In this week’s instalment, Capsule writer Emma Clifton writes the story she needed to read a year ago, about how pregnancy has differed from her very, very low expectations in terms of her mental health.
Welcome to our series, The Motherhood Diaries – a safe space for you to share your experiences, advice, hopes and heartbreaks. We’ll be hearing from industry experts giving practical advice alongside Capsule readers (You!) sharing your firsthand experiences. We’re looking at everything from fertility, trying to conceive, pregnancy, the fourth trimester, newborns, toddlers, children’s mental health and teenagers, fertility issues and everything in between!
I have written so many TMI-based stories over the years and none of them has made me more uncomfortable than this one, because this feels like the kind of thing you simply shouldn’t admit.
But being pregnant is the best my mental health has been in years.
I know. Even committing these words to a computer screen feels like waving a red flag at the universe but on the odd occasion I felt comfortable saying it to someone (usually a younger, child-free-but-interested woman), it was like offering water in a barren desert.
For previous generations, the only accepted narrative around pregnancy has been: ‘This is the best thing you can do with your life and you will enjoy every second (or else).’ And then somewhere along the way, it flipped to, ‘Welcome to HELL, you’ve ruined your life.’
Previous to getting pregnant, I would describe my mental health as being like an unruly employee – it needed constant management so that it wouldn’t go off the damn rails. My own personal canary in the mine for ‘shit is getting very bad’ had been singing its head off far more often since the pandemic, since redundancy, since everything. So the idea of creating another body inside one I was already kind of a frenemy to felt like ultimately a bad idea.
I am writing this story because for so long, I needed to read it. It is only my experience and pregnancy is an intensely personal experience, because even though it is a somewhat universal journey, there is no way of knowing what kind of time you will have.
But along the way, I had absolutely assumed the worst. I had become a Doomsday Prophet for not only what I assumed my own fertility would be like, but also for what I would be like as a pregnant person.
When you are an anxious type, you build every day out of the worst case scenarios. And you don’t even need to have your own brain do that for you when it comes to all things fertility! The internet/society at large will fill that gap, by letting you know repeatedly that pregnancy is basically like putting your physical, mental and emotional health inside a metaphorical salad spinner and fearing whatever you’re left with.
Goodbye Darkness, My Old Friend
I suspected I was pregnant just days after it happened because two changes happened very quickly: 1) I became nauseous immediately and 2) I realised my anxiety had gone. The ever-present buzz in my mind, the always-verging-towards-panic clench in my stomach had disappeared overnight. I felt a sense of peace that had eluded me for the previous decade and it has not gone away. Yes, there have been the normal ups and downs of pregnancy – but nothing like I have experienced in the past.
Pregnancy is, naturally, a heightened time because you have to hold two worlds in your heart at once: you are currently pregnant, and nothing is guaranteed. You have to both plan for the future but be so deeply present in the day-to-day. It is a lonely, weird, magical, hard-to-explain time.
You become part of a process that billions of people have been through but nothing prepares you for how fast everything changes. I can feel like a radiant angel one minute and then, half an hour later, throw up spectacularly down my outfit after telling my husband I don’t need a sick bag because ‘I’m almost nine months pregnant and I’ve mastered the art of avoiding vomiting,’ (this happened just days ago).
But when I compare my experience to that which was described to me when I started reading all those goddamn pregnancy books, which basically start with some mythical warning of ‘abandon hope all who enter here’, the whole thing has been veiled in a level of wonder that I didn’t expect. I have loved almost all of it (minus the first trimester, which I found to be a vicious slog) and I have loved myself as a pregnant person far more than I ever thought possible. Also, my brain is so quiet now, I still can’t quite believe it. Lord, I will miss this peace.
(Just going to sidenote here and say that, early on in my first trimester when I was lying down and feeling like an utter sack of wobbly garbage, I watched Amy Schumer’s excellent comedy special Growing. In it she talked about the appalling reality of having hyperemesis gravidarum and vomiting multiple times every day for her entire pregnancy.
She had this message for pregnant people, like me, who would use a term like ‘veiled in wonder’: “If you had a good pregnancy, if you’re someone who enjoyed being pregnant, I just hope your car flips over. That’s what I wish for you.” So if you are in Amy Schumer’s position right now, reading this, I can totally appreciate that you wish my car would flip. I support this entirely.)
And yes, there is a bunch of weird shit that comes with being pregnant that I didn’t expect. Having my body size used against me from the word go? That I did not expect (another story on that, coming soon!). The fact that my gums and nose would bleed randomly? That’s creepy as hell. The farts? I’ll never stop talking about them. The fact that the nausea would stick around for a lot longer than advertised? Gross! Crazy boob veins? Got ‘em in spades. (And keep in mind I have not given birth yet, which is – famously – a literal and figurative shit show).
‘Sure, not every day is filled with ‘she’s beauty and she’s grace’ moments. The first thing I did with my pregnancy pillow was hurl it across the room’
But the biggest difference is that when you are pregnant, you feel horrendous FOR A REASON. There are have been so many times in adult life where feeling like death warmed up is the physical consequence for something already terrible: heartbreak, going through grief, having an awful illness, experiencing a terrible life event or a crippling mental health period. Those days that turn into weeks that turn into months where getting out of bed every day can feel like an insurmountable challenge, with no end in sight. With pregnancy, there is a purpose to your pain.
Sure, not every day is filled with ‘she’s beauty and she’s grace’ moments. The first thing I did with my pregnancy pillow was hurl it across the room, sometime during month five, when I was feeling sick, again, and at 35 weeks pregnant, I have the physicality, temperament and, in fact, gas of the Hindenburg. But having a good and ultimately short-term reason behind your discomfort is very helpful.
(Second sidenote: I was already very pro-choice, but nothing has made me more fervently so than being pregnant. I aimed to be pregnant, I was glad to be pregnant, and I very much want to stay pregnant. To make people go through this who don’t want any of those things? Well, that’s literally torture. And every single public official who votes to remove the right to safe abortion should experience the physical discomfort of the first trimester, every single day, for the rest of their lives. May they never know peace.)
And there are a lot of good parts to pregnancy that happen along the way, particularly in the second half. People smile when they see you! You don’t have to wash your hair as much! You can get away with being pretty unreasonable! You carry a little pal around inside you, that nudges you whenever you have a nap. Animals and small children are drawn to you, as if you are a nauseous Snow White! You are creating the miracle of life! Your tits look great (and then, TERRIFYING)! People will describe your summer sweat as ‘pregnancy glow’ even though you both know that’s a polite lie!
Also, not everybody gets to do this! For the most part, I would describe my pregnancy as ‘I’m just happy to be here’, because I had 37 years of thinking it wasn’t going to be possible – mainly due to my terrible love life/finances/brain – and then suddenly it was. And I think it’s absolutely fantastic that we are so open and honest about the many hardships that can come with being pregnant, because it can be a totally overwhelming and uncertain time for a lot of people. I just hope we haven’t lost a little of the joy along the way in how we talk about it, and that we aren’t scaring the younger generation off. And I hope we can acknowledge that even though it can be hard, and tiring, it really is a privilege to be able to do it at all.
(Really hope my car doesn’t flip over now).