The Secrets We Keep

These days when I leave the house, I take the refrigerator with me. For a three-hour-long journey, I pack two peanut-butter sandwiches, two yogurts, an apple, two oranges, crackers, water and ginger ale. For a shorter trip—to the bank, let’s say—I’ll make of a go of it with only one sandwich, one yogurt and one piece of fruit. This is not my lunch, mind you: I pack all this up after having eaten a full meal. My snacks have become my security blanket and my lifeline.

At 12 weeks pregnant, I shovel food into my mouth and it disappears. An hour after eating a solid meal, I am ravenous. Unlike in my pre-pregnancy life, where hunger arose and I had time to decide what and where I wanted to eat, now, if I fail to eat within three minutes, I risk throwing up. It’s a little like getting to the beeping alarm code before the siren goes off and the police are on their way.

At the university where I teach, I take breaks every hour to sneak into my office and snack. I eat on the subway, on the street, at my desk, in bed. I’ve made a habit of forcing the street-food guy to turn on the oil to cook me fries at 10:30am. Every night around 8:30pm, as my husband and I are lying in bed watching “24”—I wouldn’t recommend this for pregnancy viewing—I usually start to moan. All I really want to do is sleep—early pregnancy is notorious for causing exhaustion that feels utterly obliterating—DH (dear husband) pauses the video and puts our emergency food plan (the EFP) into action. He grabs my hand and pulls me into the kitchen as though we were seeking shelter during a bomb scare.

I shouldn’t even call this hunger—it’s more like trying to stop up an ever-expanding hole.

Your standard pregnancy book. I'm not really enjoying either of these.

Your standard pregnancy books. The top one should be called What to Fear When You’re Expecting.

Like 50-80% of women in their first trimester, I have “morning sickness,” which anyone who has ever had it knows is the most evil misnomer of all time: “Morning sickness” makes it sound like you have a nice little hurl with your morning decaf and go on your merry way. In this scenario, the immense flood of hormones surging through your system is no more disruptive than a canker sore.

It is, in fact, much more akin to having a three-month-long stomach virus that you are forced to keep a secret. (Poor Kate Middleton had no choice about the secret—hurl enough and you get hooked up to an IV in the hospital. What she’s experiencing is nothing short of hell, and as a friend who suffered through it herself said, “No amount of money or fame can save you from it.”)

Before getting knocked up, I respected the veil of secrecy around the first trimester, but I had no idea how difficult it would be to live it. This code of silence lasts until the 12th or 13th week, when the pregnancy is deemed “clear” and “safe” and “viable” and you are free to announce it to the world. Until then, you have to struggle through whatever comes up—emotionally or physically—with your partner (and parents, if you’ve told them) alone.

From what I can gather, this code of silence is meant to protect you, the pregnant woman, from the (supposed) embarrassment, shame, horror and devastation of reporting back to your community that this pregnancy is not to be. Since this early stage is deemed the most risky—indeed one in five pregnancies results in miscarriage—tradition has it that it’s best to keep it from everyone and to present your pregnancy to the world once you are (again, supposedly) no longer in danger, no longer puking or exhausted, and now that you have a bump and a glow to show for it.

Talk about gathering a community around you.

Talk about gathering a community around you.

Before I got pregnant, the people who announced their pregnancies on social networking sites–or told just about anyone they came across in the real world–at six or seven weeks appalled me. Are they crazy? I thought. How cavalier! What will they do if something goes wrong and they have to tell 750 people—many of them virtual strangers—that they lost the baby?

In my family, losing a baby was almost as normal as carrying a baby to term. My sister had a miscarriage and then an ectopic pregnancy before giving birth to my gorgeous nephew and niece, three years apart. My mother had two stillbirths between me and my sister—one at 24 weeks, one at 23, well into a time when she was identifiably pregnant and “out of the woods.” I have always known that my birth—five weeks early, and after my mother spent two-thirds of her pregnancy in bed to stave off near constant contractions—was somewhat of a miracle. I have long viewed pregnancy with terror and the quiet knowledge that anything could go wrong.

