Pregnancy is an exciting time. Or so I’m told. It is a time of expectation and anticipation. But pregnancy is also a time of immense change and with that can come a lot of stress and pressure.
CW: this post talks of child loss, PTSD, and pregnancy related illness in very honest terms.
I’m writing this post 14 weeks pregnant after probably 4 weeks of researching pregnancy announcements. I see themes. Bright happy couples showing the blob-like scan picture from their 12 week ultrasound. Gender or name reveal cakes held by the Cheshire Cat of smiles. Expectant mothers positively blooming in a bump revealing gown and, of course, wearing the biggest of all smiles. I feel none of these pictures would tell the truth about my pregnancy – I still don’t really know how to announce it other than ‘I’m pregnant … it sucks.’
The Unplanned Pregnancy
Don’t get me wrong. This baby is wanted. But coming to terms with an unplanned pregnancy is a whole other matter.
This pregnancy is completely unexpected and has happened at the worse time possible. Work has been a nightmare with restructuring looming on the horizon. We’d just put an offer in on a house that has only two redeeming factors – potential and cheapness. The house is a doer-upper and my gosh does it need some doing up! My husband was shortly off on a month long trip to Liberia – the fourth poorest country in the world – where he would be unlikely to have access to internet or communication methods. And we had recently settled a four-year law suit and therefore gained some closure on a previous pregnancy that had devastated our lives some years before.
What ensued was panic. Frantic calls to the doctors and midwife to try and get an appointment before Iain had to disappear to another continent. Floods of tears as I told my mum – again in panic – that I was pregnant and terrified. Guilt when the GP asked me why I hadn’t been taking folic acid – this was followed quickly by a lecture on birth control. A panic attack outside the midwife’s office the next day as I read leaflet after leaflet on everything from genetic screening tests to prenatal yoga. Sobbing uncontrollably into my sleeve when she asked me if this was my first pregnancy. My husband had to translate my gasps because she couldn’t make them out; ‘I don’t want to kill this one’.
More guilt when she asked when I’d had my last drink. I’d been out partying with friends just three nights before – there was a gin bar and tequila. Two weeks before that I’d been glugging Tuscan wine by the bucketful whilst on holiday. ‘It will be fine’ – she reassured me. Needless to say, not even a drop has passed my lips since that first morning I woke up, made a cup of coffee, threw up at the smell of it and realised I needed to pee on a stick.
I was sent home with a huge pack of information, a prescription for folic acid, an appointment for my 12-week scan, and an emergency referral to an obstetrician. The emergency appointment is standard for women with my neurological condition, Arnold Chiari Malformation, which can cause complications during childbirth. I felt a little more reassured – I even started planning how the nursery would look in our new house.
I had felt poorly for a few weeks before realising that I was pregnant. I put it down to a bad cycle with my usual chronic illness. I was nauseous with a persistent and unshifting headache, my balance was off (I even fell and hit my head walking the dog) and I was exhausted all the time.
However, that was nothing to what was to come. Within a week of knowing I was pregnant food became unpalatable. My best friend, who came to stay whilst my husband was in Liberia, had to eat in the kitchen (three floors below the lounge where I’d taken residence on the sofa) because I couldn’t stand the smell of anything she was eating. I began vomiting after every meal followed soon by vomiting after every drink. My headaches worsened and I ended up in A&E with severe dehydration.
I was diagnosed with a severe pregnancy complication known as Hyperemesis Gravidarum (HG from here on) – a severe pregnancy sickness that can leave the sufferer dehydrated, malnourished, and in need of hospitalisation. Kate Middleton suffered from it. So did Amy Schumer. But a diagnosis didn’t mean I was out of the blue. Far from it.
The vomiting continued despite being on three different anti-sickness medications. Even the thought of food would induce a fresh bout of sickness. I spent the next 6 weeks in and out of hospital in a vicious cycle of being stabilised and rehydrated by IV meds only to go home and relapse. They say most pregnant women suffer from two bouts of nausea a day during their first trimester – mine was continuous with no let up.
