Becoming a parent: The pregnancy

Tes
30th March 2018 at 00:00
Teachers share their own experience of being pregnant while working – and offer advice on the various challenges that it can bring

Being pregnant and a teacher? It’s…interesting

Teaching is hard. We all know that. But what about the added physical and emotional toils of being a pregnant teacher?

Before I talk about my experience, I should say that I had a (relatively) straightforward pregnancy. I am also lucky to have had an incredibly supportive department. Not every teacher will be in the same situation.

But to start my tale, imagine waking up and discovering all of your work clothes no longer fit. Then imagine that you are teaching Year 9 and you have to run out of the room to be sick into the nearest bin… twice. Finally, imagine that you are teaching Year 8 – now from a high stool – and you realise that all of your students are staring at your colossal belly, which is moving in a weird “Alien-esque” fashion, and that this special effect has easily trumped the lesson you had planned.

That’s only the shortest of glimpses into being a pregnant teacher.

Another joyful reality is the crying. There were so many days when I came home and just had to have a little weep about something mundane, such as knocking four mugs of tea off the staffroom counter with my bump or feeling squashed in the canteen by enormous teenagers. Or feeling like I was giving my all to hundreds of kids who I didn’t really know, and not reserving anything for the one with whom I was about to embark on a life adventure.

Adapting can be tough. As far as I remember, teacher training doesn’t cover how to cope when you are two stones heavier and full to bursting with hormones and, oh yes, growing another human.

But it’s fun, too. My department used to joke that they would make a recording of the sound of the photocopier because my baby spent so much time listening to it in her nine months of development that it would be a good “soother” for when she was born. Kind of like how some people read the same story or sing the same lullaby as a preparation for the real world – except my baby was conditioned to the dulcet sounds of printing 30 double-sided A4 sheets.

And the kids, they were amazing. They held open the door for me, handed out books and asked every lesson if I would name my unborn child after them. They spent countless breaktimes designing graffiti name tags with their name on for my unborn child’s future bedroom door (they have not gone onto her bedroom door).

Overall, they and my colleagues were all just a bit more gentle with me.

So, despite the sickness, the heaviness, the forgetfulness, the exhaustion and the weeping, being a pregnant teacher was actually OK. Because schools, in general, are really supportive places to be pregnant.

Katie White is an English teacher at a secondary school in Devon

 


Coping with pregnancy-related illness

The very first time I vomited was week six of my pregnancy, and it was in the staffroom toilet. I remember thinking, “Gosh, I hope no one overhears me, how embarrassing!”

If only I knew then how little dignity I would have left by the end of those nine bitter months. I estimate I was sick about 2,000 times. The low point was throwing up in public when no one knew me or knew I was pregnant – and looked at me with disgust or said something derogatory.

Unlike many sufferers of severe pregnancy sickness, or hyperemesis gravidarum (HG), most weeks, I somehow made it into school. This was down to a very supportive senior leadership team.

The physical act of throwing up was difficult to work around when teaching a class and I regularly had to dash out. Some weeks I was too sick to work, my throat bled and burnt from the stomach acid (which I later learned to manage by slugging antacid straight from the bottle before and after being sick). Blood vessels under my eyes burst.

At one point, a concerned student from my IGCSE class even asked his parents to speak to the school about how ill I looked. My head of department would usually cover my morning class, as I was sick for several hours in the morning, then I’d get into work around 9am or 10am and usually managed the rest of my morning lessons. Lunchtime became very difficult because the smell of food would trigger vomiting and I’d generally spend that time in the toilet. Sometimes, I’d have to go home and rest; other times, I went back to my afternoon lessons.

It was awkward when colleagues asked how I was and I just had to say “awful”. Sometimes I was too tired from vomiting in the middle of the night to come into work.

My school was so supportive: they backed me 100 per cent in my decision to work and when I could not, adjustments were made so I could text my head of department (often from the toilet floor) with an estimate of when I would be in, and we just got on with it.

The fact that I could work prevented me from becoming isolated, which is extremely common with HG, and it also helped me financially. But it was very difficult.

HG has gained some attention in recent years with Kate Middleton suffering with it during her pregnancies, but misinformation is still common. I was never diagnosed with HG, as, like many suffers, treatment can be delayed or even refused owing to – perhaps understandable, perhaps outdated – fears relating to the use of drugs in pregnancy following the thalidomide scandal. Perhaps also because of the disturbing acceptance that sickness in pregnancy is “normal”.

