I’m the first to admit that my former, younger and more naive self, believed that pregnant women should just get on with it because the position they were in was ultimately their choice. How wrong was I?
Being pregnant was hands down one of the hardest things I’ve ever been through. I’m now brave enough to admit it, but at the time I didn’t realise how much I was struggling. My hope is to inspire those of you that are pregnant to show some kindness to yourself and to encourage others to show support for those around you who may be struggling with their pregnancy.
Every phase of pregnancy was a challenge for me. I salute all of you who have survived and thrived during this time, which often begins long before the nine months. We are constantly told that the ‘real work starts when your child is born’ and that you should ‘enjoy the peace and quiet whilst you can’, but the reality of pregnancy can be a very different experience for some.
Personally, I felt like I was running a marathon every day and I’m no long-distance runner. To those of you whose pregnancy took a back seat due to your career, family, or other commitments, you are amazing. It seems that most of us continue to try and be the person we were before we were pregnant. Why is that? Let’s face facts, we aren’t super human, and growing another human (or two) takes its toll.
I believe there are small changes that society could adopt to help pregnant women have a better experience. Aside from giving up your seat on the Tube, which is a massive “do”, how can we make this a better experience for everyone?!
1. Ask a woman if she’s pregnant
The first three months are difficult for everyone. Most people are thrilled but also petrified. At six weeks you can’t really tell anyone. This is with valid reason as at four weeks you have a 25% chance of having a miscarriage – there are so many ‘what ifs’ at this stage. The 12-week scan is there to give you that reassurance and that is when you would typically announce things to the world. In the first trimester you don’t feel like you can make plans, and if you do brave a social occasion you make your excuses for why you aren’t your “usual self”, or in my case, get my husband to drink all the gin. If you suspect someone is pregnant, don’t ask them if they are or speculate about it with others. They aren’t telling you for a reason, so why would you put them in that situation? If you suspect, a friendly smile or kindness always goes down well at this stage. Let them tell you when they’re ready and do not take it personally because the minute you tell somebody everything changes.
2. Comment on how they look
This is a huge no! For me it was one of the most difficult parts of being pregnant. I was quite large, carrying twins, limping due to hip displacement and generally not really looking my best. Saying “God you’re huge” is not helpful or appropriate. On the flip side saying “you’ve got no bump at all“ is just as bad. As a pregnant woman you are constantly worrying whether your too big or too small. I tried my best to look good but maternity clothing is often awful and comfort is a priority. I’ve certainly looked better but that’s ok. I shouldn’t have to dread people commenting on it all the time. People would do double takes and as I limped towards the Tube, it made me feel uncomfortable. Even those closest to me would gawp at how large I was.
One particular memory stands out because I ended up in tears. It was a good friend’s hen do and I was determined to go along, show her a good time and get involved. The theme was pirates! As I do with everything, I threw myself into it and found a pirate outfit that fitted me at 7 months pregnant. Whilst I did feel self-conscious, the strangers who stared and whispered made me feel worse even worse than I already did. Yes, I was dressed as a pirate, pregnant with twins and in a pub. Why should that be an issue?
Appearance is a complicated enough issue without adding pregnancy. My advice would be don’t make a comment to a pregnant woman that you wouldn’t like being said to you. This also applies to staring.
3. Make life harder
My career is incredibly important to me and I was determined not to let it suffer. I wanted to prove that I could be just as successful even though I could barely walk. I experienced moments where people, without thinking, made my life that little bit harder. I’m pregnant, it’s winter and freezing cold, don’t ask to meet me at 7pm half way across London. This is also relevant to social occasions. Don’t invite your pregnant friend to go ice skating, or clubbing, she probably feels like she’s got the biggest hangover of her life anyway. Think of activities that make sense and make her feel included. Lunch, theatre, cinema are all great activities for the second trimester. The lesson here is to be thoughtful.
