The Myth of the Perfect Pregnancy
Let’s debunk the myth of the perfect pregnancy. Even for those fortunate enough to become pregnant in a desired way and on their preferred timeline, it is a harrowing journey through months of worry and constant accommodation to change.
I imagined morning sickness as mild queasiness while I took my morning shower, perhaps lingering over my healthy, protein-rich breakfast, then rapidly dissipating before work. I was ill-prepared, therefore, when I experienced the all-day wall of nausea, making me irritable as a wet cat and taking cover whenever a rogue odor wafted by. My husband watched me shift from an active, pleasant partner, to a sluggish, robe-wearing recluse, just trying to keep down some saltines and water.
Determined to conquer this nausea, I tried meditation, acupuncture, supplements, wrist bands, and more ginger than could possibly be tolerable (I still can’t drink ginger ale.). The only thing that seemed to help was time, and it was moving slower than crystallized honey. I must have put some food into my system during those weeks, but fighting past the noxious smells was an effort. I’d also stopped drinking coffee suddenly (a highly unwise decision) and had the caffeine-withdrawal headache to match. My only brief moments of joy were found while on the website I obsessively checked to see what fruit my baby currently resembled. “Ooh, it’s a kumquat today!”
Already a physician at the time, I obsessively searched the medical literature for any available information on treatment for pregnancy-induced nausea, without success. There were trials for hyperemesis gravidarum, a severe version of morning sickness often requiring IV hydration, which Princess Kate experienced. However, I was no princess, and my experience didn’t justify a hospital stay, even if I thought it should.
As the weeks progressed, the nausea dissipated somewhat, and I was free to enjoy the next parts of pregnancy. Initially proud of my clever use of a hair tie to allow jean expansion, I very quickly recognized that elastic waists were my friend, and could not be avoided without significant discomfort. Periodically taking a picture of my growing belly was a lovely concept for the highly photogenic moms online, but my attempts to replicate these images were truly humbling. The idea of posting them anywhere was impossible to imagine.
Heartburn and back pain joined the scene during my second trimester. For some reason, my friends and family preferred to ask about the baby’s nursery decorations rather than my newest unwelcome bodily sensations. Fortunately I had many hours to process my feelings as I attempted to sleep sitting upright in bed. I discovered that doing “cat and cow” stretches on all fours was helpful, though required assurance that I was alone and could under no circumstances be seen or photographed in this ridiculous position.
The opportunity to enter a swimming pool in my third trimester was such a glorious relief, I wish I could have seen patients from there for the remainder of my pregnancy. Suddenly I was as light as a delicate flower, floating along with the contours of a well-fed seal, but smiling blissfully. That’s still one of the best physical experiences I’ve ever had (though later, the epidural topped it).
As my due date approached, I eagerly scanned my body for the first sign of contractions. I was ready for the next step, the big game. Take him out, coach. I’m sure the maternity nurses spotted me as a first-timer a mile away, walking calmly down the hall with my overnight bag, asking politely where I might go because “I think I might be in labor?” Um, nope. Not even close. I sheepishly packed up my things and walked down that same hallway with my very patient husband. I had read about Braxton Hicks contractions, but thought as a doctor myself, I would certainly recognize them. Again, nope.
So there I was, one week after my due date, worried that maybe he was just planning to stay in there, and I was some kind of medical anomaly. However, when I bent down to start some laundry, I felt something happen. Or maybe I didn’t? There were so many strange sensations coming from that little being in there, I questioned the accuracy of my perceptions. I distinctly remember thinking that a shower would be a good idea. I knew that was where my water broke, but when my very pragmatic husband asked “How can you tell?” I was at a loss.
Off we went, bag in hand, parents wishing us well, driving calmly to the hospital. Again the nurses gave me the side-eye, but this time I could say “My water broke!” so they took me in like a reluctant nightclub bouncer. Then the waiting began.
We waited, and waited, and waited. I waddled around the hospital in my light blue gown, prepared to duck around the corner if I recognized any of my colleagues in the hallways. This was not the professional image I wanted to portray. Finally, back in my room, my doctor recommended some medication to “move things along.” The rest is a bit of a blur.
I was in LA at the time, and to this day, my memory consists mostly of recurrent visits from beautiful, blonde, friendly OB residents. I’m glad I was looking my best in my sweaty sheets and matted hair. My husband is so lucky. I pushed and pushed, but no dice. If you’ve seen a delivery on TV shows, it is a highly vocal, dramatic experience. I remember feeling disappointed when I tried to recreate one of those animal howls, and promptly lost the ability to push. There goes that cathartic experience.
In the end, our son arrived. Eyes open, gazing up from his dad’s arms, he was miraculous. I was confident that I knew exactly what to do to help him thrive. I had all the tools and was ready!
Just kidding. I was terrified. I remember wondering how they could possibly send him home with us and not also provide one of the highly competent nurses I had been relying on for the past 48 hours. What if I didn’t know how to buckle him into the car seat? What if I was pushing the stroller, tripped on a rock, hit my head, lost consciousness and launched him into the street?
Turns out, postpartum anxiety is very common. Many women have these kinds of thoughts and self-doubts. I imagine I will be sharing mine in a future essay. We are fortunate these days to have support networks and websites that give us information about these experiences, normalizing our worry, and guiding us to help, if necessary.
Writing this today, I am amazed at the journey. Women, we are warriors. However you look at it, pregnancy is hard, and raising a child in any capacity is an unbelievable accomplishment. Whether you are a mother through pregnancy, surrogacy, adoption, or simply giving love to a child in need, you are amazing. I have been so moved by the brave individuals sharing their miscarriage experiences, and I ache for their losses. Let’s continue to share our stories, even around the difficult experiences of a healthy pregnancy. We are all human, and form a network of knowledge and experience for the next generation. Thank you for keeping this world going strong.