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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?