I’ve just entered the third week of my maternity leave and today marks the point when I’m full term (i.e., 37 weeks pregnant and the point at which the baby would not be considered premature whenever he decides to arrive). I’ve wanted to write about the whole finishing work/being on maternity leave thing and working whilst pregnant for a while, but to be honest I’ve been too busy enjoying these last two weeks to get my thoughts down. But, now it’s come together. I’ve, for obvious reasons, been thinking a lot about this for some time and it strikes me that whilst this is a huge transition in a pregnant woman’s life, there’s not something that is often talked about.
As soon as you announce to your boss that you’re pregnant, the question of when you’ll be going on maternity leave will arise. The likelihood is that this will be when you’re still battling with simply keeping yourself awake long enough to have a conversation and/or trying not to throw-up over your keyboard, and, therefore, the end of your pregnancy is not quite your top priority. The information on how much maternity pay and time off work you’re entitled to should be readily available, but I found that it was very difficult to find guidance on when I should actually start my maternity leave. At first I was convinced that I could keep going until 37 weeks – I enjoyed my job, my commute was not strenuous or too long, I wanted to save as much of paid leave for once baby had been born and I also feared that if I stopped work any earlier I would get bored. I had to tell my boss right after Christmas what I wanted to do and 12th April went on my form.
As my pregnancy progressed I quickly came to realise that 37 weeks was too far away and it was very much in my mind that I had to give at least 28 days’ notice to change my finish date. I started asking every single mum and mum-to-be I knew: when did you finish? What would you do differently? When is too early and when is too late? Interestingly, advice and experience varied dramatically and I still couldn’t make a decision. Well, that’s not really true: to be honest, I knew that I wanted to move the start of my maternity leave to Easter but I wanted someone to tell me that was the right decision to make.
Just when I had started to make noises about doing so, my boss announced that the person taking over my job whilst I was off couldn’t start until after Easter. This would of course be fine, because there would be a two week overlap! Oh bugger… I plucked up the courage a few days later and confessed that I didn’t think I could make it until 12th April and, luckily, he was incredibly understanding and not at all surprised. I think I should add a note here that whilst there are many employment laws protecting pregnant women and as long as you fill-in the right forms and give the appropriate notice for everything, you should be fine at work. I know that in reality that is not the case for many women as employers can have a tendency to put pressure on pregnant women not to make things more inconvenient than they already are by simply being pregnant and I am very much aware that I was incredibly lucky to have a boss and employer who did nothing of the sort and in fact made my pregnancy significantly easier by being supportive throughout the whole time.
Anyway, I officially moved the start of my maternity leave forward so that I would be finishing at Easter, at 34 + 5 weeks (well, if you take out the Bank Holidays then I actually finished at 35 + 3) and tried not to feel guilty about it. It took until about 32 weeks when working became a real struggle and continued to be right until the last day. Something changed at 32 weeks: I was heavier and more tired, sleeping was more difficult at night, my walking was slower and sitting at a desk for long periods of time became very difficult. But, more than that, I had experienced a mental shift towards wanting to spend time focusing on the baby growing inside me. I didn’t want to spend my days at work, I knew that my body was telling me to rest and nest and I had to fight that for three weeks. It was only then that I realised why women can start their maternity leave at 29 weeks, a time, which at the beginning of my pregnancy, felt ridiculously early.
Of course this was my experience and every woman’s experience of maternity leave (like pregnancy, birth etc) will be different, but I felt that it was important to make my voice heard. You see, during those three weeks where I pushed my body to get up early, get on the train and perform at work for 8+ hours, it became very clear to me that working whilst pregnant is VERY hard for a lot of reasons and a lot of women struggle with it, but we don’t talk about it. When I asked or talked about it, not one person told me to stop complaining and get on with it, everyone agreed that it could be very, very difficult. So let’s talk about it. Let’s acknowledge the fact that pregnancy is difficult and not really conducive to a working environment and maybe some employers and managers will think differently about it.
So, here are my thoughts about working whilst pregnant:
- 29 weeks is not too early to start your maternity leave. In Germany, women must stop working 6 weeks before their due date (and are given full pay), there is a reason for this.
- I think 35 weeks is about the right time to finish work. I hesitated saying this, but I do think this and this is my blog, so there. (Also, one friend told me this at Christmas and I wished I had listened to her then!)
- How to make work a little easier: Don’t be afraid to ask for some flexibility from your employer near the end: work from home if you can, come in late the next day following a late meeting or do whatever you can to sleep a little longer once a week; Take a few days of annual leave in the middle of the week. This advice was given to me by a few people and it makes a lot of sense; Always take your lunch break and go for a walk. Keeping active and mobile is so important; Get up and walk around once a hour if you sit at a desk; Keep lots of snacks in your desk drawer.
- Maternity leave is not just a time for you to nap and lie on the sofa, it’s also the time for you to get ready for the idea of becoming a mother. I did not appreciate how difficult this would be to do whilst I was going to work and I am so very glad to have had some time before the baby has been born and without distractions to try and get my head around the whole concept. We can all agree (I hope!) that women are under a lot of pressure in this modern age to be everything at the same time: educated, ambitious, a good friend, a loving and supportive partner. Once pregnancy is thrown into that equation, we assume that we can continue to be the hard-working and successful worker we have always been whilst simply growing a human inside us, but I don’t think that’s possible. Is there anything wrong with admitting that? I started my job at the beginning of my pregnancy and achieved a huge amount, but by the end I knew I was better off handing over to someone else.
My goodness, I could keep writing about this all day, but it’s time for lunch now so I’m going to stop. What do you all think?