Wednesday, November 23, 2011

When Pregnancy Blows




A lovely client of mine recently made an important observation about the tone of many natural, holistic books on pregnancy and birth. She said, "The statement 'You're pregnant! Congratulations! You are now a sacred vessel of life.' makes me angry. Why is it that the act of carrying a baby is what makes me sacred? Am I not already sacred without the need of a pregnancy to create or justify my sacredness?" Indeed.

I believe the intent of the sacred vessel statement is to help women embrace how great it is to be gestating a kid, affirming that they are special, worthy of extra self-nurturing. It's not malicious. However, this belief that pregnancy renders us sacred vessels puts an awful lot of pressure on women to match this projected beatific state with beatific behaviour...even when they're just not feeling it.

For the most part, most of the women I work with enjoy their pregnancies very much. Sure, they experience some of the uncomfortable symptoms like troopers, but are ultimately quite enthralled with their ripe states. And others absolutely can't stand being pregnant.

I have sometimes heard incredibly judgemental statements from the "You are now a sacred vessel" crowd regarding the women who experience their pregnancies negatively. I have heard people, many whom have never even experienced pregnancy before say things like, "Other women have been trying for years to have children and can't. You should be grateful to be pregnant at all." Or, "Your negative feelings are bad for the baby. You should work through why you are being so negative for your baby's sake." Way to blame! This is the same thinking which blocks a woman's grief over a disappointing birth experience, encouraging her to basically "get over it" because she and her baby are healthy, and that's the most important thing. Well, duh, it's the most important thing. No woman would prefer the alternative of a fabulous birth but an unhealthy baby. But can't we just take a woman's gratitude for granted and give her the space to authentically express her emotions in spite of a good clinical outcome?

Most books on birth don't have a chapter called "When Pregnancy Blows" (though I'm writing one). And I assure you, having worked with hundreds of pregnant women, I know sometimes it really does. Sure, there are some people in the world who are whiners by nature and turn a normal experience into one of abject misery by focusing entirely on the negative. Upon examination, you would see that this is the way they are in their everyday lives, not just in pregnancy. But in my experience, most women do their best to downplay the more negative aspects of their pregnancies for fear of being perceived as ungrateful.

The truth is that sometimes pregnancy is beyond challenging. Sometimes it's downright awful. I have known some women to be so floored by pregnancy that they spend an entire nine months either hospitalized on IVs or lying on their couches wrapped around a barf bowl containing upchucked Diclectin pills. I have seen women literally crippled by their pregnancies, suffering the excruciating pain of pelvic girdle dysfunction. Others develop complications, either minor or otherwise, which turn them from the vital, active women they are into what they feel are bedridden, vulnerable shadows of their former selves, wreaking incredible emotional havoc. To some, the act of expanding in girth is not just a vanity issue, but a deep seated terror rooted in past trauma. Very few women admit this to the general public, but sometimes those whose pregnancies put them into an unusual state of suffering have feelings of "I don't know if this is really worth it," and have literally considered terminating. Sometimes they get resentful of the presence of the baby inside who makes them feel utterly miserable, and begrudge their bodies for "failing" them when their friends are bopping around taking spinning classes until their due dates. Does this make them unworthy of being sacred vessels? Absolutely not.

Many women are shocked when they discover their pregnancies are less than they were cracked up to be because we are so adverse as a culture to talking about it. Letting women know in advance that pregnancy can be really rough on some is not going to make it happen or "give permission" to women to "whine" more about minor complaints. This is the same logic as saying, "If we talk about labour as being painful, then this will make labour painful. Labour is natural, natural shouldn't hurt, and the perception of pain is simply enculturated."

Do these women who suffer greatly feel guilty for these feelings? You bet they do. It is unsafe in proper company to speak so negatively of one's pregnancy without evoking judgement from others who don't understand. I heard one woman on Facebook say that she had had some itchy skin condition while pregnant and SHE never complained, so she couldn't understand why so many women complained so much about THEIR pregnancies, and that pregnancy was a time to be grateful and NOT complain. I'm sure this lady meant no harm and simply has not been exposed to some moms of twins who don't feel as stoic when they cannot lie down at all in the final weeks without throwing up, losing weight rapidly due to an inability to keep down food, or to ladies who are in wheelchairs because of severe pelvic and back pain.

Women who are not feeling great about being pregnant often also feel guilty that their negative perceptions are somehow harming their babies. But I think forcing positivity when it doesn't always exist or not giving vent to some of the authentic feelings that come up, such as extreme vulnerability, anger, resentment, and depression, can create worse problems. Stuffing back real feelings causes stress within the body, and stress has definitely been shown to have an impact upon the pregnancy and Baby's in-utero development. Instead of putting on a brave face when inside she's crying, it's probably healthier overall for a mother struggling with difficult feelings to be able to unburden herself in the presence of someone who will listen with empathy and compassion. Simply being able to have an emotionally safe space held for the acknowledging and accepting of not feeling at all like a sacred vessel can be deeply healing. After all, if you look at it up close, most of the time these feelings are appropriate reactions to crappy situations. If the mom weren't pregnant, the expression of feelings such as these in relation to a challenging life situation would be encouraged. But because she's a "sacred vessel", our culture seeks to look askance at her expression, and it is unfair.

When women repress their real emotions for fear of judgement, they tend to creep up uncontrollably, blossoming into the more socially appropriate condition of postpartum depression. While more well known and accepted than pregnancy negativity, make no mistake; postpartum depression is a serious state and has a far higher impact on the baby at that point. The longer a mother remains depressed postpartum, the larger the impact upon her baby, who very much needs to be emotionally attached to her for optimal development.

As a culture it is important for us to accept and honour the fact that while YES, pregnancy is mostly beautiful, amazing, transformative, and fun, there are lots of pregnancies that just blow. It is usually entirely beyond the mom's control, and she is often sitting on the sidelines wishing she were one of those shiny happy mommies-to-be. If we can meet those furtive admissions of suffering with understanding and compassion, perhaps the experience can be made just a little bit easier. We need to embrace all experiences of pregnancy and be inclusive of all women's feelings, not just the "sacred vessel" ones.