My blood pressure dropped to the point that I couldn’t stand without blacking out. My body, weak and malnourished, wanting nothing but sleep. I lost myself. I couldn’t read a book because I couldn’t focus for long enough. I couldn’t watch TV because the movement of the screen triggered nausea. I couldn’t hold a conversation. I could sleep – but only fitfully.
And then there was guilt. A relative said – ‘Well you have to eat, you’re pregnant’. But I didn’t feel pregnant and eating wasn’t a choice I had.
I felt empty and exhausted and tearful. Relatives, who were needed to care for me in my husband’s absence, exclaimed excitement and joy at the prospect of baby. I felt no excitement. I felt no joy. They asked if I wanted a girl or a boy. I didn’t want either. They wanted to see the early scan picture that I’d had at 7 weeks to check if I was carrying twins, a common cause of HG. I wasn’t carrying twins and I didn’t want to share the image. Having people see it would make it too real. Plus, I wanted my husband to be the first to see it when he got home from his work trip. They sent congratulations cards. I didn’t feel I had anything to be congratulated on. I just felt ill. Too ill to function.
Depression is common with sufferers of HG. It is a lonely time and you feel as though all autonomy over your body has been stripped away. You are no longer a person but a vessel for something that is, quite literally, sucking the life out of you. The midwife told me that HG babies are normally strong; she described it as a parasite taking any nutrition from me – leaving nothing for me to survive on. And that is how I felt – how I still feel on a bad day – like all the life and energy and joy is being sucked out of me.
And then comes the guilt. Once my husband was home I broke down in tears because I didn’t feel pregnant. I didn’t feel the joy that everyone else experienced on my behalf. And I felt like there was something severely wrong with me for not feeling those things. I felt, and still feel, guilty for not being the glowing, happy mum trembling with excitement at the prospect of a new baby.
I’ve never really come to terms with the failure of my previous pregnancy. I picked myself up and buried myself in work. I refused to confront the grief and the guilt I felt over it. I wouldn’t talk about it apart from when intoxicated when all the tears would come flying out. I pretended it didn’t affect me whilst, at the same time, cancelling all thoughts of future children from my mind. I couldn’t go through that again – so why even entertain the idea?
Then I found out I’m pregnant again and get confronted with a wave of suppressed emotions. All the trauma from 4 years ago hit me like a brick wall. I had panic attacks – at the midwives, at the doctors, when first seeing my baby on an ultrasound screen, when doing pee test after pee test after pee test.
My husband mentioned it first. PTSD. Post traumatic stress disorder. Extreme stress trigged by frightening or distressing events. In my case, it was triggered by my previous pregnancy.
It is something that I’m still learning to deal with and I feel like it has built a huge wall between me and my baby. A wall between me and my happiness as an expectant mother. I can’t get over this sense of impending gloom – like everything is going to go so very badly wrong. I don’t want to tell people I’m pregnant because how do I then tell them that I’m no longer pregnant when/if it all goes wrong?
It went wrong before. My body wasn’t able to cope with the pregnancy. I was extremely ill, hospitalised for weeks on end. Operated on. Drugged to the eyeballs. It resulted in no baby. And that is something I will never really get over and, sadly, it’s stopping me from feeling anything but anxiety over this new pregnancy.
Fear is normal?
So where am I going with this? I don’t really know. It’s mostly a cathartic rant – getting all my thoughts and feelings out on paper (or screen) and jumping over that one barrier of fear by telling the world; ‘I’m pregnant … but it sucks!’
I’m sure I’ll be criticised for this post. After all, I’m lucky right? I’m pregnant. In the words of one friend, I’m ‘growing a miracle’. So many women out there would do anything to be in my position. I have a loving and supportive husband who is literally waiting on me hand and foot. I have (mostly) supportive family who are around to look after me and support me. I have a job that means I’ve been paid for most of my illness – saved from the additional stress of poor finances. I’m lucky. Right?
I also think this little tale is partly to reassure other expectant mothers out there that it doesn’t need to be all smiles and excitement. Take away complications like HG and the trauma of previous pregnancies and pregnancy is still terrifying. It is wholly new and unknown (even to those who have had previous children) and can be hugely stressful on the parents for so many reasons. Other expectant mothers out there must feel this fright too, right?