One of the most frustrating problems about having problems is that we so rarely get to choose them, even when they’re of our own making. A problem that feels enormous to us might seem silly to another person, but our problems still feel like problems nonetheless. On that note, if you struggle with infertility and getting pregnant has been a problem for you, this is a post that does nothing except complain about pregnancy and you may want to pass.
There’s a chapter in Persuasion by Jane Austen in which the main character, Anne Elliot, is blithely extolling the virtues that suffering can bring out in a person. “Yes,” says her friend Mrs. Smith, “sometimes it may, though I fear its lessons are not often of the elevated style you describe. Here and there, human nature may be great in times of trial; but generally speaking, it is its weakness and not its strength that appears in a sick chamber.”
I was 11 weeks pregnant when I read that verse, and thought to myself, “Fuck. Too true.” I had just reached the point where I could read at all; the previous five weeks, I occupied almost all my time by laying in bed, clutching a pillow, and wearing a mask doused in lemon oil so I couldn’t smell my own skin. Every time I got out of bed I dry heaved. The smell of the bathroom was awful, but the smell of something cooking next door coming in through the open window was worse. Brushing my hair made me gag. I would suffocate my face in my pillow to avoid smelling my own farts, but the smell of the detergent on the pillow made me gag, too. I lost weight because I couldn’t eat and every time I got up to do any meaningful amount of movement, I’d throw up. Just a month of this had turned me into an angry, depressed, miserable asshole. Unlike Anne Elliot, I am not a person who smiles in her suffering.
For the most part, my friends and family were really great about taking how shitty I felt seriously, especially once it became clear how sick I really was. But I’m in a twin mother’s pregnancy group and one of the biggest problems we all talk about is that our complaints of illness during pregnancy are so often met with glib responses by people who have never been pregnant or who have, but didn’t get very sick: “Oh, but there’s a baby at the end!” “Don’t worry, you’ll forget all about it!” “Sleep while you can! Teehee!” They laugh and you awkwardly laugh along so you’re not the asshole.
Yes, I know. There is, usually, a baby at the end. You don’t usually die. The debilitating nausea usually goes away by the second trimester. Thank god, thank god, THANK GOD the nausea has mostly stopped around week 13 for me. But for some women, these things aren’t true and even when one or all of them are true, pregnancy is no walk in the park. For many (if not most) women, pregnacy is a carousel of one shitty symptom after another. Sometimes they go away and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they stack on top of each other so a woman is dealing with severe “morning” sickness, round ligament pain, gestational diabetes, itchy hands and feet, swelling, and the appropriately named “lightning crotch,” all day and all night. And these women get up, go to work, take care of their kids and homes, and when they complain: Hey-ho, there’s a baby at the end, so suck it up and grin, mama. And don’t you dare eat that sushi or cesar salad.
I know that it’s always hard to know what to say to someone who’s suffering, but I don’t think people with broken bones or diabetes have their pain brushed off with such carelessness. You wouldn’t tell someone you wound up in the hospital because your blood sugar dangerously spiked and hear “Fingers crossed you’ll be feeling better in a couple weeks!” or “You’ll forget all about it once you see that happy little normal glucose level!” Yes, yes, pregnancy isn’t cancer or a busted hip. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a big deal.
Even you’ve had a relatively normal pregnancy, you know better. And if you’ve had severe morning sickness, you know you may as well be getting chemotherapy. Forget meditation; the past and the future disappear as each day drags on in an endless slog of moment-to-moment shit without any help from you. You can’t leave the house; you rarely host visitors, and when you do, you’re grimacing and waiting for them to leave so you can go lay back down. Your sense of humor becomes angry and dark. You lash out at the people who are trying to help you, feel guilty about it, and then are meaner and angrier as a result. You isolate yourself and the loneliness contributes to your depression. Your gums hurt, your mouth always tastes bad, your body smells awful, you’re chronically exhausted. It really is that bad. And it’s the only situation that gets that bad that is brushed off with a moral-of-the-story and cheerful smile.
This isn’t right. For many women, pregnancy is a serious illness, and we should treat it like one. It’s so very bitter to be on the receiving end of the cheer and dismissal and I hope that, for anyone who reads this, you think twice about being flippant towards a pregnant woman in the future. I know babies are exciting and I know this stage won’t last forever. But I don’t wanna hear it from you. And – having talked with one or two other pregnany women – they don’t want to hear it either. Perhaps if you can’t think of anything to say that feels sincere or sympathetic, revert to the good old rule and just don’t say anything at all.
If you are pregnant and you’re reading this, it’s real. It sucks. You don’t have to feel bad or ungrateful for feeling like shit, no matter how many of your friends struggle with infertility or how long it took you to get pregnant. You can even feel grateful and shitty at the same time. Wondering why the hell this is happening and feeling like you never want to do it again is completely normal. Wondering if you want to even move forward with it at all is normal. And for those of you who have done this before, knew it was coming, and voluntarily lowered yourself into this snake pit again, I have tremendous respect for you. Full stop.