In her new book, Friendaholic, Elizabeth Day introduces the idea of ‘pregnancy privilege’ and discusses why posting images of an ultrasound, announcing your pregnancy on Instagram can actually be an incredibly triggering moment for other women. So, should we be censoring ourselves online? Should all pregnancy posts include a trigger warning? Or, can we show up and be empathetic to others in a different way?
TW: Infertility, pregnancy, miscarriage
For the last five months, Amanda has been pretending to be someone else online.
She generated a gmail account, then used their full name, made up a birthdate (because she didn’t know theirs), and added an image of them to create a new Instagram account, which she now uses several times a day.
Although she has her own, she can’t bear to use it, and instead uses the fake one that sees her pretending to be her cat. Yes, her cat.
It seems her own account has become much too dangerous for her own mental health.
“It’s a minefield,” she tells. “I never know when someone is going to post a picture of their ultrasound or little baby booties, announcing that they are expecting. You never know who you follow might suddenly post it, and, yes, I could just quickly scroll by, but it still gives me a sucker punch to the gut.”
See, for the last five years, Amanda and her husband have been trying for a baby. They’ve got heartbreakingly close – with two failed rounds of IVF and one round that resulted in a pregnancy, which devastatingly ended just a few days before the 2nd trimester mark.
It’s an experience that has been incredibly isolating – only her closest friends know what is going on. And while she does feel genuine happiness for her friends and acquaintances who have managed to have children, she finds seeing photos of their ultrasounds incredibly triggering.
But over on her cat’s account, she has none of those worries, as she instead only follows women who are in a similar situation to her – something she wouldn’t do on her own account, for fear that others would see who she was following and see what was potentially going on in her own life. There, in the space she has cultivated, she can commiserate with others – women she’s never met in person, but who know such intimate details about her life, and who she feels safe with.
“There’s one woman I follow who has been doing the IVF route even longer than me and has had two pregnancies end,” she says. “She shares everything, and when she posted that she was pregnant, the first slide on Insta just said ‘Trigger Warning’. I knew then that she was pregnant – because when she’s talked about a topic like miscarriage, she has always labelled that in the warning. I really appreciated that, because it meant I could keep scrolling – and yes, feel a bit jealous, but also warm and happy for her, as well as having a bit more hope perhaps that my day may come too.”
It’s a conversation that has come to the forefront this week, after British podcaster/writer Elizabeth Day published her new book, Friendaholic, in which she talks candidly about how triggering she also finds seeing ultrasound images.
It’s a sentiment she reiterated on one of her podcasts, Best Friend Therapy, earlier this year in which she said:
“We’ve become a society where it’s not only acceptable, it’s expected that people will share their baby scans. I cannot tell you how triggering that is. When I’m following someone from [a] reality show, or someone I know who just posts unthinkingly a picture of their baby scan.
“You may say, well, don’t follow them and I then unfollow or mute but I don’t know that’s going to happen. And then some people, friends of mine, Whatsapped me a picture of their baby scans to announce their pregnancy knowing what I’ve been through and it’s things like that that I can’t wrap my head around because I sort of think, ‘gosh you’re so lucky, you’re so privileged getting that baby scan’. I’ve had so many baby scans and I’ve never had a baby, ok?”
We’ve become a society where it’s not only acceptable, it’s expected that people will share their baby scans. I cannot tell you how triggering that isElizabeth Day
It’s an incredibly fraught topic.
In her book, which launched this week, Elizabeth included a chapter on what it’s like to when your friends get pregnant and have children, and you have had so many failed attempts. In it, she introduced a term I hadn’t heard before: “pregnancy privilege”.
She wrote: “We rightly talk about privilege in this era of social change but hardly anyone acknowledges fertility privilege. I wouldn’t post about my glorious babies on social media in much the same way I wouldn’t post about my expansive mansion or my fleet of Bentleys (not that I have any of those) because it’s thoughtless to those who don’t have these things. Forget the language of privilege for a second, isn’t it just lacking in basic empathy? Isn’t it just being a good human?”
So, what should be happening online? Should a pregnancy announcement be something that is just for our friends and family in person? Or, should we be adding a trigger warning if we want to post something on social media, announcing a pregnancy? Should we even be posting these announcements at all?!? In posting a pregnancy announcement, are we actually just showing our ‘privilege’ and a lack of empathy?
The topic gave me pause for thought – and what came up in me, was a myriad of complex thoughts – including some very defensive ones.
I know that I hummed and haa-ed about posting my own pregnancy, and in the end, I posted a picture on my 40th birthday, just three weeks before I had my son, showing my large-as-a-house belly. I’d mentally put the date in the back of my head, figuring that if I made it that far, that’s when I should say something and allow myself to enjoy it for a moment. Because before then, I was too afraid.
I was afraid that the moment I did something to celebrate, the other shoe would drop. I almost felt like my pregnancy was something I should whisper about, as though I’d somehow made it into a party I wasn’t actually invited to and if someone found out I was there, I might get kicked out.
