Pregnancy and Motherhood, Demystified: A Personal Account of A Working Mum
By Janine De Keersmaecker
I made a promise to myself to write about pregnancy as I was surprised that I had no clue about all the things that I had to go through. I mean, growing up with Hollywood movies you think that you end up on this pink cloud as soon as you conceive and yeah, there is morning sickness but that’s only in the morning, right? It’s nothing like that. I know it is different for everyone and all in all mine was ok, but it is my duty to other ‘oblivious’ women to be vocal about it. There is one thing that is absolutely true though – being a mother is wonderful. The expression “a bundle of joy” is very, very correct, but you only realise that later. Let me first fill you in on the other stuff.
I found out that I was pregnant in the bathroom of my office. I had been married for over 5 years at that point. I stopped using birth control right after my wedding. Four years later, a medical test found out that my husband had reduced fertility. I had almost given up hope. We moved to Dubai in April 2016 and I was honestly not thinking about it anymore, living my life surfing and partying. My first reaction isn’t representative for how I feel now but I simply said “F*ck”. I called my best friend in Brussels and then my husband who immediately ecstatically told the world. I was 2 weeks pregnant.
The first stage was nausea and grumpiness. I could smell everything five times stronger and living on Sheikh Zayed Road next to a million different exhausts, meant I could smell pizza express from across the street (Sheikh Zayed has 12 lanes). That could have been wonderful but for some reason, I was disgusted by pizza. I remember puking in my office multiple times. The only thing that would help against the nausea was to eat small bits all the time. Let’s not talk about the weight gain just yet.
Nausea lasted for 4 almost 5 months. A lot of things had happened. My law firm, King & Wood Mallesons went bankrupt. As I was pregnant and based in a new jurisdiction, finding another job wasn’t easy. I started working as a freelance lawyer from home. Suddenly my world became very small. Not even a year ago I was travelling the world multiple times per month, speaking at conferences on women empowerment, meeting new members of my Lean In circle every week and now I was stuck in my living room. In retrospect, I think that’s what I found the hardest about pregnancy. Everybody is telling you what you cannot do or eat: you can no longer surf, you cannot eat sushi, you should not drink, etc. You automatically adopt a limiting mindset and I know, it’s all in your head but we absolutely create our own prisons. To break out, I decided to start circuit training for pregnant ladies at the other side of town. For the first time in my 35-year-old life, I was lifting weights.
Being pregnant of your first child is a very abstract concept to you. Something is moving in your belly, responding to jazz music as if it was rock and roll, dislocating your hips with its head, surprising you with its hick-ups. It was New Year’s eve, perhaps half past midnight, and I had just arrived in Bali after a lonely 8 hour trip in an Emirates plane. I was sitting in a taxi on my way to my friends – every year, I meet up with my Ukrainian friend from Kiev at some location in the world. The street was blocked due to the many motorbikes parading to celebrate the first day of the year. I was watching the spectacle from the taxi when I felt it for the first time. Blup, as if water bubbles were surfacing. I was almost 4 months then.
After 5,5 months I started growing uncontrollably. I gained weight super fast despite eating normal amounts of food. It’s like my hormones suddenly realized the vessel wasn’t floaty enough to carry the package. That’s exactly how you feel, as if ‘you’ are irrelevant and your body is only functioning in light of what it is carrying. If you breastfeed that feeling will last as long as you are producing milk. Pregnancy brain is not an urban myth. Your mind is simply not functioning as before. The bigger you get, the more difficulty you’ll have sleeping, hence the less alert you are.
Also, the bigger you get, the less you can see yourself down there. Imagine shaving! Oh well, at that point you honestly no longer care. You’re branded “already knocked up” so men start looking at you in a different way. It was remarkable to notice how you drop out off ‘the marketplace’, especially when you also notice entering it again afterwards. I gained 18 kilos throughout my pregnancy and lost almost all of them again in a period of about 6 -7 months after I delivered the baby, without doing any crazy exercise scheme, just regular swimming. I was surprised to see how resilient my body can be. Lesson learned: it’s better to accept the changes than to fight them.
The day before my water broke, I lost my mucus plug for the second time. You’re absolutely horrified when this happens. Nobody tells you about it! The mucus plug is a plug that seals the cervical canal during pregnancy. It is formed by a small amount of cervical mucus and can look bloody when it comes out.