The sad reality is that many women with HG limit their families to one child because you are likely to have HG again in future pregnancies; and because it can be worse – requiring periods of hospitalisation and IV fluids – some women have to terminate pregnancies. It is important that everyone is aware of how severe it can be. Fortunately, I found the charity Pregnancy Sickness Support (pregnancysicknesssupport.org.uk) and other networks, which really helped me through it all. The last time I was sick was one hour before my daughter was born, and I’ll never forget the overfamiliarity with the toilet bowl. But with the right support and early medication, it is possible to get through HG.

And if you are worried that my students suffered by having me run out to vomit repeatedly, my IGCSE class got 100 per cent A*/A. Which just shows that a well-managed and supportive culture in a department can overcome most things.

Rosie Boparai is a teacher of maths and physics, and editor of the Journal of Physics Education. She is a member of the Maternity Teacher / Paternity Teacher (MTPT) Project


Why we need to talk about miscarriage

Last October, I had a miscarriage. Most of the people I work with, many of my friends and even some of my family will be surprised to read that sentence. It’s not something that’s easy to talk about. Yet it happened to me: I was pregnant and then I wasn’t.

One week, we saw our tiny baby on a screen and the next, in the very same scan room but with the screen turned away from us, we were told that I was in the process of losing it.

In the moment that my worst fears were being confirmed, I remember looking up at the ceiling tiles and feeling like the floor was being pulled out from under me.

Miscarriage, in the first 12 weeks in particular, is painfully common: about 25 per cent of pregnancies end in miscarriage, with 80 per cent of those occurring in the first trimester. You will almost certainly work with several women who have experienced it and several men whose wives or partners have been through it.

They will be people you speak to every day.

Unless the miscarriage occurred at a later stage of pregnancy, it is unlikely you will know about the loss they have suffered. Miscarriage is not a topic you throw into conversation in the staffroom at breaktime.

But we do need to discuss it. Like anything left unspoken, not talking about miscarriage can leave you feeling isolated. Isolated because of your ignorance of what to expect when you’re losing a baby. Isolated because you’re unable to talk about your loss. Isolated because, in the silence, it is difficult to even acknowledge that it has happened. I don’t want to be complicit in that.

I moved back to Salisbury, my home town, two years ago when I separated from my husband. I was quickly appointed as head of English, and threw myself into leading a department and being a single mother to my two sons, now aged 4 and 6.

When my marriage failed, I didn’t expect to have any more children and I counted myself lucky to have two gorgeous, healthy boys. Then I met my partner and a whole new future of possibilities opened up to me.

Although not unplanned, I fell pregnant so quickly last summer that we were both taken aback. Thrilled and giddy with the idea of a new baby (my partner’s first), we immediately started discussing names and when I’d be going on maternity leave. We were so swept up in the idea that we started telling close friends and family straight away, which was unusual for me, as I’d kept both my previous pregnancies a secret, even from my mother, until after the dating scan at 12 or 13 weeks.

I was unusually sick, emotional and exhausted, which meant that I also informed my line manager far earlier than I might otherwise have done.

We went for a private scan thinking I was about two months pregnant. I wasn’t. The scan suggested that not only was I only four or five weeks pregnant, but it was suspected to be an ectopic or molar pregnancy. Very suddenly, I was overcome with a feeling of dread and sadness.

What followed were weeks of fear, blood tests and scans before, in October, we saw an eight-week-old tiny bundle with a fluttering heartbeat and were told that all should be fine. Following the anxiety of the previous weeks, I suddenly knew that the chances of losing the baby had dropped significantly because we had seen a tiny, beating heart.

It was less than a week after that scan when I began to miscarry – just as we had let ourselves hope. Things moved fast. We were about to go on holiday for half-term. We cancelled. Our personal grief was punctuated by clinical conversations about “management” and “tissue”.

On the Wednesday of halfterm, I had surgery. I was signed off for a week, which would have seen me returning to work on the Thursday of the first week back, but I had this extended by two further days so I didn’t return until the beginning of the following week.

My physical recovery was quick, but I was emotionally unsteady; I didn’t want to risk returning to work at a point where I might not be able to hold back my tears (which came unpredictably and without warning that first week). I needed to feel strong enough to keep a lid on things before facing colleagues and students. I didn’t want my grief to be a distraction for my students and I didn’t want to be distracted by it.

