You’d think, in our modern digital age, that the physical and emotional strains of pregnancy would have been teased out into the open, comfortably reconciled with our western, woke feminist narrative. While working rights for pregnant women have drastically improved and societal shifts in airing the tougher face of pregnancy as well as men’s involvement in childcare continue, there’s still a long way to go - just look at the angry reaction to Meghan Markle’s heart-wrenchingly powerful piece on her miscarriage or the criticism faced by Chrissy Teigen when she shared tragic pictures of her cradling her late newborn.
The ramped-up pregnancy visuals and communication through the gloss of social media do not always serve to unite and allay fears. They can fuel anxiety or spread disinformation, with every woman's experience of pregnancy markedly different.
Pregnancy is a minefield – women must navigate dense terminology, fluctuating hormones, a lonely three months where some people choose to keep it to themselves, miscarriage statistics, the acute sensitivity required when even broaching the topic and now, an isolating and stress-inducing global pandemic. It is not always decaf lattes and plump, glowing faces we see on Instagram. In fact, it remains one of the toughest, least talked about poker-face challenges facing both men and women today.
I speak from experience: I’m five months into my first pregnancy. I have relished the magic and mystery of creating new life and have carried a weight of gratitude erring on guilt when I learn of others’ conception struggles and heart-breaking losses. But I was wholly unprepared and uneducated for the physical, mental and social challenges that can come with pregnancy.
To begin with, the term ‘morning sickness’ completely threw me, mainly because it implies that a cruel nausea stops courteously in time for lunch (false). There are varying degrees of sickness for pregnant women (some experience no sickness at all), but mine simmered away every hour, relentlessly for two months, except of course first thing in the morning, as the term suggests. It floored me, ambushed me mid-Zoom call, mid-walking and mid-thinking. The nausea sunk deep like a slow poison at a time when I cautiously decided to keep it secret.
I reflected on just how an educated and independent woman had been caught so off-guard in one of life’s most seminal experiences. What didn’t I read or watch, or who should I have listened to? It dawned on me that blame lay partly at my own door, but my shock at the reality of pregnancy was also indicative of a serious lack of open conversation, or at least one only conducted in the corridors of mother’s forums and women’s health magazines – and herein lies the problem. You’re only privy to this information once you’re in the hot seat, or in my case kneeling alongside the toilet seat.
Which leads back to why I believe I too must shoulder some responsibility. I admit to avoiding pregnancy or motherhood-related content as I oddly saw it as incongruent with my career goals – why, I’m not sure, but in the same spirit of not attributing blame to others, it came from a curious belief that it may damage the strong, career-first identity I was trying to carve for myself in a competitive industry. How Faustian – a victim of a dated feminism.
Among a litany of physical changes (not experienced by all women) – lower back pain as your body readjusts, broader back pain as the load increases, stabbing pains, sore swelling breasts, acne and hair growth in unwelcome areas, swollen hands and ankles for example – some pregnant women can suffer from overwhelming fatigue and dizziness. I have friends who likened the sensation to having taken sleeping pills (cruel when caffeine’s also off the menu).
These physical trials of pregnancy have their mental cost. I found the relentless nausea, indigestion and hormonal fluctuations exhausting, maddening even. How the Duchess of Cambridge managed three pregnancies with hyperemesis gravidarum (an extreme form of pregnancy sickness where nausea and vomiting is persistent throughout the 9 months), beats me, and more poignantly, struggling working mothers trudging through this whilst holding down a job and potentially looking after other children. The changes in my body precipitated the same identity crisis as puberty, resurrecting that potent sting of loneliness and bewilderment I’d felt staring at my awkward 14-year-old body in the bath. Only once safely reunited with my friends and family between our torrent of lockdowns was I able to air these concerns and subsequently encouraged to embrace my new body. Others may not have been so lucky – the wonders of the female body and the manifestations of hormones do not necessarily elicit joy.
For a period that society casts as joyous, feeling low can add insult to injury. Antenatal and postnatal depression are finally entering mainstream discussions and gaining wider recognition, thanks to brave writers and campaigners. One mother neatly summed up this issue in a forum I delved into late one night: ‘Pregnancy is meant to be such a happy time but because we don’t talk about mental health in pregnancy, women don’t know that it can be a very different story.’ And it’s not always limited to the expectant. Pregnancy can also take its toll on partners, who while not enduring the physical journey are sharing the emotional one, often without anyone asking how they are.
Societal pressures around pregnancy are becoming better documented in literature and films (Baby Done is one recent example), but still mothers-to-be face a burden of expectations from both the media and people they know. We must manage conflicting advice on birth plans, decide which exercises to avoid, what to eat (ginger never helped my sickness, no matter what the doctors, pharmacists and forums all said) or not eat, master excuses for not drinking at pre-pandemic parties and pubs and try not to feel hurt or irresponsible when we’re covertly or overtly judged for having a glass of wine or a slice of brie.
This compounds as the months roll on. Strong opinions on breastfeeding, birthing centres, parenting classes and how big your bump is looking all crawl out of the woodwork. I vividly remember listening to Pandora Sykes recall on her podcast how she arrived at a press dinner when her daughter was still very young and was asked why on earth she was there by a guest, compelling her to clamber back into a cab. It’s that flavour of judgement that seems to buzz around pregnant women like fruit flies – sometimes with good intentions, sometimes not.
I could hardly berate my good friends for gently asking if I may be pregnant, having caught me red-handed at a hen do, pouring elderflower cordial into a wine glass. I felt angry, but I’d possibly have done the same and empathy understandably comes from experience. Now, I know to never dare ask – someone may be trying, struggling and/or worried sick of a miscarriage. Never, ever ask.
The pandemic and its string of lonely lockdowns has amplified many of the aforementioned strains on both men and women during pregnancy, and while this is undoubtedly necessary to protect lives, the social and emotional cost is considerable. I was lucky enough to spend most of my sickness hours in our bathroom and not a corporate toilet cubicle during lockdown, but the remedial virtues of hugging a friend, chatting to them in person, catching their smile and feeling warmed by their love and support are sorely missed – fractured and fuzzy over WhatsApp or FaceTime.
Many expectant women are deprived of their usual support network, a community in the workplace – that simple-but-transformative coffee chatter that can lift an unbearable hour into a near pleasant one. My first scan was conducted alone, like so many other women across the UK now – partners were not allowed in. The NHS has recently allowed birthing partners to scans and the birth, but there’s always the worry that this may change. The idea of giving birth without someone’s hand to squeeze, for me, is truly terrifying, and the thought of my husband missing the arrival of the baby is heart-breaking.
Cut pregnant women and their partners some slack. It’s a daunting time to be growing new life (a unnerving and somewhat overwhelming exercise in ‘normal times’), and while female fortitude knows no bounds and sharing pregnancy social posts can have value, not all grievances make the Insta-cut. Stoicism, more than often, goes undetected. To mothers-to-be suffering in silence, lean on the healthcare professionals (your doctor and/or midwife) for both physical and mental grievances and try to steer clear of the internet's glut of misinformation, keep to the legitimate online sources, as tempting as the forums are. Confide in your family in friends, but also learn to trust your instincts... there is no algorithm or definitive manual for motherhood, a simultaneously terrifying and wondrous fact.
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