The physical aspects of pregnancy are easy to list, says Cariad Martin, but what about the ways it alters your mind?
There are still many people who insist that pregnancy is a beautiful time, in spite of the fact that the physical horrors are well documented: sickness, sore boobs, incontinence, swelling, constipation; the list goes on.
But the mental health implications of growing another human inside you are less spoken about, and more often than not, during a time of massive changes to their life and body, women are trained to dismiss their legitimate and entirely appropriate emotional distress as ‘hormones’.
I have found the mental health impact of my pregnancy more difficult than the physical side – and the physical side has been pretty traumatic. Some low points of my symptoms include sitting on the floor of the toilet mopping sweat from my brow in a roadside Burger King in North Denmark following some Exorcist-level vomiting and popping up to A&E on a Sunday morning after 40 hours of debilitating indigestion.
“How do you reconcile your feelings when that dark path you never wanted to take leads you to something wonderful? How can you still wish it hadn’t happened?”
One night, as my husband helped rub steroid cream into what can only be described as apocalyptic eczema on my back, I remember asking him through gritted teeth, “Is this how you pictured pregnancy?”
Here is a small selection of things that have personally caused me the most distress:
I had assumed, naively, that ‘baby brain’ was an affectionate term for being so fucking tired that you occasionally forget things. It turns out; it’s not. I have become such a doughnut it’s legitimately frightening. Apparently, being on the ball is extremely important to my sense of self-worth.
I don’t have any strategies for being this forgetful – something about tying a knot in your handkerchief? After the second time of turning up to a doctor’s appointment at the wrong time (and once to the wrong hospital) I had to put my husband in charge of all further appointments, essentially making him admin of the pregnancy.
I have never got an appointment wrong in my life, or even been late to one. What in god’s name can be happening in my uterus to make that part of my brain turn to hummus? I’m not good at this; this morning I cried because I left my lunchbox at home.
If being a woman in the workplace is already like running against a strong wind, childbearing is a baseball bat to the kneecaps of your career. Maybe you’ll recover, maybe you’ll come back stronger, but also maybe you’ll never walk again.
From the moment you make the announcement to your boss – much sooner than you’d like if your job requires manual labour – you can almost physically feel the promotions and pay rises slipping through your fingers like sand. In the months approaching, preceding and during your leave, you are frozen, ineligible for progression and rewards that your work may rightly deserve.
And that’s not even taking into account the salary and responsibility drop that may await you after you return, or the sorry fact that your wages may not even cover the cost of basic childcare.
I never truly appreciated before the necessity of being able to think, “Fuck it, I’ll just quit,” when you’re having a tough time at work. You won’t quit, of course you won’t, but knowing that you can’t because you need the maternity pay and leave makes a bad day a really fucking bad day. Especially if the pregnancy is the cause of difficult working conditions in the first place.
As you may have read here before, in 2015 my partner and I went through an adoption breakdown at the introductions stage. It was a loss unlike anything I’ve ever felt before, and it took a lot of therapy for me to recognise and treat my distress as the grief that it was.
And, like trying to describe the night without referencing the day that came before it, there was no way that announcements of our pregnancy wouldn’t become in some part about that previous loss.
“I had assumed, naively, that ‘baby brain’ was an affectionate term for being so fucking tired that you occasionally forget things. It turns out; it’s not. I have become such a doughnut it’s legitimately frightening.”
It was an unspoken prologue to each announcement, and I felt people were extra happy to hear our news because of it, which was difficult to manage, especially when my own feelings about the pregnancy were less than clear-cut.
I spent the first few weeks with unignorable waves of not wanting him at all, I suppose as a means of self-preservation. This knot of emotions tightened further when I had to come to terms with the fact that if those awful events hadn’t occurred, this baby wouldn’t exist. After the breakdown, I was able to wish with all my heart that it had not happened. But how do you reconcile your feelings when that dark path you never wanted to take leads you to something wonderful? How can you still wish it hadn’t happened? It’s a can of worms you don’t really need opened.
These examples are in addition to the general, everyday anxiety brought on by, say accidentally eating a piece of forbidden brie, or finding out how fucking expensive a ‘travel system’ is. And I’m told, gleefully by every bastard that ever had kids, that this low-level panic over whether you’re doing it right never goes away, even when your kids are 40. Delightful.
So, anyway, on those days when your baby is using your bladder as a beanbag chair, you’ve just realised your maternity cover person knows more about Hootsuite than you and you’ve just blown your Friday night takeaway money on an electric breast pump, don’t feel under pressure to disregard your overwhelming distress as ‘hormones’.
Because, under the circumstances, wanting to throw yourself on the floor and cry like a three-year-old actually sounds about right. Just make sure there’s someone to help you back up again. Otherwise, if you’re anything like me at the moment, you will be stuck down there all day.
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Cariad Martin is a feminist writer and former reviews editor at For Books’ Sake. She is also a Rainbow, Brownie and Guide leader and trash TV enthusiast. She blogs at www.cariadontoast.com.