When I hashed it out with my therapist, as to why it was that I was so afraid, we landed on a few things. There was the fact that my mother had many miscarriages, but also that I had spoken to dozens of women – and men – in the year previously about miscarriages as part of a series for Capsule. I also had many friends who had experienced it themselves, including a close friend who lost her baby at 37 weeks. It’s staggering that one in four pregnancies end in miscarriage, but in my mind, I had so much more data of it going wrong, that it truly felt highly likely it was going to happen.
I also felt a touch of something akin to survivor’s guilt: I was nearly 40 and have an autoimmune disease, Hashimoto’s, which is known to not only make it difficult to conceive, but to also keep a pregnancy. It seemed insane that it might just all work out for me.
But I did worry about all the women I knew who were struggling, who might find me posting about my happy news, as being insensitive.
I called a friend who had recently had a miscarriage and told her the news that I was pregnant when I was 15 weeks – a conversation I was feeling a bit nervous about, but needn’t have. She was incredibly gracious and kind. I asked her what she thought about me posting it on social media at some stage. She said she would never want me to diminish my own happiness for fear of upsetting her, and that others would likely feel the same. Plus, she said, there were a lot of people who would be thrilled to hear my news, and, at that moment (the depths of Covid-19), couldn’t we all do with some happy news?
So, I posted my news and never regretted it. But… was it the right thing?
While I’ve known what it is like to long for something you don’t have, I don’t intimately know the experience of going through devastating miscarriages, repeated negative pregnancy tests each month, and gruelling rounds of IVF, all the while watching as others celebrate on social media, often in a way that makes it seem as though it came so effortlessly to them.
So, I put a post on my personal social media this week to gather other’s experiences and thoughts, and have never had so many replies to something in my life. There were literally dozens – and I keep my Instagram numbers small and private. There were two messages from friends who confided that they had recently gone through a miscarriage, at least a dozen from friends who I had no idea had been through IVF – there were even a few messages from men giving their thoughts.
There was a friend who went through IVF and two miscarriages and said she wished her closest friends hadn’t felt too awkward and had told her in person about their pregnancies, instead of her just having to see it on Instagram.
There was a friend who is now pregnant after struggling to conceive, ultimately going through IVF, who said that during the three years they were trying to have a baby, she didn’t find pregnancy announcements bothersome. “Probably because I was still in my twenties, so didn’t feel too stressed about it!” she wrote.
There was a friend who had a miscarriage at 11 weeks, which she found out about via an ultrasound. “I found it very triggering for ME having my own ultrasounds after that, but I didn’t feel anyone else should have to hide their joy at their own pregnancy and however they wanted to announce that for my sake.”
There was a friend who had three miscarriages who quit Instagram for a year, because she found it too triggering, but actually – like Elizabeth Day writes about in her book – she found people in real life to be much more insensitive when talking to her about pregnancy and babies. “One friend – she’s a close friend – even said, ‘You wouldn’t understand because you don’t have children’ to me. I felt like she had stabbed me.”
Another friend, a male who is now a dad, wrote, “My thought would be that any experience, say a baby shower, or seeing a pregnant friend or stranger on the street, might be triggering. Life is by its nature triggering – I’d suggest that it is more to do with our relationship to social media and the fact that it probably is damaging for vulnerable people (perhaps for all of us?)”.
Another friend in her 40s, heartbreakingly just experienced a miscarriage, something that’s particularly tricky when catching up with her young son’s antenatal group, where 90% of them are pregnant with their second child. “While I’m so thrilled for them (and I really am), I’m so sad at the same time. [But] I don’t think we can take away people’s right to share their joy despite our own personal circumstances,” she wrote. “It’s a tricky one as two opposing thoughts can exist at the same time.”
I love that she wrote that last line, because it’s what had been simmering in my mind, since I first read the chapter in Elizabeth’s book on Fertility. I was appalled to read how insensitive some of the people in her life had been to her in person, but the social media aspect seemed murky. It reminded me of a little lesson I read in Dr Becky Kennedy’s book, Good Inside, which I wish had come out 40 years ago. In it she outlines this simple idea that ‘Two Things Can Be True’.
Essentially, it’s the concept that yes, there can be one situation, but it can be perceived differently by two different people. Or, we can have two different feelings ourselves about the one situation. One doesn’t negate the other, one isn’t more valid than the other – both can co-exist.
So yes, you can, like my friend, be in the middle of a very heart-breaking situation, and see someone else getting the exact thing you are striving so hard for – and feel incredibly happy for them AND so desperately sad that it is not you it is happening to. Both feelings, and both experiences are valid.
Another friend had a take that many others had touched on. She talked about her own struggles, and a time in her life when she despised seeing yet another happy announcement, but how as the seasons of her life have changed, her definitions of a “tough time” have changed, and the things that trigger her now are entirely different.
She said, rather than focusing on how we turn up on social media, we should be focusing on how we show up in real life.
“Because we all have a different ‘tough’ that life is going to throw at us all at some point,” she wrote. “We need to be better friends: to check in and remember our friends who are struggling, and as the ones who are struggling, we need to love ourselves enough to have boundaries and make our worlds what we need them to be in order to get through. I think we could do more to be present offline with our precious people, so that we are scaffolded enough to deal with what may happen when we are online.”
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