When I told my parents and sister that I was pregnant, I felt myself keeping my excitement somewhere across the room, unreachable.

“Not getting excited now won’t protect you later if something goes wrong,” my mother said. “Enjoy it.”

My sister agreed. So did DH.

But my mother, who spent many years in a state of mourning over the two babies she lost, had other advice: “Tell as many people as you like. Tell them now.”

So let me return to the “crazy” women who take to Facebook (or anywhere else) to announce that they are six or seven weeks along: Although I worry about their (perhaps) premature glee, much to my surprise, I sympathize with them.

Despite being married to a wildly supportive, thrilled father-to-be who is on the same page as me, I have found these last few weeks to be some of the loneliest of my life. Much of this is because I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time alone in our apartment, feeling awful. But it is also because I am by nature an over-sharer—it is hard for me to keep anything to myself for long. Although I’ve told most of my closest friends about the pregnancy, they are almost all across the world so the support comes in fits and starts on Skype or email–a far cry from an afternoon tea or the offer of a visit or a (bland) home-cooked meal. Since we’ve only been in our new home for a few months, it is hard to tell very new friends–or people you’ve hung out with once but hope to build a friendship with–that you’re canceling plans (again!) because you’re puking and freaked out, and probably will be for some time. (All I want to say is: I swear, I’m not this flaky!) This only adds to the isolation. I don’t like to fib, and since very little has been going on in my life, I’ve had little else to report.

This was my daily activity for a few weeks.

This was my daily activity for a few weeks. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to watch The Good Wife again without wanting to hurl.

Other than a steady stream of TV, the love of my husband, and a constant intake of food, I have needed nothing more than the support of my community—and this is exactly what you don’t get when you stay silent. I still remember one woman on Facebook in her first trimester bemoaning how sick she felt and how often she was puking—and the 40 or so replies she got from women in her circle offering her advice and encouragement (ginger, homeopathic remedies, wrist bands, the number of weeks it would last, etc). At the time I thought this was bizarre, performative. But I have to admit that there have been several times during these early weeks when I’ve had to stop myself from asking for help on that very forum, or from random colleagues at work—and a small part of me has felt ashamed for having to hide how I’ve been feeling, like there’s something wrong with me. I’m getting the message that I have to conceal the biggest, most debilitating, and painstakingly natural thing going on in my life right now.

Let me try to zero in on my point here: It is not that I want the right to tell my closest girlfriends or my family. I have that right—we all do, of course, and it is a matter of personal preference how and when anyone divulges a pregnancy. Many women need or want to hide their pregnancies in order, if not to keep their jobs, then to continue to fit in at work. A friend who works for a big-city police department forced herself, despite horrible nausea, to hang in bars with her colleagues because it was part of the culture of her job and her absence would be a signal she wasn’t ready to send. She emptied beers in the bathroom and filled them with water.

What I question are not the specifics—who finds out what when—but the overwhelming veil of secrecy and silence that I’ve felt beholden to these few weeks; a silence that is both self-created and mitigated from the outside. On the simplest level, I would like to not hide how sick and tired I feel and to not lie to people about why I’ve cancelled so many plans. If I had the stomach flu, I would call in sick. You cannot do this for three months. I would also like some help: the advice my Mom friends have given me (eat crackers in the middle of the night when you get up to pee; drink cardamom tea) has been more valuable than anything I’ve read in a book or have heard from my doctor, but I feel like they are passing me these secrets under the table while no one is looking. Who knows what the other legions of mothers would tell me if I could ask anyone I wanted without worry?

Can we openly acknowledge how debilitating this time can be without turning it into a “women’s issue” or a sign that you aren’t happy to be pregnant? Without transforming it into some sort of women-aren’t-built-for-the-workplace Right Wing call to arms to send women back to the kitchen? Or, on the other hand, without turning it into something so trivial as to be insulting, like when one Pregnancy App tried to teach me how to “have morning sickness in public: Pretend you’re looking for something deep inside your purse–then snap it shut and discard.” Can it just be a big fat announcement of a wondrous and difficult biological truth?

