Keep calm, it's just a job

Pregnancy complications and unsympathetic colleagues? One mum shares her story with EVELINE GAN.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel
Photography Darren Chang
Photography Darren Chang

Pregnancy complications and unsympathetic colleagues? One mum shares her story with EVELINE GAN.

In an ideal world, an expectant mum can put her feet up, take things easy and enjoy a smooth pregnancy. But reality is often far from perfect. Slowing down was never an option for 33-year-old banker Grace (not her real name), who had to plough through 12-hour workdays during her first pregnancy in 2014. “The company was undergoing some major changes and we were also shortstaffed,” Grace recalls. “Nobody could leave work on time; having a baby wasn’t an excuse to not take on extra work.” It was often so hectic that she even restricted her water intake to cut back on toilet breaks. While Grace was mentally tough enough to handle the constant pressure at work, her body began showing physical signs of stress. She suffered recurrent urinary tract infections (UTI). At 22 weeks, she started getting early contractions after her third bout of UTI. “I remember having very painful stomach cramps from 2am to 10am the next morning. It didn’t occur to me that they were contractions; I thought I had a bout of stomach flu,” she says.

Too early, too soon Labour is considered “too early” when it occurs before 37 weeks, Dr Cynthia Kew, consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist practising at Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital, explains. About one in 10 pregnancies ends in preterm birth. No one knows for sure what causes preterm contractions and labour to occur before Baby is ready to be born. But studies have linked the phenomenon to high levels of chronic stress during pregnancy, says Dr Tan Eng Loy, consultant at the department of obstetrics and gynaecology at Singapore General Hospital.

Preterm contractions can also be triggered by infections like UTI, food poisoning causing diarrhoea, as well as bacterial infections of the cervix and vagina, says Dr Kew. So can any serious infection that causes fever. Unable to bear the painful contractions, Grace checked herself into the emergency department. The doctor prepped her for the worst: She could end up delivering her baby way before her expected due date.

There was also the possibility that she could chalk up a six-digit bill as her preemie would require extensive medical support in the neonatal intensive care unit. “Thankfully, a four-day hospital stay, plus injections and hormone pills, helped ease the contractions,” Grace says. She was subsequently prescribed a month-long period of home bed rest, where she got up only for toilet breaks and weekly injections which left painful bruises on her buttocks.

Can’t afford to quit Most women in Grace’s situation would have sympathetic co-workers. Instead, she found herself being cold-shouldered by disgruntled colleagues who had to take on her share of the workload. “The work culture at my company has always been every man for himself. So I wasn’t surprised that no one texted me during my medical leave to send well wishes,” she recalls.

“But what saddened me was when I heard – from a close friend – that my colleagues made unkind comments about my situation. They couldn’t understand why my pregnancy was so ‘troublesome’.” Still, quitting her job was not an option. They had a flat to pay off, and it would have been a stretch to survive solely on her husband’s income. “It would have been nice to hold a less stressful, regular nine-to-five job and be able go home on time. But with my pregnancy complications, and the possibility that I might go into labour anytime, we would need the extra income should anything happen,” she says. When her month-long bed rest ended, Grace returned to work. Just two days later, a fresh wave of contractions returned. Instead of taking another break from work, however, she bore with the discomfort.

For three weeks, she shuttled between her office and the gynae’s clinic for check-ups and injections to sustain her pregnancy. But not even her dedication at work was able to stem the undercurrent of resentment building up. “No one asked if I was okay. Sometimes, when I messaged my boss telling her I’d have to take an MC, she would not even bother to reply. I felt so bad for being a burden to the team,” Grace says. When the contractions would not let up at 30 weeks, the doctor issued an ultimatum: Go on bed rest for the rest of the pregnancy or risk delivering early.

Grace followed her gynae’s orders and eventually delivered a healthy boy at 38½ weeks via a planned C-section – she feared she wouldn’t have the strength to push during labour after her long bed rest. “I felt so weak after lying in bed for so long. Thankfully, all went well during delivery. When I first laid eyes on my baby, everything I went through during the difficult pregnancy was worth it.” Not surprisingly, her colleagues skipped the post-baby well wishes, too.

“No one sent congratulatory messages after my delivery. But they briefly asked about Baby when I went back to work after my maternity leave. The conversation went something like: ‘How’s Baby? Good? Great. Back to work,’” Grace recalls. These days, the negative vibes at work no longer bother Grace. She is simply thankful to go home to a healthy, happy baby after a stressful day’s work.

Boss, I’m pregnant

What if your supervisor is unapproachable or isn’t supportive of expectant employees? Sher-li Torrey, founder and owner of Mums@work, a career portal that helps women find work-life balance, has tips.

Honesty is the best policy Don’t be afraid or shy to share news about your pregnancy with your employer as soon as it’s confirmed. “More often than not, bosses get mad when the employee does not tell them in advance,” she says. They need time to arrange for backup plans during your four-month maternity leave or work out potential work issues.

Create a win-win situation While asking your boss and colleagues for support, you should also reassure them of your commitment to the team. For example, if you need to leave early to go for an antenatal appointment, tell them you can complete some work from home later. “It will ease a lot of secondguessing and unpleasant office mind games that may happen when your boss or colleagues are unhappy, but choose not to say so,” she explains.

Approach the Ministry of Manpower only as a last resort Under the Employment Act, you may file a claim or appeal against your employer if you have a dispute over maternity leave or feel that you have been unfairly dismissed. But Sher-li advises doing this only after you have exhausted these options:

● Speak to your direct supervisor. Even if he is the cause of the problem, try to speak to him with a third party to ensure a fair and just discussion.

● If nothing is done, speak with the human resource team to ask about your company’s policy on fair treatment.