I'm sitting on the sofa, as I have been doing for the past 45 minutes, and I'm feeling out of breath and can't get comfortable in any sense of the word.
What's that you say? Am I fighting a cold, the flu, or have I run a marathon? Nope. I'm just pregnant at 40.
(Well, okay, I just turned 41 two weeks ago, but I was 40 for the first seven months of this pregnancy. And thank the Lord there are only 2 months left).
I've made a lot of impractical decisions and chosen many questionable paths at many a fork in my life, several of which I'm sure to discuss, dissect, and publicly wonder about in future posts. But having a baby at this stage of my life is without a doubt the most impractical road I have ever gone down.
I should start off by saying that if you want a feel-good "pregnancy is beautiful and motherhood is the epitome of a woman's value and purpose" story, please kindly (and I do mean kindly) bugger off.
Secondly, I will say that I am ecstatic, truly thrilled, for every woman who has ever lived and ever will whose pregnancy is smooth, enjoyable, wondrous, and everything she hoped. I am delighted for everyone whose pregnancy, even if accompanied by the usual spate of troubling symptoms, was still a marvelous experience for her, one that she wouldn't trade for the world. I would wish nothing but ease and bliss for anyone throughout this experience.
But thirdly, my point: if you're someone for whom these phrases seem like a foreign language, I am your girl.
Having offspring was never a huge dream of mine (again, if you only believe that a) all women should put motherhood at the top of their priority list from the moment of their own birth, or that b) if one is in a planned pregnancy, one should be 100% certain that this is one's highest calling and one must use the word "grateful" in EVERY SINGLE SENTENCE and must never use words like "unhappy," "disgusting," or God forbid, "I hate this," then please, take your delicate eyes elsewhere because the rest of this post might burn them out).
From being a little girl playing outside to a 34-year-old walking down the aisle, I never fantasized about having babies and being a mom. Maybe the latter because I still had so many of my own goals that dreaming of suddenly becoming someone else's sustainability centre seemed far-fetched and counter-productive. But the bottom line is, it was always a vague, faraway concept. Until I met my husband I never gave it any realistic thought, and even then it was mainly in the context of, "He'd be an amazing dad." Slowly I softened to the idea, if not the practicalities and reality, but still in an abstract way.
Then 40 approached. Multiple miscarriages, and still I didn't know "for sure." The best way I can describe it is, we felt like our window was closing, whether or not it was a window we wanted to go through. We shared our hazy ambivalence, though perhaps from my husband's POV a bit more determination that we would regret it otherwise. So on we went.
This time, it carried on.
As you may have gathered from the fact that we didn't get married until 34, my life has not followed the "typical" track that it seems many of my contemporaries have done – married in 20s, often early 20s, children in mid-20s, along with other traditional paths like getting settled into a career by 30 and making their way up the ladder. Yeah, I'm not there yet, either.
(See an upcoming post about how I ended up with 4.5 completed manuscripts but still can't seem to call what I do a career because no one's paying me, and none of them are on bookshelves, i.e. my work is not visible to anyone but my and my critique partners around the world. But, another ramble for another day!)
I've been managing that, or so I thought, until this pregnancy happened and hit me emotionally/mentally/psychologically harder than anything has, ever. And physically... well, that's another post in itself. While most people I talk to say they might've had "morning sickness" a few times, or for a week or even a few weeks, in the morning, I had 24-7 nausea for 17 weeks, sofa-bound, atrophying muscles, unable to walk to the kitchen unaided. And while friends or family talk about, say, a short-lived bout of sleeplessness, or puffy ankles for a few days, since the first 17 weeks transitioned into a normal appetite again, I constantly feel like I will burst open a la Alien, as if I've had 10 Thanksgiving dinners in a row, and struggle with a host of dozens of unpleasant, disgusting, debilitating, and depressing symptoms which may or may not ever go away, most of which I didn't even know were possible because society seems (given my Googling) to want to bury these beneath words like "glowing" and "goddess."
Well, eff that.
