Saturday, June 4, 2011

Does Pregnancy Have to Make Us Sick?

In general, as a pregnant woman, I'm that woman who doesn't talk about her experiences being pregnant because it generally causes other women to hate me. I can't help it. I have stellar pregnancies. Part of this may be genetic, but I also think the fact that I heard positive things about pregnancy from my mom and aunts has something to do with it. My mom didn't talk so much about enjoying her pregnancy, just how she continued to ride her bike, and laughed when my in utero baby kicks would slam the pencil drawer of her desk shut, but I never heard her talk about the endless list of suffering that people associate with pregnancy (varicose veins, swelling, back pain, being so sick and so tired that you can't decide if you should throw up or go to bed, and all the rest). One of my aunts absolutely loved being pregnant despite having a few issues; another aunt still tells me how much she misses the feeling of a baby inside her.

So it never occurred to me that when I got pregnant that I might actually be hopping on the roller coaster of hell. And when I told my aunts I was pregnant, they were thrilled, not just for the arrival of a baby, but for me, and that I got to have this experience that they so loved and cherished. One of my aunts instantly pulled out a post-it note and made me a list of her favorite pregnancy foods (she's the one who enlightened me about popsicles being the perfect pregnancy food - except her favorite flavor was banana. Mine ended up being those lemonade ones from Trader Joe's).

Then we told the world at large I was pregnant.

And I had my first encounter with how the rest of the world views pregnancy; mainly that it is actually a roller coaster of hell.

My husband and I went to a friend's wedding, and when I went to the bathroom in between the wedding and the reception along with every other woman who was attending, I found myself surrounded by what felt like a gaggle of chickens. I felt like the unfortunate soul who finds herself in the girls' bathroom in high school and surrounded by the mean girls who proceed to beat the crap out of her. It was there that I was stormed like the Bastille by pregnancy horror stories of the women present.

First, they asked how terrible I was feeling, because I must be so sick I could hardly see straight and so tired I could hardly stand.

I said I felt fantastic. I mean it took me seven months to get pregnant. By achieving pregnancy, I felt like I had won the Tour de France.

But no, I was informed that actually, pregnancy meant the end of my life. My feeling great would be short lived. Because essentially, I would be miserable and uncomfortable the last four months, I wouldn't be able to sleep or find enough pillows (I still don't know what pillows have to do with anything), I would swell up like a balloon, my shoes would never fit again, my legs would be covered in varicose veins that would end up looking like the Mississippi River after all the swelling, I would hate my husband, and my entire body would ache, then my beautiful baby would arrive after a labor that would leave me feeling like I had a truck jammed through my pelvis, I would never sleep again and I would certainly never lose the weight I had gained, and my beautiful baby would grow into a child that would proceed to wreak havoc on my entire life.

According to these women, a seasonal bout with cancer would be preferable to pregnancy and the children it resulted in.

Maybe I have good genes. Maybe because I ate well. Maybe because I took hour long walks with my dogs through Griffith Park in LA and did yoga four to five times a week. Maybe I’m in denial about being Pollyanna. Maybe I won the pregnancy lottery, but none of the predicted horrors happened to me. I felt great, until the day my son dropped and wedged his head into my pelvis. Three days later, I went into labor.

My labor was like my mother’s, which was predicted accurately by doctors and midwives alike, in that it was six hours long.

I have been told that my pregnancies (and labor) are abnormal, atypical, and not real. Yet my abnormal, atypical and not real pregnancy produced a baby who’s turning into a pretty cool kid (as we say in our house). My abnormal, atypical, and not real pregnancy didn’t actually result in medical intervention or treatment. It didn’t have some tragic or horrific ending.

It turns out my pregnancies are normal, typical and real for me.

What I find baffling about this (because I do have a point – I’m not just bragging about finding pregnancy lovely) is that the women who get so angry at those in medical community for viewing pregnancy as an illness often end up being the very same women who tell me that my experience is abnormal, atypical, and not real.

