Sarah got pregnant in January 2017 and gave birth in October. She’s been shocked by the experience since the very beginning and worries the lack of education, support and dialogue around what it’s like to conceive, give birth to and care for a child does a disservice to women. She wants to speak honestly about what it’s like as much as she can to help reverse that. Below is her as-told-to story. -Haley Nahman
Realizing My Ignorance Early On
My husband and I were married for five years before we decided to start trying for a baby. Just a few months before I got pregnant, a close pregnant friend’s baby died the day she was due. She never found out why, but in doing my own research, I found out that one out of every 160 pregnancies in the U.S. ends in a late-term death of the baby, or stillbirth. In about a fourth of the cases, doctors can’t even find a possible cause. I had heard of people having miscarriages, but I’d previously thought that once you’ve passed four months, you’re pretty much home free.
It made me realize that if I’m an educated adult who lives in New York City and I didn’t know about this statistic, there have to be so many people out there who also have no idea. That she couldn’t find a support group in a fairly large city highlighted how so much of what women experience in pregnancy is left out of the cultural dialogue. So I approached my own pregnancy through that lens. It was always in the back of my mind that I didn’t know anything about having a baby, and that it could happen to me too.
Losing Control of My Body
I was really sick at the beginning of my pregnancy. People talk about morning sickness as a common symptom, but they act like you throw up once in the morning and it ends in four weeks. I was sick all day, every day for 18 weeks. I could not eat, couldn’t function, couldn’t go out to dinner with my husband, couldn’t have lunch with a girlfriend. It was the most alienating, isolating and miserable four months. I would go for three days eating the insides of bagels and little slices of apple because that was the only thing I didn’t puke up. That level of nausea is very hard to describe. My husband really didn’t understand, as wonderful and good as he is.
You can’t tell anyone that you’re pregnant for months, either, so you have to get up and go to work every day. I felt compromised in every possible way. Finally that ended, I started showing and the pregnancy part became a little bit more fun. But there were endless side effects that no one ever told me about, like an intensified sense of smell, horrible breakouts and other changes in my body. On the flip side, I also felt a certain type of euphoria the whole time, which was hormone-related.
The Weightiness of Pregnancy
Pregnancy wasn’t the blissfully happy, magical thing that everyone told me it would be. It’s only nine months, but it seems so much longer. Every day was different. I’d ask myself, “What’s going to change about my body today? Or my mindset? Or my relationship with my husband? Or my sex life? Or my relationship with people in my family?”
There’s a lot going on in your body when you’re pregnant; I felt so emotionally heavy through all of it. I felt the weight of the world on my shoulders because every decision I made impacted me and this hopeless little thing that I was building. I also felt immediately so much closer to my mom, who I was already extremely close with. I would cry myself to sleep three nights a week, worried that my mom was going to die before I had the baby. I would try to explain all of this to my husband, and while he’s awesome, I don’t think he had the emotional capacity to understand what any of this would be like.
I can’t speak to the very real decisions people who have depression have to make when they’re pregnant (like if they’re going to continue with antidepressants); I don’t have that type of depression, but I felt emotionally heavy the entire time, and there weren’t a lot of people who I could talk to about it. Even though my friends who don’t have kids are empathetic, amazing people, they had no fucking clue what I was talking about. And my friends who did have kids, who did understand what I was talking about, were busy because they had kids.
Around the five-month mark, I had a real mental breakdown. I was inconsolable for a week. I couldn’t stop crying. On the one hand, I was very grateful that I was able to conceive and that I was making this baby, but I also felt like my choices were suddenly so limited. I felt kind of like my life was ending. My husband didn’t feel that way. But I just kept thinking, Holy shit. Why did I decide to do this? My whole life is about to get turned upside down. What if I didn’t really understand what the implications of that were? Did I really want this? I was questioning everything.
The Process of Giving Birth
I was pregnant all summer and gave birth on October 3rd. The process of giving birth was horrific. Once I got to the hospital, every step of giving birth was a trauma on my body, from the giant IV that they stuck in me to my water not breaking enough for the baby to come out. They had to re-break my water with what looked like a giant knitting needle. It was so gruesome and gross and painful. I was doing that kind of crying where I couldn’t breathe. I was in labor for almost 19 hours.
No one tells you so much of the horror of giving birth. It’s such a disservice to people, especially to people who don’t have access to the kind of care that I do. I had it better than most: I had incredible medical care at the best hospital in New York City. I saw a private doctor who doesn’t accept insurance in New York — it was a very expensive and rare opportunity that only a very lucky and privileged person would have.
