Pregnancy is a full-time job for working women
Up to one-third of women feel they have been treated unfairly at this challenging time
Hannah Boylan: ‘No one I know who has children had this much sickness so it came as a shock to be so unwell. I am sick multiple times a day.’ Photograph: Eric Luke
Hannah and Dan Boylan, Clondalkin, in Dublin, who are expecting their first child in April. Photograph: Eric Luke
It’s an ongoing joke in Hannah Boylan’s office that everyone knows it’s 4pm because she’s slumped so low on her desk nobody can see her.
Expecting her first child at the end of April, she has suffered particularly badly from “morning” sickness. She was so unwell that at just six weeks she felt she had to tell her manager at the children’s charity in Dublin where she works.
“I figured at that point if anything bad happened I would be telling her anyway, as I’d need some time off. She was great; very understanding and great at covering for me.”
Otherwise, Hannah, who is 26, didn’t tell a soul until she had the 12-week scan and knew all was well. Her husband, Dan, who is a section manager in a children’s toy shop, told his manager the week before the scan because otherwise he would never have been allowed a day off in the Christmas season.
The morning – or, more accurately, all-day – sickness was not something Hannah was prepared for.
“No one I know who has children had this much sickness so it came as a shock to be so unwell. I’ve been getting sick multiple times a day most days.” She has dropped a stone in weight. “If I’m not getting sick, I’m running to the loo in false-alarm mode. I carry bags or lunchboxes with me everywhere in case I can’t make it to a loo.
“I’ve pretty much gone from being the runaround, busy social person I am to the most unsociable person in the world. I feel crap; I do nothing but sleep, get sick and eat.” And work, of course.
The physical and emotional challenges of pregnancy vary from woman to woman but for the majority in full-time work, it’s “business as usual”.
However, incubating a new life in the workplace throws up challenges ranging from health and safety risks to the baby to the more trivial matter of finding maternity clothes in keeping with your professional image. It may also be the first time that gender difference among colleagues comes into focus.
Up to 30 per cent of women feel they have been treated unfairly during pregnancy, according to a national survey of pregnancy at work published in 2011 by the HSE Crisis Pregnancy Programme and the Equality Authority.
At its most extreme, this involved dismissal, which 5 per cent of women reported. Others felt they had lost out on salary, bonuses or promotion, had endured unpleasant comments from managers and/or co-workers, or had been discouraged from exercising their right to attend antenatal appointments during work time.
“So many women say to us that it was only when they got pregnant that they realised there was discrimination. Lots of things come into play that are about being pregnant and about having children.”
Pregnancy is much more difficult in certain workplaces, says O’Connor. Women report that even telling employers is difficult and the reaction is less than encouraging.
“If you are in a workplace that isn’t particularly family friendly, then of course you’re going to be more reluctant to say it in some cases, until you absolutely have to.”
Migrant women can be particularly vulnerable to discrimination, she says, because employers think they are less likely to take an action against them. It wouldn’t be unusual for them to be told they were being let go – “Not because you’re pregnant, we were going to let you go anyway . . .”
Apart from blatant discrimination, there is a “culture” around pregnancy in some workplaces, says O’Connor, that is about making women feel uncomfortable and under pressure. It is particularly hard for women who have health issues during pregnancy because they tend to be very reluctant to take time off – for fear, no doubt, of being seen as “milking” their condition.
For women still coming to terms with an unplanned pregnancy, issues in the workplace may be compounded. If they are single and known not to be involved in a long-term relationship, they often worry what colleagues will think of them.
“It’s not as if I am 18,” is something that Sherie de Burgh, director of counselling services at One Family, often hears from women in their early 30s who are on a career path and who become unexpectedly pregnant. “There is embarrassment attached to it.”
With an unplanned pregnancy, your whole life is going to change, she points out. And for those who come for crisis pregnancy counselling, a mix of practical and emotional issues come up.
“We try to help them to come to terms with the decision and the changes ahead.”
Practical challenges may include a need to move back home to parents and the question of childcare. Then, on the emotional side, the relationship with the father may be in great turmoil or nonexistent, and the woman may resent the fact that he can just walk away.
“There is a very strong sense of being left alone,” de Burgh says, even where an ex-partner is offering to help financially. For his part, the partner, or ex-partner, “will be struggling about the fact that he is about to become a father in less than ideal circumstances, which may make him less than sympathetic”, she says. Through all of this, the woman has to cope with work as if nothing has happened.