Normally a pretty fit person who's been a runner and volleyball player for many years, I've really struggled with finding it hard to go for a walk, let alone run down two flights of stairs to get the door when the delivery guy is about to hop in his car and peel off if I don't answer it in 8.2 seconds. This has taken a far weightier psychological toll on me than I ever imagined. A period of low energy or motivation, sure. I hear people discuss that. But every day feeling like I can barely function because of discomfort, weakness, shortness of breath, and more discomfort, and knowing that for the first forty years of my life I knew the body I was in and suddenly I don't? That's been so, so hard. If I'd had a baby at 20, like many of my school peers, or even 25, I imagine the physical limitations and struggles would've been a bit different. But I didn't even meet my husband until I was 29. So that was out of the question.
The worst part of the first 6 months was feeling alone. My husband, and my family (who live across the ocean), and a very few close, close friends, were incredible support. But I didn't want to spread the word further afield because, well, miscarriages. But there were other reasons, too. Bigger reasons.
1) I didn't want to disappoint people. I wasn't glowing. I wasn't thrilled. I was sicker than a dog, or as uncomfortable as someone with a primed hand-grenade surgically implanted in their gut, with some nearly-crippling anxiety and depression. If I'd gone around spreading photos of my uterus on the internet, it would've been expected that I was wall-to-wall joy. But since I was as far from that as possible, I'd already had to disappoint the husband, family, and close friends I'd told by weeping my way through just about every conversation. I haven't officially been diagnosed with prenatal depression, BTW, but I'd self-diagnosed. Not only has the physical side been the hardest physical experience of my life, the emotional/psychological side has been, too.
Not just because I haven't gotten an agent, a book deal, and validated myself in a world that wants credentials and bank statements and tangible results (and I sure as hell do, too, but I know deep inside that doesn't = my value), and I fear my identity being swept aside into the Bog of Lost Autonomy; I fear never having time; I fear never having energy; I fear losing what my husband and I have; I fear losing the life I've always known; I fear my life-long battle with health anxiety cropping up like a total bitch (it is); I fear being put into a "mummy" box and being left there by society as though that is my identity and label from now on; I fear being written off as washed up; I fear my own assumptions about myself; and the list goes on and on. I fear losing me when I felt like I was just starting to figure out who I maybe was.
So. Having to explain all that to joyous faces and watch them fall (or judge) just sounded like the pathway to hell. So I didn't.
Why does the world feel entitled to know anything? And why does it refuse to discuss the unpleasant side, when it could be made so much more bearable for those of us struggling if they bloody well did?
2) It feels private. I've read articles and Tweets and online posts, thankfully, where wearied and frustrated women talk about how the moment you become pregnant, your body, your thoughts, and your everything become public domain. You know the story about the pregnant woman who went to Starbucks and was told by the barista she could only have decaf? Yeah. That shit. People want to control you. People want to touch you. People want to ask about the contents of your uterus. People will suddenly feel very free to discuss your (or their) sex organs. People will assume. To me, this is between my husband and I, and whomever I choose to share it, like my immediate family, and that small handful of close friends who have been through it, and who I know aren't going to disappear because I'm struggling. It helped tremendously that some of them are also writers, and could reassure me they understood my fears both about pregnancy and career.
But why does the world feel entitled to know anything? And why does it refuse to discuss the unpleasant side, when it could be made so much more bearable for those of us struggling if they bloody well did? What about the days when you didn't even know someone was pregnant until you got the birth announcement – or, horrors, read about it in the paper!
3) At this stage, it's still my body. Yes, there's someone else in it, someone I am wholly responsible for sustaining (no pressure), but I will not get into an argument with anyone about this hot topic. My body. My health. My life. Similarly, I don't go on Facebook and tell everyone about my cramps, or my PMS, or the lump down there I thought was cancer which a GP had to explain was an ingrown hair.
Then, I finally “announced,” but I didn’t, not really (I mentioned I was 31 weeks in a proud Instagram Story about how on my last day of 40, my Apple Watch told me I’d done more exercise than any other day in the 3 years since I’d owned it), right around the time a beautiful friend suggested she send out a registry list on my behalf, for which I was eventually grateful because I in no way wanted a shower – impractical anyhow since invitees would be spread across two continents. Being the center of attention is not my bag, either. So, I graciously accepted her offer.
Suddenly I was facing two kinds of responses from those I hadn’t yet told: warm congrats coupled with understanding support/affirmations… Aaaaaaand the second kind: accusations, passive-aggression, and HMPH!-type responses. As in, “Why didn’t you tell me sooner oh I get it you hate me okay thanks.” Or, "Well I'm glad I know now...." as if I owed them that knowledge from Day One.
