Guest post by Esther Atkins.
I’ve always loved babies, for as long as I can remember. Maybe it’s because of that fact, and always looking forward to one day being a mother, that I assumed I would also enjoy being pregnant.
It’s true that there is a great deal about pregnancy, child birth, and becoming a new parent you don’t understand or can’t fully grasp until you’ve journeyed through it yourself. Having said that, I’ve learnt that there is also a great deal that is still taboo about the whole process and people simply just don’t talk about because you’re not “meant to”.
In hindsight, it’s safe to say that I entered my first pregnancy with a great deal of naivety. I knew many family and friends who had been pregnant and I did think I had some grasp on what the journey would entail. At the very least I thought it would be an experience that I would enjoy and would pass by quickly as I transitioned into parenthood.
The first obstacle is the getting pregnant stage. People from all walks of life enquire very nosily about when you’re going to have a baby, without much thought to how personal a question it actually is. Before we were ready to start trying, it was easy to brush off. But once we had decided we were ready to have a kid, it actually became a difficult question to answer. Trying to become pregnant is a crazy stressful time, that again isn’t often talked about. You finally decide that you’re ready to get pregnant, but from that point on all control is completely taken from you. You really don’t know if you CAN get pregnant until you start trying, there is only a small window every month that you’re actually capable of getting pregnant, and it can take a very long time of trying before it actually happens. During that incredibly stressful time, seemingly loving people enquire “Soooo, when are you going to have a baby?” and you do your best to smile and nod and avoid the question, when really you want to say, “well actually, I would have one today if that was humanely possible, but at this exact moment I don’t even know if my womb is capable of sustaining life, and it’s been 5 incredible stressful months of watching the calendar as I do my best to become impregnated.” Too much information? Probably. But maybe people should stop asking the question unless they’re ready for an emotional deep and meaningful in which they’re actually going to provide a listening ear and a supportive shoulder. But I digress.
My real difficulty began once I HAD become pregnant. I dealt with some very early on nausea and vomiting, and thought it was the normal “morning sickness” that passes at 12 weeks that every mother gets, and soon enough I would pass into the glowing and getting to wear cute maternity clothes phase and enjoy this amazing time of life growing inside me. I am incredibly thankful to my doctor, whom I had just begun seeing a month or two before I got pregnant, for straight away thrusting a “Hyperemesis Gravidarum” information sheet into my hands when I had said that the nausea was only growing as the weeks went on, ginger made me vomit, and the mild medication (like B6) she had prescribed me was doing nothing. At 10 weeks pregnant I had my first hospital admission due to dehydration, and they prescribed some stronger medications for me, and then at 12 weeks pregnant, after 12 hours of non-stop vomiting, I had my second hospital admission where I spent the night on an IV drip and stuffed full of drugs. From that point until my kid was born, I had to take medication every day, literally so that the pregnancy didn’t kill me. Even on the meds I still vomited several times a week, even through the labour and birth, and the nausea was a constant 24/7 friend that lasted until my baby was born. I lost 10 kgs in my first trimester, and at the end of pregnancy was only about 5 kgs up from my starting weight before I got pregnant.
About half way through my pregnancy I stumbled on to a private Facebook support group for women suffering with Hyperemesis Gravidarum (HG) in pregnancy, without which I don’t think I could have survived. Because here is the biggest kicker with being sick in pregnancy…you can’t talk about it.
There are still (many) doctors and hospitals across Australia who are telling women suffering much worse than I have, that it’s all in their heads, to suck it up, that it’s their own fault, and refusing to give them any medication to help them get through. There are still many people telling a sick pregnant woman that they just need to take some ginger, eat small meals and rest and they’ll survive. That they’re being dramatic. That they should just be thankful to be pregnant at all, and keep it to themselves.
I am incredibly thankful for my doctor, and for my hospital and midwives, who never talked down to me or made light of the struggles pregnancy brings for me, as I know not every woman in my position has the blessing of that sort of support. Even still, I spent my first pregnancy wracked with guilt, shame, and disappointment. I was working two part-time jobs at the time, and missed months and months of work, letting down people at both places, but also my husband as I wasn’t able to bring in my normal income. I became introverted due to how sick I was and emotionally spent, and didn’t want to see anyone. I felt like a failure, and more than once while stuck in bed prayed that it would just be over, by any means necessary. Why couldn’t my body grow a baby like it was supposed to? Why wasn’t I strong enough to be able to be pregnant and continue on with life, like so many other women? Why couldn’t I just be thankful to be pregnant, instead of hating every day and wishing it would just all end? Finding the support group saved me, as it gave me the one thing I needed to get through. The knowledge that I wasn’t alone. That I wasn’t a failure. That I wasn’t weak, or ungrateful, or the only one suffering. That pregnancy CAN be crap, and it’s not just me.