At least those in secure employment with negotiated agreements have maternity rights on their side. However, despite various safeguards built into legislation, some 13 per cent of the women interviewed in the 2011 survey said their physical or mental health had been adversely affected by employment during pregnancy, either “a great deal” or “quite a bit”.
They need to know their rights (see panel) as well as exercise pragmatic self-care.
“It’s a big thing to be pregnant and it is tiring working full-time,” says antenatal tutor Anne Marie O’Dowd of About Birth and Babies, which runs antenatal and early parenting classes. While the best coping strategies can be very individual, it is all about taking care of yourself and being kind to yourself during pregnancy.
Getting plenty of rest and going to bed earlier should be a priority, particularly as the pregnancy progresses. While it can be difficult to sleep in the later stages, just getting into bed to rest is important.
Gentle exercise, such as walking, swimming and pregnancy yoga and aqua classes, are also advised and can prove energising – even if it’s the last thing you feel like doing after work.
Some branches of Cuidiú, the Irish Childbirth Trust, run “relax, stretch, breathe” classes for pregnant women, which are about “getting them into the idea that there’s a baby coming”, says O’Dowd, who is a member of Cuidiú’s national council.
The main thing, she adds, is “to find some space for yourself to connect with the baby. If it is the first baby, it can take a while for it to become a reality.”
The misnamed “morning” sickness comes in the first trimester as hormone levels are changing, says midwife Helen O’Carroll, who advises frequent light snacks, such as dry crackers or ginger biscuits, along with a small amount of liquid, to keep it at bay.
Another symptom to look out for on your first trimester – when you are probably trying to keep your condition a secret – is weakness and dizziness due to a drop in blood pressure.
“Get up slowly from your workspace and move around slowly,” advises O’Carroll, who runs antenatal classes and postnatal care in the community through the website, 1dayantenatalclass.com. Drinking water will help too.
Also, don’t ignore the feeling of needing to go to the toilet more often. As the uterus expands and puts pressure on your bladder, the risk of developing a urinary tract infection is exacerbated by not emptying the bladder frequently enough.
While most women regain their energy levels and positively “bloom” during the second trimester, the last couple of months at work can be a struggle. Puffiness around the ankles is common at this stage and O’Carroll recommends getting up and walking around regularly if you can, as well as doing circular movements of your feet at your desk, if you can’t put them up.
If it is possible to do some of your job from home and your employer is open to such flexible work practices, it is much more convenient, adds O’Carroll. In the later stages of pregnancy, cutting out the commute can be a blessed relief.
Hannah wishes she could avail of flexi time during her pregnancy and sometimes be allowed to work from home in Clondalkin, Dublin.
“I don’t want to take the mickey and be at home in my PJs watching soaps,” she stresses. “But there are days when I’m so tired and unwell I’m focusing on staying awake or not getting sick, and I’m not getting my work done. If I could just nap for an hour or two, I’d get more done when I was feeling better.”
Since her role as communications and marketing executive primarily involves sitting at a desk, she doesn’t envisage additional problems as the pregnancy progresses. However, occasionally she has to go into hospitals for photocalls and, if there were to be an outbreak of specific bugs, she would have to stay away, “making it difficult to do my job”.
Work has been very accommodating in her taking time off for medical appointments – either at the Coombe or with her GP. “I will, however, be trying to organise my antenatal classes for evenings to suit my husband’s schedule,” she says.
“I’m sure there’d be no problem in organising cover for his shifts but we’d be financially down, and at the moment every penny counts.”
Workplace rights when you have ‘precious cargo on board’ As soon as you tell your employer you are pregnant, any tasks or workplace conditions that might put you or your baby’s health and safety at risk must be assessed.
If your current job does pose a risk, your employer must either find alternative work or grant you health and safety leave.
If a doctor certifies that night work may damage your health, you cannot be compelled to do it during pregnancy.
You are entitled to paid time off for antenatal medical appointments.
You can also take paid time off for one set of antenatal classes, except for the last three. (In other words, you can’t get time off again on subsequent pregnancies, and the last three classes are expected to fall during your maternity leave before the birth.) You must apply for maternity leave at least four weeks before it would be due to start, which is at least two weeks before the expected delivery day – this requires a medical certificate confirming your pregnancy and when the baby is due.
If your baby is born before you have started maternity leave, your 26 paid weeks will start from the day of the birth.
If you have a stillbirth after 24 weeks, you are entitled to 26 weeks’ maternity leave.
If you believe you are being dismissed or discriminated against because of your pregnancy, you can bring a claim under the Employment Equality Acts 1998-2011. (See equality.ie)
For more information, see “Your Maternity Rights Explained” on workplacerelations.ie