This was not insulting at all.

This was not insulting at all.

On a deeper level, I wonder whose anxiety we’re trying to protect in concealing these first few difficult months: the mother-to-be? Are we trying to protect me from the shame of admitting I am barely functional; that I can’t go 45 minutes without eating?  That I’m afraid of losing the baby?

Are we really trying to protect a woman from sharing that she had a miscarriage, signaling to her that this is something she should want to keep hidden? Or are we trying to protect our culture from admitting that not all pregnancies are beautiful and easy and make it to term, and that that loss can be absolutely devastating?

Sadly, people say the most careless things to women who’ve miscarried—usually to the tune of “you’ll have another one” or “you weren’t even that far along.” Our fear and unease around death–especially when it comes to babies–is bottomless. When my mother lost a baby girl at 23 weeks a year after losing a boy around the same gestational week, the doctor wrote in her file, “Mother in good spirits.”

When you share this precious information, you do leave yourself open to callous responses–and to the fear that you’ll have to go back and retract the good news. The bottom line is that like abortion, it should be a woman’s choice. And it is no one’s business, unless you want it to be.

Three of the most terrifying and incredible books about pregnancy and motherhood.

Three of the most terrifying and incredible books about pregnancy and motherhood.

But for the most part, women who’ve miscarried—and women who are simply miserably sick or depressed or whatever the pregnancy might bring up—deserve the space and the right to talk about it with whomever they want (or, of course, with no one). Or as my mother said when she was encouraging me to tell people, “If something does go wrong, you’re going to need your friends. You’re not going to want to lie about how you’re feeling to everyone in your life.”

The most alarming thing I’ve heard from friends who’ve had miscarriages is their surprise (only upon miscarrying) at hearing about how many of their friends, aunts, cousins, sisters, mothers and grandmothers have had them, too. If miscarriages are so common, why do we hide them behind a wall of shame and silence? If women could announce their pregnancies immediately, wouldn’t we learn that a pregnancy is truly awesome and terrifying and precarious and unknown—that anything can and does happen, and that women deserve all the love and support and understanding that comes with the act of trying to make another human being?

Of course none of this is simple. I’ve had these thoughts for weeks, but it is only now—at the magical 13th week, after seeing what looks like an actual baby with arms and legs and a heart dancing around in my very own body—that I’m willing to air this beyond private conversations among friends. I could blame the nausea that has had me pinned to “The Good Wife” (ironically) during most of my waking hours, but I know that it’s more than this, and that perhaps I am no different from anyone else who wants to keep part of her life—the momentous, frightened, nascent part—to herself. Given my mother’s experience, I’m not sure whether I’ll ever feel that this pregnancy is “safe.” I, too, fear having to retrace my steps with heartbreaking news. I, too, want some semblance of control over who enters this sphere of my life. Women’s choices so often tread a very thin line between the private and the public, and it is perhaps because these first few months can be private (unless you’re royalty) that we try, even at great sacrifice, to keep them this way.

27 thoughts on “The Secrets We Keep

  1. Thanks for sharing your experience so candidly! You are brave. I have been toying with the idea of sharing a post I wrote about my miscarriage. It seems too personal, but those “overshare” posts are the ones that most of us really connect with. I’m still not sure what to do….I thought I should wait to share it until I conceive again. I keep getting little hints (like this very post) that I should share my experience.

    Anyway, I really hope that you start feeling better and that your pregnancy is a great success!!

    XO, Tobi

    • Hi Tobi,
      Thanks so much for reading and for sharing your experience. I think you should write about it, especially if that’s your impulse. I think so many people would benefit from hearing it and would be deeply touched by it, too — these stories help us make sense of things, no? As for the oversharing — I don’t know, I think it’s important to re-conceptualize what that means. At least I’ve had to in my own writing. Why is intimate information about a pregnancy or a miscarriage too much? Too much for who? I agree that essays that dig deep and reveal a lot always move me the most; I love feeling like the writer had the heart to be really forthcoming and real. I for one would love to hear what you had to say! ox

  2. Thank you for sharing this. It is strange to carry such a large secret with you for so long. I do feel that there is pressure to fit into one extreme over the other–either you are a crafty, stay-at-home, born-to-be-a-mother woman who blissfully basks in pregnancy, or you are a working, on-the-go woman who doesn’t let it distract her. It’s rarely either of those in reality. Pregnancy and childbirth are life-changing and tough on your body, and we should be able to do whatever it is we do and acknowledge and respect this, without necessarily requiring that it be the sole thing that defines us.

