The Pregnant Correctional Practitioner: Challenges and Benefits By Brooke Sheehan, LCSW on 10/12/21 - 4:06 PM

In my previous blog, I addressed my own personal growth and development that occurred during my time as a clinical social worker specializing in the area of correctional mental health. Working in a correctional environment has taught me valuable lessons about compassion and empathy, who I am, and how to sit with others who are attempting to heal in the long shadow of the darkest moments of their lives. My own experience of having been twice pregnant while working in this capacity has deepened my appreciation of the human condition.

We clinicians know full well how demanding graduate and post-graduate training are, and how these demands don’t simply stop while we are moving forward professionally. And this includes family-building. However, despite the fact that 83% of social workers identify as female, the topic of pregnancy and how clients respond to a pregnant clinician is rarely discussed in the confines of a classroom. As a result, most clinicians who experience pregnancy will out of necessity learn how to navigate these 40-plus weeks in an on-the-job-training fashion.

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Having to navigate pregnancy as a professional was challenging in its own right. Both my experience and research have suggested that women often experience far fewer advancement opportunities as a result of preconceived and outdated notions about their ability to simultaneously manage their professional and family lives. This concern often occupied my thoughts as I wondered what my professional life would look like after my children were born. These thoughts and concerns were often unwelcome add-ons to the actual physical challenges that occurred during and after pregnancy, including nausea, extreme fatigue, and decreased reliance on caffeine to provide that occasional boost. I often experienced periods of heightened anxiety with regard to my baby’s fetal growth and health. As my body changed, revealing the undeniable reality of pregnancy, my body was on greater and greater display, which made for an interesting addition to the already demanding emotional and physical nature of my correctional work.

Deciding how to respond to curious clients was always a challenge for me. This was brought into bold relief when working with those clients who, because of separation from their own families, experienced grief and deep feelings of sadness and loss. Sometimes that grief was profoundly complicated in younger clients who faced the prospects of never becoming parents due to extended prison sentences. Others, whose incarceration followed child abuse, frequently faced the possibility of never seeing their children again. As a clinician, this was always difficult to witness while I was, at the same time, navigating my own journey toward childbirth and parenthood.

My first pregnancy occurred while I was working in a women’s correctional facility. The experience was interesting, albeit complicated. I had just transitioned from working in a men’s facility and all of my rapport building in the women’s facility was done while I was pregnant. Working in this environment, I was constantly in the presence of women who had lost custody of their children, been at odds with their children due to chronic incarceration and substance use, killed their children, miscarried after a violent interaction with a male counterpart, were themselves pregnant, had given up their children for adoption, and/or had stillbirths. The questions were never-ending regarding where I was in my pregnancy, how I was feeling, and what it was or would be like to be a parent. My growing belly was always the elephant in the room, and quite honestly, practically a constant reminder for these women of what they had lost.

I worked with several women who were due around similar time frames to myself. One of the women, we will call her Melody, looked at me one day and said something that put this into perspective for me. She angrily lamented, “I can’t even look at you, it’s not fair! You’ll get to keep your baby, and I will have to give my baby up as soon as I’m ready to leave the hospital!” Before this comment, I didn’t realize how significantly impactful my own pregnancy was on the relationship I had with Melody and others in similar situations.

Fast forward to my second pregnancy, in which I was back working with incarcerated men. There were fewer questions, but the stares were more frequent and the outlandish comments about my reproductive choices would fly frequently. Since I had my two children 22 months apart, there were a few times I was asked about what I wanted for a family size—“Do you want a big family?” Or, “Are you just going to be one of those people who pops a lot of kids out?”

However, despite the loaded commentary, both the men and women I worked with showed a lot of compassion during my pregnancies. Despite the pain that this pregnancy evoked in them, particularly around their own losses and desires to themselves be parents, the clients always took care to make sure I was safe from harm and didn’t do any heavy lifting, and they were extremely understanding if I had to leave early for an appointment and their schedule was changed.
Ultimately, my experiences as a pregnant practitioner have taught me more about empathy and the depths of a parent’s love. They have also taught me about the trauma and tragedy that abound when pregnancy and parenting intersect with unmanageable circumstances, restricted choices, and limited resources. Working clinically while pregnant has taught me how to sit with discomfort and the pain that life offers, which ultimately has made me a more compassionate, empathetic, and astute social worker. I encourage pregnant practitioners, regardless of whether they work in corrections or elsewhere, to lean into the experience so that they can develop as yet undiscovered skills and qualities.

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy, Family Therapy, Musings and Reflections