If pregnancy is not an illness, why am I supposed to feel so flippin’ awful? Why is there the social assumption, that when you become pregnant, you become the victim of your monstrous body and the only thing you can do about it is suffer? Why is an abnormal pregnancy one without complications?

For the most part, in my second pregnancy, I have avoided the horror-and-death predictions. Occasionally, when I’m by myself out in public, a woman will lean over to me and say, “You know, first borns are always late.” To which I then say, “My son was actually three weeks early.”

Except recently, as I’ve been in my third trimester, those closest to me, i.e. my husband and sister, have recounted to me that when people ask them about me and my pregnancy, they don’t ask, “Is she getting excited?” they instead ask, “She’s not too uncomfortable and miserable, is she?” or “Is she so ready to be done being pregnant?” Or people say to me, “How do you wear heeled sandals in your condition?” (because pregnant or not, I think great shoes and great earrings are mandatory – besides my heeled sandals are made by the clog people, so I can walk all over Manhattan in them and still be comfortable) or “How are you doing in this heat in your condition?” (pregnant or not, I don’t do well in the heat) or “How are you feeling?” which is the same question they ask me when they hear I’ve had the flu. I often want to point out that I’m pregnant; I haven’t had a leg recently amputated.

Don’t get me wrong. I know all these people mean well and are just making conversation and want to hear how baby and I are doing, but the underlying assumption in all of these questions is that I have something to complain about. When I say, “I feel great” relief and surprise washes over their faces, like, “Whew, so glad I don’t have to hear one more pregnant woman complain about the summer…”

And I admit, I am really excited to meet my new baby, so in a way I am looking forward to the end of my pregnancy.

And I also admit, that this baby started off lower and dropped into my pelvis sooner, resulting in some uncomfortable cramping, pelvic pressure and lower back ache. But I also realized that what worked so well in my last pregnancy – walking and doing yoga fairly often – I wasn’t doing. As soon as I went back to a regular yoga and walking habit, the aches no longer ached.

And yes, I have had some rather extensive and painful contractions that fall outside the norm of the run-of-the-mill Braxton-Hicks, but my midwife said to take these as a sign my body is telling me to maybe relax, have a sip of wine, take a bath, and maybe when I feel a contraction while walking around town, I could take the subway.

And I still like being pregnant.

There’s a funny phenomenon, that’s rather effective in the treatment of many ailments. It’s called the placebo effect, in which a person perceives whatever they are suffering from to improve when they haven’t actually been given anything to improve their condition. It has one think about how the mind can determine or alter one’s experience. I don’t want to suggest that a simple placebo can lessen the pain of a baby pushing its way through a woman’s pelvis, but I do have to wonder if the few of us who have positive experiences in pregnancies (aka abnormal, atypical, not real pregnancies), how much of it is related to our expectations of the experience that we will have or our attitudes about pregnancy?

I had two friends who had very similar pregnancies in terms of the things that arose for them to deal with. Both spent the last 8 weeks of their third trimester on bed rest with prescribed dietary restrictions and both had caring and nurturing husbands who threw themselves into coming up with finding and cooking nutritious and yummy things for them to eat. One saw her bed rest as an opportunity to do as much work as possible in her pajamas, and in her spare time to learn how to knit and catch up on her reading as well as revel in the attentions of her loving and devoted husband, while the other got bored quickly and essentially spent the last 8 weeks of her pregnancy complaining about being stuck in bed, that she had run out of movies to watch, she missed her sodas and potato chips, she felt like she was missing out on life, that bed rest made preparing for baby hard, that she wish she wasn’t so swollen, etc. The two had the same circumstances, but completely different experiences. But, given that our perception influences our reaction which then colors our experience, it’s no wonder, is it?

Thanks to the social assumption that pregnancy is a miserable and uncomfortable experience, we can’t really be surprised that many in the medical community still do view pregnancy as an illness. I just find it funny that we blame them for it, when women are also the ones who perpetuate it.


