151B, the general anti-discrimination statute — women still worry about their jobs.

How secretive do some expectant mothers feel they need to be? Liz Lange, the maternity-clothing designer, used to stock two sets of bags in her boutiques. One set with logos, the other plain brown paper. “We’d ask women which they wanted,” she said. (Her stores have since closed and she now sells at Target and on the Home Shopping Network.)

The desire to delay revealing a pregnancy has led to the maternity-wear trend of the decade: the scarf. Pregnant workers are draping them, looping them, wearing them like pregnancy invisibility cloaks, all to draw attention away from a pregnant belly. So popular is the scarf in maternity circles that it’s become almost as tell-tale as the two lines on a pregnancy test.

“I’m not even a scarf person,” said Courtney Rice, a health care consultant who lives in the North End. But when she found out she was pregnant on a Friday — and starting a new job the following Monday — she started accessorizing.

“I was fearful they wouldn’t think I was all in with my desire to sell for the company” if they learned she was pregnant, said Rice.

Even so, she added, a scarf can only take you so far. Rice waited until she was six months along to tell her employer. By that point there was no distracting from her belly.

“But no one asked me about it,” she said. “I don’t think anyone felt comfortable asking the new girl why she was gaining weight.”

Still, keeping the big news quiet can be difficult, and some pregnant women mention it before they can stop themselves, sometimes to their sorrow. In Winthrop, Lisa Schad, a 39-year-old middle school teacher, made the mistake of telling a colleague she was pregnant with twins before she made the news generally public.

“[T]hat colleague came up to me and rubbed my non-showing belly and asked how things are in clear view of many many students,” said Shad. “Sometimes she use[d] a loud whisper to ask me questions about the babies or tell me how happy” she was for the mom to be.

And yet, before Shad told her co-worker, she was having trouble making it through the day without mentioning the number one thing on her mind.

“It’s so hard to keep the secret for three months. I guess in the grand scheme of things that’s not that long, but it feels really long when you are in the middle of it.”

In London, Kate’s days of secrecy are over, but for other women, the coverup continues. But a word of caution: As Frere, the Newton mother, learned, ploys can backfire.

The morning after she drank four or five “martinis” (really fruit-based drinks) at Toro in the South End, a cousin called her husband. “I’m impressed by how many martinis Marie Laure can drink,” she said. She sounded a bit concerned.

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