    • Totally — it’s never one or the other. And it IS a large secret to hold onto! It’s hard to figure out how to acknowledge the life-changing-ness of it all, as you say, and balance that with the fact that most of us still want an independent identity. When you figure that one out, let me know!

  3. Thank you thank you for writing this piece. As a mother of a very healthy two year old who’s recently had a miscarriage – it’s like you read my thoughts exactly. It is a really tough secret to keep for all the reasons you described but also factor in the people who seem to really get their kicks from “outing” you. They’ve sniffed it out and they won’t let it go no matter how good your excuse is for not refilling your wine glass. I think your mom is right. The friends with whom you share the news early will help you get through those first few months and are indeed there for you if things go wrong. While I came away from the first pregnancy unscathed I was still very aware of the first trimester risks. I couldn’t help but feel like I jinxed my pregnancy when we broke the news early to good friends we were spending a weeks vacation with – the charade was too much to keep up in those close quarters. The timing of the miscarriage was so uncanny that I felt like it was punishment for reveling in our good fortune prematurely (it took 3 years to conceive our first). Motherhood plays many mind games and superstition is one of them. I always look forward to your posts but will be even more eager to read them as you go through this journey and write about these experiences in your particularly articulate and beautiful way.

    • Oh, the “sniffers!” You’re totally right. I’ve seen that happen to so many friends (and have totally said, upon seeing an empty glass, “Are you??”), and perhaps that was the one advantage of being here — no one knew the first thing about my drinking habits, so no one could comment. I am so sorry about the miscarriage, and I can imagine both doing exactly what you did — telling friends — and also feeling (totally irrationally) like I had jinxed it…but I have to say, one of the best things I read in one of those ridiculously medical pregnancy books (that I mostly hated) was something that really pulled the responsibility OFF the woman. Basically these 3 women docs (Mommy Docs, they call themselves–urgh) said that a healthy embryo (fetus?) will grow no matter what you do; and that an un-viable fetus won’t, no matter what. Somehow I found this sort of relaxing — like IT’S NOT YOUR FAULT if this doesn’t go right. And if it does, well, it’s mostly out of your control, too! Something about that, in an age of organic food and tests and blah blah blah reminded me that this thing sort of functions on its own (in you). The contradictions and myriad, Ms. Myriad! I loved hearing your thoughts about all this. xo

  4. What you said about the surprise of other miscarriages that have happened all around you is so true. At the time when I miscarried, I too, wondered why there was this ‘code of silence’. But I’ve become that person too, who doesn’t talk about it. From this perspective, I think there are 2 reasons behind this. One, I have a kid now, and so that, in a way, helped me to get over it. And two, it’s so flippin’ sad. I have some days when I’m watching my kid and I can’t help but wonder what kind of person he/she would’ve been. Even though, if that child had lived, my present one wouldn’t, and that’s equally difficult to imagine.

    • Zibkk, I once wrote a piece about my mother’s stillbirths in which I realized that had the other babies lived, I wouldn’t be here — my parents didn’t want 4 children, only 2 or 3. That thought was so creepy and weird to me, and yet undeniably true. But it also took me a long time to realize that although as you say, having another one helps you “get over it,” it doesn’t erase the fact of the first. I didn’t make the fact of the others disappear — I just made some things better. That’s one of the saddest and most beautiful things about Elizabeth McCracken’s book — even two more kids don’t erase the first. The contradictions are hard to hold onto at once… Thanks so much for sharing this. xo

  5. This is a really beautiful post. As someone who loves to tell everything to the people I care about, I can’t imagine what it would be like keeping a secret like that for 3 months. And yeah, the reasoning behind it is sad, because if something does go wrong, you should be able to talk about it.