I got news for you, buddy, I didn't even tell one of my best friends until about 20 weeks because I couldn't even form the words without struggling (she lives in California and I live in England so we don't exactly meet up often).
Mental health, anxiety, it's all real, and it's complex, and if only people who don't deal regularly with it could understand that it's not about them. (Side note: this wonderful friend did, of course. Because she is wonderful).
But the people who are salty about it? Justified, right? Because the struggles I’ve had, not just over these 7 months but the past several years, to do with pregnancy and the question of whether I/we even wanted this life for us in the first place, and the physical ailments, and the mental health struggles, and everything I’ve gone through is all about someone else. Right?
I’m here to say that whether you’re: struggling with fertility and the heartache is deeper than anything, or whether you’re struggling with pregnancy and the heartache is deeper than anything, your experience is valid. There are supportive, encouraging, understanding, lovely people around, and I hope you are blessed with them. Keep seeking them out. They ARE out there.
Don’t give a second to anyone, whether it’s someone you know personally or not, who spreads the idea that your pregnancy experience reflects on anyone else, or isn’t 100% valid.
By about 6 months, I finally connected with a midwife who took me seriously. (Earlier escapades include one GP telling me to "just get on with it," and there was "nothing" he could suggest). She's connected me with several mental health midwife/prenatal support teams, and I found a private therapist to deal with over-arcing challenges, and while I'm still hating every second of being pregnant and cannot wait to stop sharing my body with another living human who feels at once like a lead cannonball and a horse wrestling with an octopus, I don't feel alone.
And you shouldn't either. No one should. I’m here. I will listen. But don’t give a second to anyone, whether it’s someone you know personally or not, who spreads the idea that your experience reflects on anyone else, or isn’t 100% valid and important.
I wholly support anyone who:
is pregnant and grateful / blissed-out every second, or
isn't pregnant yet but presses on in trying because it's their heart's desire, or
knows with perfect conviction that they never want children, or
is in the throes of an agonizing pregnancy that feels like it’s not only tearing their body in two, but their mental state, and their identity.
Each one is valid. Each one is honest. Each one has its own set of challenges. This is not a competition, or time for comparison. It’s highly personal, highly private, and if someone doesn’t tell you about their situation when you’d have preferred, stop for a hot second and consider that they are likely going through things you have no idea about – and that until they tell you, it's none of your freaking business. And just be there for them when they’re ready. Or accept it if they never come back to you with a follow-up.
What I don't support? Telling someone else how to feel, and how to manage their emotions/struggles/experience, or simply having expectations for someone else's experience.
One last thought on this entirely way-too-controversial topic. My husband has an enviable way of breaking something down to the bare bones. I was saying how I wasn't really upset by these people who were laying on the guilt for a) not telling them sooner because PREGNANT YAY YOU MUST BE SO HAPPY AND SEND OUT A PERSONAL TEXT TO EVERYONE IN THE WORLD, b) being anything but ecstatic because how freaking dare I. But I was upset, because I was still talking about it. He said clearly and calmly one night before bed, "There are only a few people in the world whose opinion, at the end of the day, truly matters. Do you really give a f*** what anyone else thinks?"
I thought about it, and hesitantly, I realized, no. I don't. I may love them, and care about their well-being, and I'll be there if they ever need me, but their opinions? Do they truly have an impact on my life choices? Absolutely not. Doesn't mean I ignore them, or don't care about their lives, or intend to offend. But should their personal opinions, their personal values, affect me and mine?
This has definitely been a lifelong stumbling block of mine, though since he said it, it's made me evaluate each response. And while new, irritating ones crop up, and I still allow myself a few moments of irritation, I have to remind myself. There's only so much emotional real estate in our heads – and during pregnancy, this is about 1/100,000,000 of the normal amount – and we can't be sectioning off bits of it to everyone we interact with, whether stranger or extended family member or elementary school friend.
Take care of yourselves, and even if your decisions seem impractical to others, if they're to protect you and not to harm someone else, no one can expect more.
I'm not sure how my path will look in 6 months or a year's time. I don't know how it will impact my life goals, or my marriage, or my mental health. But I know I'm doing my best, and my path might look and feel nothing like yours, but both are valid.