Women getting pregnant may have been happening since the dawn of time, and surely that should mean that by now society should be more educated as to what the spectrum of pregnancy actually looks like for women? The toll it takes on women, emotionally and physically, and their families? That just because a woman hates being pregnant, doesn’t mean she hates her baby or is any less thankful for the miracle of life she gets to be part of? That just because a pregnant woman has to take medication to survive, doesn’t make her any less of a parent? That every woman is entitled to THEIR journey, and what it looks like for them?
I am sitting here writing this almost half way through my second pregnancy. I still see pregnant women looking well groomed, wearing gorgeous maternity clothes, hair and makeup done, able to exercise and continue at the gym…and feel that twang of jealousy, because that’s still the dream.
I washed and brushed my hair last night for the first time in a week, only because it got covered in my own vomit. I hate getting dressed and the act of standing in front of clothes trying to decide what to wear is a battle of wills to not vomit before I manage getting fully clothed. The smell of my own husband and toddler makes me want to be sick, and I can’t give them the hugs and cuddles that I long to give. I spend more time sitting in bed, on the couch, or over/on the toilet then doing anything else, including being able to get to work.
I definitely was more mentally prepared this time around, less naïve, quick to get on to the meds I knew would work for me, and those close to me knew to be prepared for me to be sick again. It doesn’t mean it sucks any less though. I cringe behind a fake smile when I get asked nearly daily by somebody, “feeling any better?” although most people immediately follow it with “it’s okay if it’s crap, you can say it’s still crap” which is a huge relief…because it is crap. And I still carry guilt at letting people down every time I have to cancel, not show up at work, or can’t help out at the things I used to…especially not being able to put the time and energy into my toddler’s life that I want to be. Nearly every day I’m vomiting, or attempting to not vomit, and having the daily goal of consuming enough liquid so that it isn’t as painful when I am spending time standing over a toilet. And there’s trying to vomit without my 3-year-old seeing/hearing me, because I don’t want to scare him. I’m usually sobbing, choking for breath, and yelling in pain. My husband has become quite good at noting a hand/head signal for me as I rush to the loo that means he needs to keep the toddler occupied so he doesn’t try to follow me. And all this I still feel compelled to keep to myself or contained within our house so that I’m not bringing down other people’s perception of how beautiful and magical pregnancy is…so that I’m not that pregnant woman complaining when she should just be thankful she’s pregnant at all…so that I can still attempt to be a brave face and smile when people ask how I’m travelling, when all I want to do is avoid all human interaction for the next 4 months until this baby is born and I can move on to what comes next.
So what’s the point of saying all this? I guess what I’ve learnt since my first pregnancy is that there is no right or wrong way to experience pregnancy. I don’t understand the guilt and pressure put on women to look, be, act a certain way, especially by those who have never travelled that road themselves. And for those who have gone through a difficult pregnancy, they shouldn’t feel pressure to keep it hidden and untalked about for fear of breaking some unwritten rule that they need to just be thankful for their new blessing.
I mean, you can be thankful and still feel that it was the most difficult thing in your life you’ve ever gone through!
I guess that’s the same for everything in life really. Life would be a whole lot more positive if we stopped judging others for the decisions they’ve made in difficult situations and instead offered support and an attempt to understand where they’re coming from…especially in the world surrounding parenthood. I hope and pray every day that I’m going to turn the corner out of the death zone and enjoy a slightly less traumatic experience for the remainder of my pregnancy. But I have no way of knowing if and when that will happen and have to listen to my husband as he reminds me daily that we just have to take each day as it comes, and it’s all worth it in the end.
So I guess this is me, giving anyone who has gone through, is currently going through, or might someday go through the journey of pregnancy, permission to not hide behind a smile and recite those practised words of “yes we are so thankful to be pregnant…” but instead feel the freedom to say exactly how their journey is going and not feel guilty for doing so. I love my 3-year-old more than anything I could have imagined and have not for a second regrated having him, but that doesn’t mean the road to getting him wasn’t the most terrible 9 months of my life. It means that in the end it was worth all the tears, spews, hospital trips, and hundreds of dollars on medication to keep us both alive.
It’s taken me years to be able to realise it, but we are all entitled to the truth of our own story, of our own journeys. It doesn’t discount what the person next to you is going through, or make their story any less valid. We are all allowed to feel and express what is real to us, free from judgment and shame. And if those asking “how are you?” can’t handle the frank honest answer you give them, then they just won’t ask again, and that might not be the worst thing in the world either. You’ll learn who your real supports are, and build a network of people who are equally thankful to have someone who is willing to talk about what is real, instead of pretending that they’ve got it all figured out. I am incredible thankful to all those who have heard me complaining, through both pregnancies, and have not only kept me in their life but have continued to support and encourage me through those difficult journeys.
Here’s to all you mums and mums-to-be out there. You are nothing short of warrior queens, regardless of what your pregnancy journey has looked like. Don’t be scared to share your story either. We are all in this together.