The Challenges of Travelling while Pregnant and How to Overcome Them
As I write this I am eagerly awaiting the arrival of baby #2. We are overjoyed to add another personality to our family adventures, but yet I can't help but also be a little bitter about all the challenges that pregnancy brings to travel. For me, pregnant travel is way more challenging than travel with a baby. Here is a list of the 5 biggest challenges that pregnant travel poses for me, and my work-arounds.
1. Maternity Leave in the US is a Joke
There are only four countries in the world that do not mandate maternity leave - Papau New Guinea, Swaziland, Lesotho, and the United States. In the US, we do have the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) which attempts to ensure that mothers can take 12 weeks of leave (no pay is guaranteed during that time) and return to their same job or a similar job. However, many women are actually not eligible for FMLA because they haven't been in their job long enough or they work for very small companies. I heard one horror story of a woman who was not eligible for FMLA because she worked for a small business. Her employer offered no paid time off, and so after coming up with a budget and talking with her employer, she decided that it would be manageable for her to take three weeks off before coming back to work full time. The day before she went back to work, she found out she had been replaced and didn't have a job to go back to. If it weren't for the support of family and some serious hustle (while caring for a 3 week old!) to find a new job fast, she and her new baby could have easily become homeless. It makes me sick that things like this happen in such a "prosperous" nation.
Luckily there are many US employers that do right by their employees when it comes to maternity leave, and I am fairly lucky in that regard. While my employer will still not even use the term "maternity leave," I am offered 8 weeks of paid leave and FMLA, meaning that I can choose to take another 4 weeks off in the form of annual leave. I accrue 2 days of annual leave monthly which again for the United States is pretty good. I do also receive 80 hours of family sick leave annually; so if baby gets sick after my FMLA time, I can pull from those hours without dipping into my annual leave.
While I am grateful to have a guarantee of some time off and a paycheck during that time, I still get wildly jealous when I read about Australian and Canadian mothers who spend a year travelling with their babies and have jobs to go back to when they return. Pregnancy for me means abstaining from big trips so I can save that annual leave to take care of a newborn. Then when baby comes, I am working full time while still doing multiple nightly feedings for the majority of that first year (hopefully baby number 2 will be a better sleeper though). It's not my ideal situation, but again I do try to recognize my privilege too.
My husband, Jimmy, also does not receive any official parental leave, but can use all of his sick leave and annual leave if he wants. When we had our first baby, we were also trying to finish the house that we were building for ourselves and our in-laws. So that meant he took nearly three months of "paternity leave" to focus solely on building our house. This time around, I am requesting that he just save all his annual leave for future travel since he already gets less leave than I do.
So while pregnant and attempting to save annual leave, I try to take shorter trips closer to home and during holidays. There are 104 weekend days in the year (although I do also work too many of those days) plus 11 holidays I have off during the year. So pairing those freebie days with a little bit of annual leave means that there is still plenty of time to get in some good long weekend trips close to home. Additionally, Jimmy works a compressed work week and so has every other Friday off. So a few times a year, the stars align and he has a Friday off before a holiday weekend. In our house, I mandate travel during those times. Travelling during the holidays almost always makes things more expensive, but our precious annual leave is more important to me than the extra money we spend during holiday weekends.
Zika is a vicious mosquito-borne virus that can cause microcephaly and other brain defects in fetuses, making it a major concern for pregnant travelers. If you go by the World Health Organization guidelines, which is what my doctor has always recommended, there are 95 countries that are off limits for pregnant ladies due to the presence of the Zika virus. Furthermore, my doctor recommended that my husband not visit those 95 countries as sexual transmission is a possibility with Zika.
Note that if you are aiming to get pregnant or get someone pregnant, you also need to take precautions when traveling to Zika countries. My doctor recommends that a man wait six months after he has been to a Zika country before impregnating a woman and a woman wait four months after visiting a Zika country before trying to get pregnant. It took us four years of trying the natural way and then fertility treatments to get pregnant with our first. During those years, Zika was not yet a concern. But if it had been, and if we would have followed these recommendations, that would have put serious limitations on our travel for five years! I think I would have just upped my insect repellent applications which is what I did when I traveled to Mexico and Cuba before getting pregnant this second time.