I had a friend in Chicago who was pregnant at the same time I was. She had more of your “standard” experience, a standard doctor who took all sorts of insurance. I cannot tell you how different our experiences were. I had a sonogram every single time I went to the doctor; she had a sonogram twice. I went through maybe four types of genetic testing, some of which weren’t even offered to her. There were just so many ways in which her much more accessible medical care was subpar compared to what I got. It just wasn’t right. What’s more is I think that compared to most people, she was in a privileged position. A lot of families have it much worse than she did. Women are making the future of our species, and for most of them, the medical care is so far beneath what they deserve and need.
There Is a Lack of Dialogue
Did you know that you bleed for six to eight weeks after you have a baby? Because I had to wear adult diapers — no one ever told me that. No one ever told me that you look physically pregnant for months afterward. One study showed as many as six out of 10 women have a condition called diastasis recti where their abdominal muscles stretch so much that they separate and their bodies are often not capable of putting them back together without physical therapy. I never heard about that — I never read about that in a biology textbook. Like so many postpartum complications, it is also severely under-researched.
Part of the reason no one told me this stuff is that women forget; your body makes you forget what the experience was like to protect you. But also, people just don’t want to talk about it. This should be the shit you learn about in science class when you’re an eighth-grader! All of this should be normalized because it’s something women have to go through in order for the human species to continue.
I’ve heard people say, “They don’t tell you this stuff because if you knew you wouldn’t have a baby to begin with.” That’s not a reason not to give people medical, scientific information about their own bodies. There’s something inherently misogynist about it that this isn’t common knowledge.
After I had the baby, I had no clue what to do with him. Everyone says, “When they put that baby on your chest, you’re gonna immediately fall in love. It’ll be the best moment of your life!” When they put the baby on my chest, I honestly felt like he was an alien and I did not know what to do next. I didn’t really feel connected to him. It wasn’t a magical fireworks moment at all, and I felt really guilty about that. When I told other mothers that, they said things like, “Yeah, I didn’t love the baby for the first few weeks either.” That was good to know, but I wished I hadn’t spent weeks thinking I was missing a chip.
The Pressures of Motherhood
I am three and a half months postpartum, and my friends say it takes about a year for the hormones to level out. When I say that I don’t feel connected to my child, it’s not that I don’t feel a deep sense of responsibility and respect for this little creature. It’s just that I didn’t fall in love immediately. That glittery version of having a baby wasn’t reality for me. My stomach is still distended, I am bleeding into an adult diaper, I pee in my pants if I jump too fast, I cry all the time, I feel every emotion more deeply and I’m losing my hair because of the drastic change in my estrogen levels. The thought of anything happening to the baby is devastating, but what am I going to do? Sit up all night and stare at him? It’s such a clusterfuck of emotions, and it doesn’t stop.
I was told that I had to breastfeed, but I refused to do it. It was a decision I made that made me feel less tethered and weighed down since I was already feeling a lot of anxiety, pressure and depression about my life changing completely. Deciding not to breastfeed gave me a sense of autonomy and was the right choice for me. But when people hear me say that, they look at me like I have seven heads. You have no idea how many men have asked me about that decision. When I tell them, I feel like they look at me as though I’m a huge asshole for not feeding my baby solely from my body for six straight months.
Women Need More Support
Even though I’m a vocal person, I still feel shame for saying that I have postpartum depression. It’s almost like I think I don’t deserve to say it because other people have it worse. But the fact that it’s hard for me to say is cultural brainwashing. So I’m supposed to accept that this is my reality and that any amount of complaining makes me a bad mom or a bad woman? Or that I’m airing my dirty laundry in public, which is impolite? In reality, that is inaccurate and is why this problem persists. I love my baby, I love my husband and I know that all of this will work out. But I cry every single day. I feel sad and lonely.
We all have our opinions on how it feels to have a baby, but the lack of widely shared scientific, medical information about what happens to your body bothers me. Women are not properly prepared for and supported in motherhood. It makes me so angry. I don’t understand why women aren’t rioting in the streets. We need to make sure women are given proper care and proper help. We need to make sure women are not tricked into doing this, and that if they get pregnant and decide they don’t want the baby, they’re not villainized for having an abortion. I’m in a depression because I don’t see a way for it to get better for women without massive amounts of change. I’m one of the very lucky few — for most people, it’s even worse, and I can’t imagine that. I’ve never felt more militant about women’s rights, abortion rights issues and health care issues than I have after going through a pregnancy.
Photos by Louisiana Mei Gelpi; Art Direction by Emily Zirimis.