Ten years ago I had a twenty-a-day Mayfair Light habit. I’d wake up with a pack by the bed and lighting up was the first thing I’d do. To a non-smoker this may sound awful, but I loved my fags. It was the whole “being addicted” thing I couldn’t stand. So I booked in for some NHS group therapy – totally cringe but highly effective, and hence unlikely to be funded these days – and gave up completely. I still miss cigarettes, sometimes, but not how guilty and fearful the act of smoking used to make me feel.
Of course, now I find that, pregnancy-wise at least, I might as well have been at home chain-smoking in front of Deal or No Deal rather than venturing out for some honest toil. According to a study reported in the Guardian (and several other newspapers), “work after eight months of pregnancy can be as harmful as smoking”. Naturally this is a real kick in the teeth for those of us who were still at the photocopier at 36 weeks, swollen ankles be damned.
According to research conducted at the University of Essex, babies whose mothers smoked or worked throughout pregnancy grew more slowly in the womb, and were on average half a pound lighter at birth. I worked till late on during both my pregnancies; both of my babies were born slightly before the due date and slightly on the small side (6lbs – but to be honest, I’ve always viewed this as them having been “considerate”). Obviously, though, I would have found sitting around smoking more fun than working, at least for a while. So since it appears I’ve fucked up already, I wish I’d fucked up in the more entertaining manner. Carpe diem and all that.
Now obviously I’m being facetious. Since I’d struggled to give up smoking long before getting pregnant, I’d hardly have wanted to start again (even though giving up a second time would have been useful if I’d been able to re-acquire the cleaning obsession I developed while giving up the first time around). Moreover, while I never actually needed to smoke, there were clear reasons why I carried on working till late into pregnancy, the main one being that the less I worked before my baby was born, the more time I’d get to spend with him afterwards. This would have been true even if I’d had more leave to play around with. And however many experts you find who’ll point out that working till late into pregnancy is bad, you’ll find ten times that number who’ll say the more time you spend with your newborn, the better.*
Anyhow, I’m not sure this research even applies to me. According to the report “stopping work early in pregnancy was particularly beneficial for women with lower levels of education”, i.e. women who may be more likely to do physically demanding work. This is where it starts to make a bit more sense. Perhaps it’s not the stress of thinking hard thoughts but the actual physical challenge of certain types of work which is to blame. I have a PhD and a desk job. This may mean that my working beyond eight months had no effect whatsoever. It doesn’t, however, stop the Guardian illustrating its piece with a photo of a headless pregnant woman on the phone in an office (still, it’s better than the Mail, who don’t even mention this link, the better, I suppose, to suggest that it’s middle-class “career women” – those who might have the kind of job even a middle-class man would want – who need to scuttle off home).
I can understand the purpose of the research conducted at Essex. What I can’t understand is the purpose of the heavy-handed reporting at this point in time, when no actual remedies – such as greater support for pregnant women in difficult jobs – are in the offing. It is all very well to talk about “greater flexibility” enabling women to take leave earlier, but it will always be a compromise, and there will always be something we’ve done wrong which will damage our careers, or our babies, or ourselves, or all three, or even the whole sodding world. You read these articles and you think “yeah, I probably messed up”. But you read them within the context of a million other ways in which you’ve already messed up while pregnant – you ate this, you didn’t eat that, you used the wrong essential oil, you wore the wrong shoes, you rolled over in your sleep and woke up lying on the wrong side, the side that is “bad for the baby” – meaning it’s hard to tell the wheat from the chaff and to work out what really matters.
Ultimately you might reach the point where you just think “fuck it” and really do head off home for Noel Edmonds and ciggies. If so, I wouldn’t actively approve – but I’d sure as hell understand.
* Um, I made up that statistic. I’m thinking that if I confess to that, it means I can still use it in my argument.