When I was pregnant I lost count of how many times work colleagues would ask me how I was feeling. “Yeah great thanks,” I’d reply. “Even better now that I’ve bought shares in Gaviscon...”
You see, that’s what you do when you’re expecting a baby – you make a joke and move on. No one’s interested that you have chronic indigestion or that you're exhausted, sobbing down the phone to your mum on the bus to work about only having three hours sleep because you woke up with a twinge that you then spent the rest of the night anxiously googling.
Pregnancy is supposed to be a happy time. People expect it to be. And, for the most part, it is. You now have the right to hog the office biscuits and pad around the office in flip-flops (swollen feet). You’re the proud custodian of a Baby On Board badge and you can forgo messy Friday after-work drinks for early nights on the sofa with your partner. You are doing something amazing, you are “growing a human”.
It is supposed to be nine months of blissful domesticity, a pause before the big change. But I stress the word “supposed”, because along with all the physical symptoms, there are so many other emotions at play. Paranoia is one of them; and this is sharply highlighted in current BBC psychological thriller The Replacement. In it, the main character, architect Ellen struggles with the feeling that her maternity leave cover Paula might replace her for good.
Those emotions are very real. Our jobs are so tied with who we are these days I think it’s totally normal for many women to feel this way, to a greater or lesser extent. I too experienced the completely irrational anxiety that my replacement would do my job better than me and that my boss might like her more. I even worried I might not have the same role to come back to, uncertainty amplifying nightmare scenarios in my mind:
Boss: “She was doing so well we’ve kept her on. But we’ve got this nice little job for you that we think will fit in with your pick-ups and drop-offs better…”
Me: “No problem – thanks. I’ve been away for so long I’m grateful I still have a job.”
My imagined apprehension was heightened by a barrage of hormones that hit me in waves – on the outside I may have looked serene and "glowing” but I was very often paddling furiously underneath the water to keep up and to cope. And that’s so normal: pregnancy marks the beginning of one of the biggest identity upheavals that a woman will ever have. It's only natural for it to be a wobbly time and to have feelings that can be as dark and irrational as absurd.
No one talks about the fact that for many women, the pregnancy months can be as up and down as the months afterwards as a new mum – but it’s just so important
My friends who have “done babies” and I all laugh about it now, but little laughs not big ones as our memories are still sharp. We talk about the fact we “lost our minds” to pregnancy; how our moods were as changeable as the weather on a spring day. One minute we were genuinely fearful for what might happen to our lives (less money, the impact on our careers, the terrifying responsibility of bringing a new being into the world). The next, we were breathlessly overcome with excitement and bravado – “ho, ho, ho: *our* baby’s not going to change *us*”.
I also, and I do belly-laugh at myself for thinking this, believed having a baby would be a bit of a holiday – a career break if you will. After working my ass off for so long, all those coffee mornings and park meet-ups with fellow mat-leavers sounded different, and rather nice.
But no sooner than I started daydreaming about afternoon tea in cafes, the dialogue in my mind would switch back to two voices needling.
“Soon you won’t be relevant any more. Soon you will be Just A Mum.”
“I want to be Just A Mum. It’s the most important job in the world. I don’t care about my career.”
“So you don’t mind about the away-day next week you haven’t been invited to?”
And on it went: the constant cycle of fear of the future, pregnancy FOMO and desire to hunker down and nest, all played out against a private excitement that I was silently doing something extraordinary while the hum of my nine-to-five rolled on.
No one talks about the fact that for many women, the pregnancy months can be as up and down as the months afterwards as a new mum – but it’s just so important. Dramas such as The Replacement are doing a good job of opening up the conversation and making people more aware of “baby blues” – often dismissed something that “all mothers go through” – and how much an emotional rollercoaster it can be (and how it can even escalate and turn into antenatal depression for some women).
Me, I am thankful that I muddled through my pregnancy and maternity leave unscathed. I had a great boss, a supportive partner and the embers of insecurity and irrationality that clung to me eventually died away. When I returned to work, of course, no one had replaced me. Within a few days it was just like I’d never been away. Work was just the same, only *I* wasn’t the same. Motherhood, despite its bumpy, irrational and paranoid start, had changed me and my life. For the better.