Another consideration for lady travelers is that the risk of Zika to the fetus is likely highest during the first trimester. Many women don't even realize they are pregnant until they are midway through their first trimester, so even if you aren't intentionally trying to get pregnant, you should be vigilant with the bug spray if you are in a Zika country and there is a chance you are pregnant. Note that once you are pregnant, it's recommended to use a product that is no more than 30% deet.
I am expecting a May baby which means that it will be a US winter all throughout my second trimester (the ideal time to travel). All of the warm places I would like to escape to in the winter for a baby moon are off-limits due to Zika concerns. So that means bundling up and developing a strong appreciation for all that winter has to offer so that I can make the most of this second-trimester window.
3. Morning Sickness
I haven't had it too bad with morning sickness in either of my pregnancies. During my first pregnancy, I don't think I threw up one time. I did however have constant mild nausea, sensitivity to smells, and a desire to eat only the most boring of foods during the entire first trimester. I had similar first trimester symptoms in my second pregnancy, but I also have had much more vomiting that has yet to fully subside. For me, the vomiting is correlated with being a passenger in a car and not getting enough sleep. There is an easy fix to that first cause - I just insist on driving when we are going to be in the car for more than 30 minutes at a time. I try my best to get enough sleep too, but sometimes a sleepless night just can't be avoided.
There are some women that never experience morning sickness and some who have severe vomiting attacks throughout. Most experience some morning sickness symptoms which subside after the first trimester. Since most women are also less sluggish in their second trimester, most doctors will recommend that time to fit in travel. I wouldn't recommend canceling travel during the first trimester (unless it was to a Zika country), just note that you probably aren't going to be enthusiastic about sampling new foods and you might want to travel at a slightly slower pace. Sea bands and Preggie Pop Drops also helped mitigate a lot of my morning sickness symptoms.
4. Abstaining from Alcohol
I know there are mixed recommendations around the world about alcohol consumption during pregnancy. Even my US doctor admitted to me that she enjoyed an occasional glass of wine during pregnancy. She told me I should feel comfortable doing the same, but that if I did and something was wrong with my baby I would run the risk of blaming myself for that defect the rest of my life. Generally I don't see the point in drinking unless I can have at least two, so I've just decided to abstain completely and save myself any guilt down the road. However I am not great at being around others that are drinking when I can't. I get bitter and find it hard to have a good time, so I try to avoid situations like that. It's a major bummer when travelling as I love visiting a good local brewery or winery. So I sub out brewery or winery with a chocolate shop or bakery and indulge my sweet tooth instead.
5. All the Aches and Pains
In both pregnancies I have had an achy butt. It feels like I've bruised my tail bone and it mainly comes on after being on my feet for a long time. During this pregnancy, I often get a cramp on my right side if I walk too fast. But the worst pregnancy aches and pains so far were in my ribs during my third trimester in my first pregnancy. I think I just carried the baby really high, and so there was constantly a baby butt jammed up in my ribs. If I crouched over the wrong way, I would sometimes pinch a nerve and a burning sensation would spread all across my ribs. Sitting down for an extended amount of time was awful, but it was the worst when driving. Most women have the worst aches and pains during the third trimester, so this is yet another reason for getting in your travel fix during the second trimester. Other times, just know your limitations and plan activities that will limit your pain.
I have met some women that actually feel better when they are pregnant. So if you just found out you are pregnant and are reading this, let's hope you are one of those amazing women. Let's also hope that your employer has an amazing maternity leave policy! If however you are an achy, pukey, pregnant lady without maternity leave like me, rest assured that it will get better. You will soon have an amazing sidekick to join you in your adventures. And you can certainly still travel, and make the most with your given limitations in the meantime.