By Catherine Brooks
I discovered I was pregnant when my period was late, my boobs hurt and I couldn’t eat breakfast – it took a while but I finally put it all together and did a test (and then four more just to be sure!). My husband and I had only been trying for a short time so we were still reeling from the shock but oh so happy.
However, my excitement was quickly dampened when my GP said “well you’re deemed a high risk pregnancy because of your MS diagnosis”. My heart took a little tumble because I had no idea what ‘high risk’ meant. This was just one of the many things that I learnt along the way, so I hope this article provides guidance to all of you out there living with MS and considering expanding your family.
Empowering yourself with the answers to help reduce unnecessary stress whilst working
Tip # 1 – find out what a ‘high risk pregnancy’ means for you
My GP explained to me that I was deemed to have a ‘high risk’ pregnancy because of MS and that it meant that I couldn’t have a home birth and that I would need to be closely monitored during my pregnancy.
As I was going through the public system, it also meant that I had to go to a hospital that looked after high risk pregnant women, which was fine for me because I live near three great hospitals (Royal Women’s, Monash and Mercy – in Melbourne) but I couldn’t help but wonder about those women that live regionally.
Tip # 2 – ask your neurologist and care providers lots of questions
My GP also insisted I see my neurologist to discuss things with him. My neurologist quickly told me that there was nothing to worry about and given that I’m not yet taking any medication for MS there was nothing else to do but listen to the advice of the obstetricians that I would see at the Royal Women’s.
I had also heard that during pregnancy I was less likely to experience any MS symptoms but then after the birth I would likely have an attack, so I put this to my neurologist to see his view. Basically, he advised that it was possible that I would have less ‘attacks’ during my pregnancy, particularly after the first trimester, but that the research was not conclusive about this or the likelihood of having an attack post-birth.
My experience: My MS symptoms have definitely decreased throughout my pregnancy (yay!) to the point that I haven’t had an attack at all – just some normal aches in my limbs that I get when I’m really run-down. I’ll update you post-birth to see if I have any serious issues after bubba is born.
I also had heaps of questions for the professionals at the Royal Women’s – such as: Will I be able to have a natural birth? Yes. Will I have to stay in hospital longer post-birth? Unlikely, and if I do it’s unlikely to be because of MS. Will I need more check-ups / monitoring during my pregnancy because of MS? Unlikely.
My experience: MS has not caused me any problems during my pregnancy. I also have Hashimotos (a thyroid condition – also an immune disease) and that has led to me needing three weekly blood tests during my pregnancy, but no major hurdles to my health or that of bub.
Tip # 3 – be prepared to answer lots of questions from family and friends about how MS will impact your pregnancy and your baby
It’s such a lovely time when you can start telling friends and family about your pregnancy. Just be pre-warned – they will want to know lots about how your MS diagnosis will impact on your pregnancy and your baby. I have been asked the following questions: Will you still be able to have a natural birth? As above, for me it will not prevent me from having a natural birth. Will your baby have an increased chance of having MS? Do your own research, but as far as I can tell whilst genetics have a role to play when it comes to MS, chances are your baby will not have MS. Another great question to ask your neurologist. Will you have to stop working earlier than other women that don’t have MS? This will vary from person to person and you’ll most likely just have to see how you go. I worked all the way up to week 38 – but I was getting pretty tired from 30 weeks onward.
Managing your pregnancy ‘work-life’
Tip # 4 – plan, plan, plan!
There are three important phases to plan for: pre-pregnancy health, transitioning down to maternity leave and planning to return to work post-pregnancy.
It’s definitely worthwhile to plan for the pregnancy and for the birth. I started focussing on my health 12 months prior to starting to try to fall pregnant. I got my weight down, took all the recommended supplements and stopped drinking (except for the occasional glass of wine once a fortnight). I also read a huge amount and this really helped to prepare me and my body for the changes that then happened.
I then started preparing for the birth by attending Calm Birth classes and I also hired a private midwife to ensure continuity of care (and to limit my changes of medical interventions during the birth).
If you’re in paid (or unpaid) employment, I highly recommend planning a transition down to maternity leave. As your baby grows and your body gets bigger and bigger you’ll need to slow down and start thinking about what parts of your role you can delegate or job-share. Speak with your employer as early as possible and talk with them about the operational requirements of the business, your health and consider the financial ramifications of working less hours pre and post pregnancy. Again, this is a very personal discussion and decision that you will need to make with input from your family.
My experience: I transitioned down to maternity leave by firstly working one day a week from home (this allowed me to reduce my travel time and have an afternoon nap) and appointing my replacement three months prior to my leave commencing, leaving plenty of time for a handover period. I appreciate that my employer is incredibly supportive and that not everyone is so lucky, so please contact the Australian Human Rights Commission or the Fair Work Ombudsman (a free telephone advice line) if you’re concerned about discrimination or not sure of your rights when it comes to living with MS and juggling a pregnancy.
Catherine Brooks is a partner at law firm Moores, a co-founder of an online beauty business, and lives with MS. Catherine is accredited by the Law Institute of Victoria as a workplace relations specialist.