It does not necessarily mean labour is imminent but it can be an indication. I lost it the first time two weeks before the delivery. Another myth we tend to believe is that we have to be ready at all times as the baby may suddenly pop out. For most women delivery is a very slow process, especially when it is the first time. So, relax and breath.
Whilst the puddle of water was getting bigger in the kitchen, I called my gynaecologist's office and they told me to go straight to the hospital. The contractions did not increase so I spent most of the day sitting in the hospital bed watching Netflix with my husband. The next day, it was 1 June 2017, I was induced and the contractions came. Before they became too strong to manage, my epidural kicked in and my body slowly opened up unaware of the major stretch. When it was finally time to push, my gynaecologist arrived with two midwives. She was sitting in front of me, the two midwives were standing on each side and my husband was holding my back. I felt well surrounded and followed her instructions precisely as if she was my coach, pushing me through an extreme sports endeavour. We giggled and laughed with the silly push faces I made. Then I saw his head. With one last push, he came out, completely purple with black curly hair. The moment they put him on my belly, I did not feel the overwhelming emotions and deep connection that I had heard about. I was just relieved and grateful that he seemed fine.
You have to grow into motherhood. I remember the first week that Amadeo was born, I had no clue how to talk to this little guy. I felt a bit silly actually addressing him, but then somehow you just roll into it and the more this precious little being becomes the centre of your universe, the more it becomes a second nature. The first few weeks after birth wasn’t easy. The constant bleeding, the painful stitched up cut, the fatigue, my giant body (and mother that kept reminding me of it), the painful nipples and the insecurity due to the lack of experience were nerve-wracking. It was great to have my parents around but one month is definitely too long. As a little family, you need to find your own pace.
Then the nanny arrived. Amadeo was about 2,5 months old. Giving him to her was so hard. I am not a person of negative feelings, but for the first time, I felt envy. I was afraid that my son would not recognize me as his mother. I called my friends who reassured me that they always know who the mom is. Now, 8 months later, I have to say they absolutely do. It is wonderful. With a lot of things in life, you just have to learn to let go.
Since I was freelancing, I had no income during my pregnancy break. When I started working again, finding billable work was easier said than done. Although I was developing my own practice, I felt as if my magical connector skills were off. My brain was foggy from waking up every two hours to breastfeed and I simply couldn’t remember people’s names. For the first time ever, I became financially dependent on my husband. I hated it. I felt as if I was no longer entitled to anything, not even to speak up (very unlike me). As my husband had paid for the car, I didn’t feel comfortable asking him whether I could use it. I know how silly this sounds now but I had to go through this exercise of vulnerability to understand some important things about life and marriage. Beginning of 2018, I became sick. Shingles, the doctor said, caused by stress and fatigue. Reflecting on it, I decided I needed to vent more. I stopped swallowing my words. I started claiming the car and the freedom that comes with it. Slowly I became myself again and perhaps even an enhanced version of myself. I learned to live with very little and became very grateful for everything I already have. I now understand the empowering effect that money can have on women and am more than ever ready to build my business.
When it comes to doing things for yourself (including work), we often refer to guilt feelings. I am not sure whether guilt is the right description. I guess it depends where you draw the line of your personal freedom. I need my own space to grow, create and ultimately be a role model for my boy. I love spending time with Amadeo. I miss him when I haven’t seen him for a while, but as long as I make sure I do valuable things with the time that I do not spend with him, I am absolutely fine with being away from him.
Although the journey wasn’t easy, this is a story of freedom and joy. My days are filled with songs, laughter and wonder. Entering the world of my little boy, suddenly a bird is not just a bird anymore, but a fascinating flying, singing creature, beach sand is delicious, toes are intriguing and plants are there to be touched and licked. There is colour everywhere. Pink turtles, yellow whales, green penguins!
They say behind every great man is a strong woman. I would say behind every strong woman there is a community of great women supporting her. Thanks to them, I was not alone, I was able to process my feelings and thoughts, I was staying positive and through all the mist, I was able to find myself again. For that, I am eternally grateful.
Author: Janine De Keersmaecker is a lawyer, optimist, surfer, explorer, founder of Serve the City International and two Lean In circles in Brussels and Dubai. After she spent 10 years at top-tier global law firms, she started working with legal disruptors to make quality legal support more accessible and affordable. She advises startups and SMEs as well as big corporations around the world. Passionate about community-building she loves to facilitate real connections. She is happily married to her husband Wim and the proud mother of little Amadeo.