By Isabel Chew-Lau
Part One: My pregnancy and birth journey
I was not ready to be a mum when my husband and I got married in November 2020.
We were only 26. Most of my friends in law school were still unmarried; in fact, my close friends were mostly single. We were living with my in laws, since our BTO flat was still being built and key collection had just been pushed back given COVID. We wanted time as a newly-married couple; we hadn’t been able to plan a proper honeymoon because of COVID-19. In fact, I only took 3 days off after the wedding, part of which I spent drafting last-minute costs submissions.
I was barely 3 years into legal practice. Just starting out my legal career, on the cusp of finding some footing as to who I am and what I want to achieve as a lawyer. Much of the time, I still felt like a baby fish in a field of sharks, relying on preparation and mentorship to equip myself. I was riding all the ups and downs that came with litigation – trying to focus on the “ups” while building a thicker skin against the “downs”.
Two months later in January 2021, I discovered I was pregnant. I broke down upon this discovery. I felt clouded by fear, anxiousness, worry. In those early days, my emotions were almost entirely negative. I was not ready.
I broke down again when I told my in-laws and my parents. Again, when I confided in my firm’s paralegal (who is like a second mum to me at work). I tried to keep the news from my boss in those first two weeks, half hoping the news wasn’t true. But like a bloodhound, she managed to sniff out the news – even in the thick of COVID-19, when we were all working virtually – forcing me to “fess up”.
I broke down again. Even despite my boss’ enthusiastic response, I knew (or maybe was projecting) that the news complicated hopes for my career – not just mine, but the firm’s, including plans for me to step into a larger role i.e. directorship eventually.
I shared the “what ifs” that had been buzzing at the back of my mind: Namely to do with the worry that I could not be both a hands on mum and a lawyer. If I was already finding work tough, having a young child that I will be devoting substantial time to would make it even tougher. There was no way I could operate at the same level at work. Something had to give.
My boss’ response, having not had a kid but having seen those before me do precisely that, was “why not”? My response: I did not feel ready.
I was not ready to deal with pregnancy itself.
First, the lethargy that accompanied the first trimester; admittedly, there were a couple of days when I had to crash for a post-lunch nap in order to make it through the work day (yes, one of the perks of working from home).
Worse, the nausea. Thankfully I was not one of those constantly hugging the toilet. But still, my complete loss of interest in food made me feel like an entirely different person. I lived almost exclusively on a diet of bubble tea only on some days. The loss of appetite was ironically accompanied by hunger pangs (including in the wee hours) that brought on gagging and throwing up. As many would concur: it was no fun.
My mind continued to be plagued by worry about realistic, practical matters (childcare, work, my marriage, finances) and those not-so-realistic.
I was not ready when, toward the end of my first trimester, I receive a test result showing higher-than-expected markers for Downs’ syndrome.
I did not expect the mental toll these emotional upheavals and physical changes took on me. I like to see myself as somewhat “gung-ho” and hate to admit when I’m scared of a challenge – but if I’m honest with myself, I have a tendency to worry more than necessary and overthink things.
The “downs” at work – which I was by then accustomed to –
- being faced with a judge’s impatience
- having the court give a direction or order against my client
- having to manage my client’s expectations or convey disappointing news
- answering the same client’s questions for what felt like the hundredth time or responding to their late-night “urgent” emails
- fielding numerous acrimonious letters from the other side
- small corrections from my bosses, or a sharp word
- meeting tight deadlines (especially if I had procrastinated about them before)
- missing out on an important point in my submissions that I was only able to correct at the last minute
– seemed, on some days, to become potholes of despair. I felt even more anxious than before, and even less resilient.
But I was lucky enough to have a partner who amazed me with his patience, understanding and confidence in us as parents. Physically, I was thankful for a smooth second and third trimester. Importantly, I had supportive friends and family, whose delight at the news helped change my perspective to see our child as a blessing even if his appearance was earlier than planned.
My colleagues made it a point to check in on me, especially during our weekly Zoom meetings. I did not know how to convey how I was really feeling or the extent of my anxiousness. To some degree, I felt like I should not be too open with the same, thinking it may impact on the trust in me especially when the work-from-home regime made it harder for my bosses to keep tabs on me. But there were bright days when we met up at the office and, having not seen each other for some stretch of time, we would spend hours catching up – maybe not productive, but overall definitely positive.
In a bid to further quell the anxiousness of being a first-time mother, I threw myself into what I knew: Preparation.
I spent hours (and some pretty bucks) finding, watching, reading books and resources online about pregnancy and birth – from birth courses, to others’ birth experiences, the latest research on natural birth aids (Dates? Kegels? Perinneal massages?), even “hypnobirthing”. I talked to friends and cousins and prepared a detailed birth plan. I dipped my toe into the endlessly wider world of early childcare – from the basics to baby sign language, Elimination Communication training, baby-led weaning, Montessori philosophy and the like. Materially, I was thankful to have a friend and older cousins to pass me some hand-me-downs, and a husband who catalogued and compiled lists of what we have and what we still needed (though I admit towards the end, my oversight could at times be slightly overbearing).
Save for this, I continued working as before. My boss even mentioned that my work output was the same as if I were not pregnant. I was relieved. But it also made me worry all the more. I heard in that statement the expectation that things at work would not change after I gave birth.
I was still not ready for the birth. The Sunday before, we had moved into my old room in my parents’ place in preparation for his arrival. The room was a mess: Packaging from our countless online baby purchases strewn all over the floor, our clothes still in suitcases, baby’s items pushed haphazardly anywhere there was space “for now”. Our hospital bag was not packed.
I told myself we had time. I reasoned that both my husband and I were busy with work, we could push back the packing till the next weekend.
Speaking of work: I had listened to fables of other lawyers conducting meetings or drafting submissions and judges writing their grounds of decision while in the labour ward or recuperating from delivery – with a mixture of respect and horror. I had no doubt in the truth of these heroics. But I was not up for that. I needed those first few weeks after the birth more than work needed me. Internally, our team had prepared for my maternity leave.
I knew this. Yet I felt unsettled (more so than I should have, thinking back) at entrusting my matters and clients to my colleagues – no matter if they were more capable, more familiar or even more senior than me. It was the inner control freak in me that was acting up, riled up by everything else I felt I could not control.
To cut a long story short – the birth itself was a mad rush. Like everything else before, I was not ready.
That Thursday, I woke up at 5am with what I thought were simply low-level cramps, started my handover list for work, conducted a meeting in the office in the afternoon (with a client whose ancillary matter hearing was to take place 5 days later), went ahead for dinner planned with my colleagues and ex-colleagues, and walked to dessert after that. It was only after I started being unable to concentrate on the conversation that I went home.
I resisted going to the hospital until 10pm; when I was checked at 11pm, I was already 4cm.
From there on, my recollection of events isn’t the best. Yes, it was painful. While I had repeatedly told myself that I would take an epidural if I needed it, I hoped (and was quietly determined) not to get one. Time passed slowly. There were a few notable events mostly centering around vomiting.
As before, however, my son came quicker than expected. He was born at 1.37am.
That was when I was born too – into my new identity as a mum. That was when my whole life changed (cliché as it sounds).
And that is where I will have to end Part 1…
Because I desperately need direction and have been working on this for too long….