  6. A great post, thanks so much for sharing this! It’s given me a lot to ponder. It’s true that I’ve only ever been told about miscarriages in hushed tones, and about how f-ing hard pregnancy and childbirth can be “under the table” – in those sometimes rare woman-to-woman talks where we’re being totally honest with one another. These aren’t things we’re supposed to talk about. I do think our society likes to sanitize motherhood and childbirth and we’ve been doing it for centuries, probably. Maybe because of patriarchy, maybe because we just don’t like to look at or dwell on negative experiences, who knows?

    Never having been pregnant, I can’t comment on when I might want to tell others. I know if I had a miscarriage, I wouldn’t want to have to talk about it over and over again to a crowd of people, simply because I think it would be like touching on a raw wound. But it’s true that I also wouldn’t want to go it alone. I’d need people to lean on too.

    I wish you all the best! And hope the “morning sickness” gets better soon!

  7. I’m so glad you wrote this– how brave and raw. Like I’ve said in one or two of those fits and starts of Skype-support-sessions you mention, the secrecy and isolation of this first trimester seems utterly opposite of the kind of community love that I, for one, always need in times of intense change or adjustment. As you suggest, it seems mostly insane to me. How refreshing would it be to simply say to that friend who wants to get together and who you’ve rescheduled on for the tenth time, ‘I’m pregnant and feel awful, and if you can hold out for a few more weeks, I’d love to get together when this bit passes!’ I agree with your momma, wise woman that she is. Tell people now so that you can get the support you need now, especially since you are far from home in a new place. Maybe not a universal blast on Facebook if that puts you off, but at least a little announcement to your circle there?

    This reminds me of another absolutely golden piece of advice I received about six months ago, when — although not pregnant and so not at all in the same situation — I was also feeling quite isolated and without an immediate, in-the-flesh community to lean on (or call on to watch a good movie, or chat with about this or that that had come up in my day). All of the women I knew were in some way connected to my husband’s business, and I felt that I had to remain impartial, ‘professional’ in my relationships with them. But a friend said to me (on the phone, as she was also far away): but what’s more important? Seeming professional or having the support that you need? So I let go of some of those feelings (where did I get them, anyway?) and, in reaching out to those women, ended up forming some very strong and supportive relationships that sustained me through my isolated months in the woods.

    That’s all to say: maybe the answer is to simply give yourself permission to do it all your own way, in a way that gives you what you need?

  8. I read your post a few days ago and began to comment and then deleted everything and left it until now. You are so thoughtful and thorough in your exploration of this topic. I can’t add anything other than how I did it. I am a mother of three. Three times I couldn’t help but tell everyone I was pregnant the moment I knew and I mean everyone. I never stopped to give it the thought that you have. Perhaps I am too impulsive, too impatient or (like you call yourself) an over-sharer. I’ve never put much thought into why someone wouldn’t tell outside of protecting their career. But I’ve never had to deal with loss or grief either. I never let the fear of a miscarriage enter my mind. I just let the joy of pregnancy be what I focused on. That sounds terribly simple in the face of your brilliant analysis but it is the truth. And while I appreciate the consciousness with which you are approaching ‘the reveal’ I wonder if sharing of this kind of information can’t be flexible. Like LaZ said – do it your own way.

  9. I also have to thank you.. i feel like all my sentiments are shared in your posts and finally voiced. I recently suffered a miscarriage and as it was after 12 weeks, i had told quite a lot of people, actually my overexcited boyfriend did… When i found out about my missed miscarriage in the 13th week, i was and still am devastated. However, the support and yes the ‘AHA’ moment at how many women around me had gone through miscarriage before, helps and yes in my case it also comes from all over the world via skype, fb, e mail etc. But i am glad i did tell people, while it was horrible having to tell the ‘bad’ news i was glad that people reached out to me.
    Thank you so much.