Anonymous said... [Reply to comment]

What a great post! It makes so much sense and I feel like you took the words right out of my head :o) I also had a pregnancy as you described and feel like it IS our current social norms that make people feel that all pregnant women should dislike their body. Personally, I LOVE my body and what was happening all throughout my pregnancy!

Abigail Road said... [Reply to comment]

Loved this post. Currently pregnant with my first child, and have been told by many not to be blabbing about how great I feel, because it will just piss other women off. Other than being tired, I feel healthy and happy and haven't experienced any of the "horrors" of being an incubator yet!

Kayce Pearson said... [Reply to comment]

I do love this post, though would like to add a different view.

I get very very sick when pregnant. I absolutely LOVE being pregnant, even with being sick, but it's very severe "morning" sickness called hyperemesis gravidarum. I throw up multiple times a day, lose quite a bit of weight before I ever gain, and that part of it is soooo not fun. Because I've lost so many babies, getting sick while pregnant is one thing I love since it shows I actually am gestating. Every time I've lost a baby (except for once but that was other reasons) I haven't been sick.

I don't think pregnancy is an illness, and I think it's amazing that some women are able to have such perfect pregnancies. One day I hope to have one, but I doubt I will. My mom and her mom and her mom all had the same severe morning sickness with the babies they didn't lose, so might just be genetics for our family.

Pregnancy is one of the best times of my life, even being sick and exhausted. I wouldn't trade that for anything :)

Adrienne said... [Reply to comment]

Love this! I had an easy pregnancy too, and it's weird how the comments from others can make you almost feel guilty for having a good time of it all. I related to this post on so many levels. Thanks for sharing!

Camilleta said... [Reply to comment]

I loved being pregnant! Never understood why everyone else simply couldn't fathom that...

TenderHeartMom said... [Reply to comment]

During my first pregnancy I had a hard time dealing with all the comments at work that made me feel like I couldn't do anything because I was pregnant. I get horribly sick, extremely tired and fatigued, but I never felt week, ill or handicapped, but everyone around me treated me that way. I really get to enjoy my second pregnancy since I am not working and no one is bothering me with the don'ts. Its all about the dos.

Tara said... [Reply to comment]

Kayce - I do really get that things DO come up for some women in pregnancy, like morning sickness or just general discomforts. I don't mean to discount those things at all.

And you do underscore my point that for the women who have things to deal with but are so excited for being pregnant or having a baby or the possibility of having a family with someone they love or whatever the motivating factor is for getting pregnant in the first place is, they still love being pregnant in spite of their circumstances (ie the discomfort of being sick or tired or sore legs).

I was also thinking today after I wrote this that pregnancy does mean a wide range of changes to our bodies, and we usually don't know what those changes are until we get there. So I can see how at times it can be overwhelming or disconcerting to have so many unknown or unfamiliar changes happening to your body that it's easy to immediately judge these things as uncomfortable or something negative, instead of just different or part of the experience. Culturally, it does seem like we diagnose unfamiliar feelings as illness, instead of just part of human. I mean, creating another human being is pretty miraculous - we're bound to experience things that we're not going to experience at any other time in life, but that's what I think is so cool about it.

I do greatly admire you for shifting your perspective to loving being sick because it means you are pregnant because it is really powerful and empowering. It reminds me that part of why I love pregnancy (even the uncomfortable parts of it) and even labor is that when I'm on the other side of it, I feel like I could do and deal with anything - and that's cool.

Momioso said... [Reply to comment]

My pregnancies are like this too! So beautiful, easy. I feel beautiful and loved. And I too think much has to do with my mom's influence - growing up she told me how much she loved being pregnant and how birth was going to be easy and manageable. I am grateful for that and am passing along that gift to my little girls :)

Linda said... [Reply to comment]

No... this one absolutely wrong... as well I like your way of presentation...

8 weeks pregnant

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