Overcoming obstacles to starting a family

by Sarah Westerbeek

The journey into motherhood holds many challenges both personal and professional

Location: UK
Published: Wednesday 28 October 2020
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‘Well yes, you are definitely pregnant, and actually there are two of them.’

That was the start of my journey into motherhood. Sitting in the clinic with my husband, having an early pregnancy scan, our world was well and truly shaken. The pregnancy was a happy surprise and so we hadn’t really had time to consider the implications and logistics of having a baby, or in this case two.

Looking back I was totally naive to what pregnancy, maternity leave and parenthood would involve. The weeks and months that followed involved pregnancy complications, stress, uncertainty, premature labour, NICU stays and finally discharge home two months after giving birth.

That was my story, and I’m sure that every person having a child has a unique story of their own. What I have learnt with hindsight is that when our families are growing, it is an incredibly exciting time, but it also comes with its own stresses. Some of these can be related to the pregnancy and our personal situations, others can be related to our work life and the impact that pregnancy and becoming a working parent has on it.

I remember feeling nervous about telling my employers about my pregnancy and fearful that it would cause problems. I had heard many tales of people being treated unfairly by employers during pregnancy and maternity leave and I also felt guilty about the inconvenience I might cause the practice.

At the time I did not have the time or energy to dedicate to looking in to all aspects of maternity leave, as the information felt fragmented, complicated and hard to decipher. I was not sure if I would be entitled to enhanced maternity pay, SMP or MA, or in-fact what they even were. My time was consumed with feeling exhausted, nauseous and juggling frequent hospital visits and work.

At the time I did not ask for ask for adaptations to my work, which may have reduced the burden of some of my pregnancy symptoms, as I wasn’t aware that I could. I also felt conflicted about attending maternity appointments when I was supposed to be at work. I am sure that I am not alone in my experiences. Thankfully my practice were keen to support me throughout my pregnancy and proactively tried to find ways of doing this.

Unfortunately, this is not always the case, with research conducted by the Equality and Human Rights Commission finding that 10 per cent of mothers’ employers discouraged them from attending antenatal appointments, despite it being illegal to do so. Their findings also demonstrated that up to 11% of mothers were unfairly treated, by either being dismissed, made compulsorily redundant or treated so badly that they felt they needed to leave their workplaces.

In addition to these worrying findings, the long term effect of becoming a parent on career progression and the gender pay gap is well documented. These are some of the reasons why as a member of GPCUK I have teamed with other members of the committee to focus on producing a guide, a webinar for GPs on maternity/paternity/adoptive leave and a workshop webinar on GP maternity to help guide them through this.

There are many things to consider, such as working with our employers or colleagues to optimise our work environments during pregnancy, meeting our appraisal and revalidation requirements, using KIT days, managing sickness during pregnancy, accruing leave and ultimately returning to work successfully at the end of our leave.

We hope that this guide will be able to take you through all of these areas, from the beginning of pregnancy or the adoption process right through until parenthood. There are also some more recent changes included, such as details of Shared Parental Leave and Covid related Tax Free child care.

My children are now 5 and I am thankful that I have an amazing balance between my work and home lives. It has taken some time and figuring out along the way, but I have got there. As all parents will know, this balance will likely change many times over the upcoming years, but the key is forward planning and flexibility. My main piece of advice would be this, read through the guide and start making plans about work during this time early, so that you can really thrive on this new adventure!

If you have any specific queries and are a BMA member then please contact the BMA directly.

Sarah Westerbeek is a sessional GPs executive committee member