The truth is, I wasn’t capable of working that first week. The predominant feeling for me in the aftermath was not sadness, but listlessness. I struggled to do anything beyond the essentials and couldn’t motivate myself to do much other than getting through the day.

Because I had an “early” miscarriage, I have nothing concrete to show for my pregnancy: no scan photo and no baby. It’s almost like it never was, so that you’re robbed not only of what might have been, but also of what you did have for those few weeks. The things I lost, beside the baby, were abstract: more than two months of expectation, excitement and plans that would now never be fulfilled.

I immediately felt the folly of having told so many people I was pregnant – it felt foolhardy. But I wonder now whether the expectation to keep it quiet for so long is part of the reason we don’t really hear or talk about early miscarriages. It’s an especially awkward business telling people that you’ve had a miscarriage before they even knew you were pregnant, which is probably why so many of us don’t do it.

Upon hearing the words coming out of your mouth, my experience is that people can’t process quickly enough what they’re hearing, so their face first shows their happiness in response to the news that you were pregnant before quickly dropping. It’s a facial microcosm of early miscarriage: hopeful expectation quickly turned to sadness.

When I did return to work, I felt ready and strong enough. I’m thankful to my school for supporting me in the way that it did. I hope that other schools are equally understanding because miscarrying as a teacher presents some unique challenges.

Primarily, our job, by its very nature, means that you are surrounded by people – there’s little reprieve in the average teacher’s day from being “on show”, so you need to feel strong enough to manage.

And our job demands a lot of us, not just mentally and physically, but emotionally; I don’t think we should risk having teachers coming back into the classroom before they’re ready and before they have the emotional reserves necessary to deal with the challenges of teaching.

If someone in your school miscarries, however “early” that might be, I’d urge you to give them the time, space and support to collect themselves. Encourage them not to rush back as soon as they’re physically able, but instead when they’re mentally and emotionally ready.

Know that they probably don’t want to pretend that they were ill and probably don’t want to field questions from other members of staff. Consider ways to tell the people who need to know the truth and find out how the person affected wants the news to be handled. But most of all, know that silence isn’t the answer. It never has been.

Rebecca Foster is head of English at St Edmund’s Girls’ School, Salisbury


It’s easier to be a pregnant teacher with number two, three, four…

When I was pregnant the first time, everything felt overwhelming. In subsequent pregnancies, I was less of a gibbering wreck. Right from the appearance of the blue line, I was planning my scans and calculating maternity-leave dates. I knew my MATB1 from my GTT. Everything is so much more straightforward when you can make more informed guesses at the length of appointments, and when you do not have to factor in “I’m lost at the hospital” time.

When you have your second child, you become a pregnancy ninja.

Throughout the whole of my first pregnancy, I worried. Worried about what people said about the size of my bump, worried about what I was eating, worried about what people thought of me being pregnant and still a Miss. The more I fretted, the more miserable I became and the more I saw pregnancy as some kind of endurance, rather than something to enjoy.

But second and third time around, it was easier to brush off those comments made by others. And I was more adept at swiping away the hands of the socially inept, who seemed to think it was OK to touch my stomach.

Yet it is not all a positive story. Second and third time, you have more complications: the children you have already. Toddler not sleeping, plus pregnancy insomnia, plus chickenpox with your eldest… With baby number one, you have a few balls in the air, but by the time you’re adding to your family, there are more balls than there is time to think about whether you’re meant to be juggling them or bouncing on them.

Things such as pregnancy yoga, or even joining antenatal groups, go by the wayside. There is less time to mentally prepare for the next baby. And there is less time for all of the extras at work – tiredness can mean revision classes, extracurricular activities and school trips are beyond your capability. And as hard as it is to say no, focusing on the basics can be all that is needed to get you through.

But this is outweighed by what you gain. The biggest change for me was that I never felt comfortable talking about my first pregnancy with my classes. With my second and third babies, I was much more relaxed and when students shyly ventured questions I was able to actually talk about the whole experience. In doing so, it brought up some important discussions about their own families, as well as their own worries and fears about pregnancy. In fact, on more than one occasion, I signposted a student towards another adult to provide support following disclosures.

Overall, I would say this: if you are thinking of baby number two, or more, balancing work and family life while pregnant requires a walk down a tightrope – but as you tread, the more familiar the line becomes and the more confident you are in your steps.

Grainne Hallahan is an English teacher in a secondary school in Essex

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