Written by Laura Smith, November 2018
Like many women, I was keen to continue working throughout my pregnancy. I was planning to take a year off and wanted to get my career to a point where I felt I could return with confidence (and keep using my brain before it was completely melted by lack of sleep). I was fit, in my early 30s, and jogged or cycled to work every day. I managed a large project team and constantly held several tasks in my head, physically and mentally running between activities, clients, and meetings. Little did I know that my hyper-efficiency would be cut down in its prime by the onset of PGP. But there it was, a few months into my first pregnancy. I became a bit slower, a bit fuzzier, and soon struggled to remember what I’d been planning to say because my mind was so distracted by pain.
Being pregnant at work can be difficult for any woman, depending on the workplace. Being pregnant at work and coping with PGP can be incredibly challenging – not least dealing with the physical demands, but also the anxiety about not keeping up to your usual level of work, and the frustration at colleagues’ lack of understanding of your condition. There is also something about pregnancy-related conditions which (for me, anyway) makes it harder to elicit sympathy. It was my decision to get pregnant – I brought this on myself, so I can’t go around asking for special treatment, can I? I’ll come back to that later…
In my first pregnancy, I was working in a big office with a large HR function. As soon as I told them I was pregnant, I was offered all sorts of support to enable me to keep working comfortably. As the PGP developed, the very understanding HR person sorted out a new chair for me, and two different back supports. I was also offered a physio ball to sit on, and various meetings were rearranged to reduce the amount of travelling around I had to do. I was able to work very flexibly as my due date approached, eventually working most days at home so I could avoid the commute and get to my physio appointments more easily. PGP was a bit of a shock but manageable, and, aside from being over-tired, I was able to plan to finish work positively, without feeling rushed.
My second pregnancy was a completely different experience. I worked for a small charity in a senior role, spending most of my time working directly with the CEO. When I told her I was pregnant, I warned her that I might get PGP and need to change how I worked to cope with this. She was very understanding and keen to help, but I think did not fully understand how horrendous PGP can be. There hadn’t been any pregnant staff at the charity until a few months before I became pregnant, so they had little experience of dealing with it, and, like many small organisations, did not have the time or money to make special arrangements for us.
My colleague, who was due a couple of months before me, didn’t have PGP and seemed to have a great pregnancy. She was fit and well and working full time throughout, so I could see that, even without meaning to, other staff and the CEO were comparing me to her and wondering why I was being so miserable and pathetic. On top of that, the CEO was dealing with losing two of her senior staff in one go. To make things worse, another colleague had recently been diagnosed with a lifelong illness that would mean his completely changing his work pattern. So, naturally, I didn’t want to go around complaining when I was in a temporary state of disability.
An office environment can be particularly bad for women with PGP. Sitting in a chair for long periods without the right support can make the pain worse, and there is rarely somewhere to lie down or do the small exercises that can help relieve pain. Many of us also work in the middle of cities, so it can be difficult to drive into work without incurring huge parking charges. I usually caught a train and had to walk across the centre of town to the office. If I wanted to be in at my usual time, this meant catching an earlier train as I was now so slow at walking, which meant getting my son to the childminder even earlier, which meant leaving work early to pick him up again. When I went to our second office, the fifteen-minute walk from the station, usually done at pace with colleagues, became impossible, so I had to start taking taxis, which of course I didn’t feel I could charge to the charity.
None of this went down very well with my colleagues, though it wasn’t ever said out loud. I felt unable to work at home as much as I should have done as I wanted to show that I wasn’t ‘slacking’, and ended up working at a ridiculous rate, often doing more work after 9pm at night to make up for lost time. As the PGP (and pregnancy in general) made sleeping more difficult, this meant I was completely exhausted.
I started using crutches at about 28 weeks. This helped – people could see that I really was struggling, physically at least. The mental strain was much harder to get across. I felt guilty that I couldn’t keep up at work, I felt guilty that I had to leave work on time, every day, to get to the childminder. I felt guilty that I couldn’t play with my son on the floor, or pick him up, or even bathe him towards the end. I felt guilty that I was so miserable in pregnancy when some of my closest friends were having fertility problems. This started to affect my work – I couldn’t concentrate and started to forget things.
I think it was at this point that I sat down with my boss and explained how I was feeling – the physical pain and the mental difficulties. I told her that I was desperately trying to keep up, but I was making things worse by pushing myself so hard. I explained that I often appeared ‘with it’ and in a good way in the morning, but the pain would get increasingly, worse so that by the end of the day I was not much use to anyone.
She was great – she listened carefully and asked me how they could help. We then went through the various projects I had left before maternity leave, and reprioritised, allocating some tasks to other people. We agreed to use some of my annual leave to shorten my days, so that I could be at work during my most useful time (morning/early afternoon) and then get home for a rest before picking up my son without any rush (I should point out that my husband worked away for half the week at this point, something we knew we’d have to change if we wanted baby #3!). She decided that I should no longer go to our other office at all, and those staff would just have to come to me for the next couple of months or use conference calling. I realised that she valued my skills, and wanted me to come back, and had really only been following my lead in how much I could cope with.
Which brings me back to the point about guilt – by choosing to become pregnant, knowing I might get PGP, I had brought this on myself, so shouldn’t seek sympathy, should I? This, I see now, is a ridiculous position. Women have fought for decades for maternity rights in the workplace. There is no option for men to have babies, so unless everyone agrees to stop having children, we’re the ones that have to deal with being pregnant at work. That affects some of us more than others. Regardless of the morals of it, it is in an employer’s interest to make life more accommodating for women with PGP, as it will help us to work longer and more effectively, and leave work in a positive frame of mind. I’ve managed several teams where women have taken maternity leave, and I’ve known how much time and effort it would take to replace their skills and knowledge of the company in the long term, so I’ve done everything I could to make sure they came back, if they wanted to (and they did).
It’s not always easy to ask for help, particularly if you work for a small company, or in an environment where people have no experience of PGP, or if you work shifts and don’t have access to flexible hours. However, it’s very important that you explain to your employer that PGP is a potentially disabling condition – if you get the right treatment and support now, you’ll be able to return to work with no problems. It doesn’t have to be costly for them – small things can make a big difference, like the timing or location of meetings, working from home, or allowing annual leave to be used to taper your working hours towards the end of your pregnancy.
By the time I had my third child, I was self-employed, so my husband and I were able to plan well in advance for coping with PGP. The information from the Pelvic Partnership was hugely helpful in working out if we could manage another pregnancy – my little daughter is proof that we made it! Don’t suffer in silence: your body is changing and you have a right to get help. If you don’t make some changes, you risk unnecessary physical and mental strain which is no good for anyone – you, your employer, or your baby.