4. Get Personal
‘Are you breastfeeding?’, ‘Are you having a natural birth?’, ‘Was it IVF?’ All these are a big NO. If the pregnant lady decides to discuss a personal topic then fine but they should control how much they share or don’t share. I experienced this frequently and some of the questions I hadn’t even worked out the answer to myself. I knew I was having a c-section but as soon as you told people that, you would get the ‘sympathy look’. I was even asked whether I was worried about bonding with my child because the recovery would mean I’d struggle to pick up the babies on demand. Not until now!!!! Also, don’t touch somebody’s tummy unless they want you to or ask if you’d like too, it’s an invasion of personal space. There already are a plethora of necessary examinations and personal questions from the experts to ensure the safety of you and the baby, but pregnancy does not make your personal life open to public discussion. Be led by the pregnant woman on this, if she wants to discuss her birth plan with you, she will, otherwise a thoughtful “how are you getting on?” is very much appreciated.
1. Offer your seat
Not just on the tube but everywhere. Use this as a metaphor for generally offering a pregnant woman a helping hand. I assure you they will really appreciate it and I can tell you they are exhausted. Why not go a step further, let them go in front of you in the coffee queue? Ask your pregnant colleague if they want you to grab their lunch to save them walking. Maybe send them home early if they look like they are struggling, or if they look fine, because you know they have a long commute. We want our best people to come back to work, to feel that they were supported during their pregnancy. For them to be healthy and happy, we are all a little bit responsible for that. Ladies, it’s also up to us to speak up. If you are pregnant and having a bad day, tell someone, do something about it and let people help you.
2. Remember they aren’t just a baby-making machine.
Whilst it’s great to show an interest in someone’s baby, names, how pregnancy is going and so on they are also the same people they were beforehand. They will still have interests, like and dislikes, they are still capable of talking about Brexit, holidays, weekend plans etc. I was excited to be having kids, I also sometimes just wanted to be me. Breezy, fun, interesting me …
That said I often didn’t feel like ‘me’. This is what I call the “eating cake in bed” period. For me it was one incident that really highlighted the whole ‘I’m me but I don’t feel like me’ stage of pregnancy. I was due to join my husband at a social event, however I felt incredibly sick and cancelled. Whilst this turned out to be a good decision (I was very sick) the result meant I was now at home alone and, whilst others enjoyed the event. I went to bed at 7pm and ate a whole carrot cake by myself.
I think the message here is one of inclusion. Make your pregnant friend, colleague, family member feel included in just the same conversations they were before pregnancy. Pregnant ladies you can do your bit too, don’t become siloed with just baby talk.
3. Talk about the future
People are especially scared of saying the wrong thing to pregnant women concerning their plans around future work life. Whilst you don’t want a member of your team to feel pressured, talking about their ideas for the future and how you can help support that vision is a great thing to do. I wanted to ensure Investigo knew I was still fully committed to my job, but at the same time that I would need and want some flexibility. It made the transition easy and we all felt comfortable about the expectation. Things can change of course, but I found having structured and open discussions the best way of ensuring I could go off on maternity leaving feeling positive about my return to work. Within reason both parties need to be as open with each other as possible, but as an employer, we should be doing everything we can to retain our best women and be flexible in our approach.
4. Give a great send-off
Make a fuss. Whether you are friend, colleague, family, do make someone going off on maternity leave feel special. They really do deserve it and they will remember it forever. I had a very unfortunate experience where lots of people dropped out of my leaving breakfast and it felt pretty awful. It’s a small but important gesture to show that individual that you care and that you wish them well.
You often hear that ‘pregnancy is not a sickness’ and it’s not, unfortunately you can often feel worse than you have during any illness. In the main we don’t want to be treated differently, but I think sometimes we need to be. Your boss may say “thank you for not slowing down” but will you and the baby say that? Pregnancy, however, is a real struggle and people talk to me about it being so regularly. Women who are pregnant need to try and give themselves a break, recognise the extra effort required to keep pace and maybe just embrace the pregnancy a bit more. Be kind to yourself and to the pregnant women around you because they deserve it. As a community we should try to make that particular chapter of life a little bit easier to deal with by offering supportive environments. The good news is it’s so worth it and the memories that haunted me about being pregnant paled into insignificance when my children were born.
This blog was contributed by Angharad Kenward, Senior Director of Investigo. It is part one of a three-part series about pregnancy and returning to work. Please click the following links to read part two or part three.