  10. Well, we’ve already said a lot to each other on this topic, so I won’t repeat. The idea of secrecy and pregnancy is an interesting one, and I think it’s influenced by who each of us is, how we’ve come to define ourselves. I kind of like secrets, I like planning how i’m going to launch surprising news at people, I like offering the unexpected, so in that way keeping pregnancy a secret was sort of fun. But that wasn’t only it. I also kept it a secret while I was trying to sort out who I would be once that news was out. Big feminist independent career girl taking on motherhood. Was it contradictory? If so, why? And what kind of motherhood was I taking on? These things were not sorted in my head, I wasn’t even sure how to reconcile them for myself, never mind to the public, so until I’d figured out my own narrative, it seemed best not expose the news and face those questions from the outside. And then in my individual case, what started out as frankly, a cute secret (hey, we’re trying!) became a darker and darker one (it’s not working!), until it seeped out of me despite my best efforts, where it got stamped to my forehead (or so it seemed) and I had every close girlfriend counting my cycle for me! Impending disappointment. I remember how a lot of people new about our efforts, that they could calculate exactly when I’d know, and how I told them that I wasn’t saying anything either way. Because I couldn’t tell the sad story again. So, when we got that little plus sign – it was about how to take something that was no longer a secret and make it one again, a different one. But by that point, it was much more fun to keep.

  11. you so courageous and i am thankful for your honesty, which opens up dialogue. regardless of how each woman chooses to experience the early weeks of her pregnancy (secret or not), i feel very strongly that the conversations around these topics should be more open. i’m not exactly sure why we don’t/can’t speak freely, openly about pregnancy, miscarriage and motherhood, why these conversations often take place in hushed tones with an air of furtiveness or dissent. i suspect that there are myriad reasons, many which you touch on, privacy, grief, pain, identity, but i can’t help but wonder why becoming a mother isn’t a rich, varied, and celebrated cultural narrative. why the work that our bodies do and then that the vast majority of mothers do largely on their own, the work of creating and raising human beings, to the exclusion of no-one, that this immense power that we possess is something that we are cagey about, that we keep secret and that we allow a male-dominated medical system to appropriate and frame largely as dangerous and dysfunctional. i am currently pregnant for the first time and have found it interesting how i feel as though i am walking a path that of course millions of women have walked before me but i can’t see them, i don’t feel their presence, not in a spiritual, mystical, magical way, maybe in the way of “don’t eat this” “don’t gain too much weight” “do you have cravings?”, now that i think about it most of the advice i get is food-based, or body shape-based, but where is the knowledge or ritual that would reflect the utter-awesomeness of what my body is doing? i feel the absence of this knowledge and as a result am finding it difficult to integrate the enormity of what i am experiencing into my identity.
    i am in the french alps for the holidays and went to rent some cross-country skies yesterday. the young man who was helping me took one look at me and his whole face lit up. he told me that life changes a lot with a newborn and that he has a one and a half month old at home. he asked me when i was due and told me that things were going better now that his baby was sleeping through the night. i have had many similar conversations, similar at least in content, but vastly different in emotion. his emotions were palpable, he was so happy and proud to be a father and so happy for me, genuinely happy, that i was pregnant. it made me realize that maybe we stay quiet to keep the emotions at bay. in western cultures emotions are for the most part a female enterprise and an unwelcome one at that. i understand that we don’t want to feel the negative emotions that can arise as a result of pregnancy, miscarriage and motherhood but by denying the bad we erase the good and in essence impoverish the whole experience. i really appreciate that you are challenging these codes of denial and silence by voicing your experience. i believe that these conversations are what will allow us to reconnect to the power and beauty, to the deep sadness and overwhelming joy of bringing new life into this world.

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  13. i identify with what your mom said about needing your friends if anything went wrong. i told many people right away, and i remember being criticized for it. my thinking was that i didn’t tell anyone that i wasn’t prepared to report a miscarriage to.

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  19. Hi! I’m aat work surfing atound your blog from my new iphone 3gs!
    Just wanted to say I love reading thrrough your blog and liok forward to all your posts!
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