Thursday 14 November 2019

Becoming a mother is the most amazing, life-changing thing a woman will ever do ...

Vyonne Hogan. Photo: Marc O'Sullivan

Yvonne Hogan

So why don't we talk more honestly about it, asks Yvonne Hogan

'How are you feeling?" an acquaintance asked. "Fat and cranky and mis-erable," I replied. "My feet are so swollen they look like bread rising out of my shoes, my boobs are killing me and none of my clothes fit me.

"I have no energy, I have loads to do and I can't get anything done. Being pregnant is a pain," I said.

The disapproval was palpable. And mixed with something else I can't quite put my finger on.

It was kind of like the reaction you would get if you blasphemed in front of a holy statue. A sharp little intake of breath, an O-shaped mouth and a 'you did not just say that' look in the eye.

"You shouldn't say things like that," she hushed. "What about all the women who would love to have children but aren't as lucky as you?"

I know I am lucky. Believe me, I feel really lucky to be having a baby. I want this and I planned it and both my husband and I are over the moon that we are going to be parents.

I know it's a gift and a privilege and one of the most amazing things that can happen to anyone, but I am baffled by this wall of silence surrounding the physical, emotional and psychological issues that arise from procreating.

It's all a bit 'Stepford Wives'. For some reason, women who would have no problem discussing politics, religion and whatever you are having yourself don't feel they can openly and honestly talk about how inconvenient, uncomfortable, confusing and downright scary being pregnant can be.

And you dare not express how you are grappling with the seismic psychological shift required to go from hedonistic, self-contained, career-focused woman to mother, lest you be considered selfish.

You are only allowed to be unequivocally joyous. No grey areas, no intellectual struggling with the concept allowed. Just unfettered joy.

You just can't tell the truth.

Or if you do, you have to immediately qualify it with a statement such as "but of course I am thrilled, delighted, best thing that ever happened to me", as if by complaining about swollen feet or wistfully identifying things you love that you will no longer be able to do with abandon, you are saying you don't want your baby, or proving that you don't deserve to be a mother.

Or, even more perversely, as illustrated by my acquaintance who chastised me for compalining about my swollen feet, it is somehow perceived as a slap in the face to women who can't have children.

So nobody talks openly about the bad bits.

As a friend of mine with two children whom she adores (see -- even I am doing it here. I feel compelled to qualify that my friend loves her children) remarked:

"A lot of women hate being pregnant. They hate watching themselves get fat while their friends are thin, they hate each boob weighing five pounds, the swollen feet, the sore back and the tiredness, but nobody admits it."

It's as if there is a universal gagging order. Other women don't seem to want to hear it and therefore you feel inherently guilty for even thinking, not to mind uttering, how uncomfortable you are.

Even on the message boards, which are full of people warning that every symptom is a sign of impending miscarriage, you will rarely find someone being honest about the physical hardships and psychological struggles that come with growing a human being inside you.

It's ridiculous -- as if you can't be thrilled, grateful and excited that you are lucky enough to be having a baby that you planned and at the same time dislike the physical condition of pregnancy.

Logic and reason go completely out the window when it comes to anything to do with women, their wombs and babies.

Everything you read tells you that you should feel pink, fluffy and excited with no qualifications. But much as you want this child that you chose to have, if you are set in your ways, devoted to your career and love your current life, as I do, you do worry about how it will change.

You wouldn't be normal if you didn't.

You worry about whether or not you will be a good mother, whether you will be able to do a good job at juggling everything; you worry about what you will have to give up, as much as you delight in looking forward to meeting your baby and embarking on that new chapter.

And it's all about the worrying. The moment I saw that blue cross on the pregnancy test, I started worrying. Worrying like I have never worried before -- and, believe me, I am a worrier.

I worry about things and then I like to fix them, to control them. I am a bit of a control freak. But there was no controlling this.

I worried that the test was wrong, that the test was right, that I was too old, that I couldn't drive, that where we were living was completely unsuitable for a baby and we would have to buy a house and then we would never be able to afford all the stuff for the baby.

I worried about the price of childcare, that my career was over, that my life was over.

I worried that I wouldn't be able to go to the gym and I would get fat again, that I was too selfish and set in my ways to be a good mother, that there would be something wrong with the baby.

But the over-riding worry was that the test was wrong, and that there was no baby. So I did another one. And over the next couple of days I did another one. And another. And another.

A word of advice to anyone trying for a baby: get a test with a digital reading. I didn't find out about these until I had gone through at least four of the regular ones.

And by gone through, I mean analysed against the light, analysed against a hard surface, squinted and compared and contrasted, and forced my husband to look at them over and over again until he was so addled he couldn't tell the difference between a line and a cross.

"I think this one is positive, but this one isn't, so I don't know. I couldn't say for sure," said the poor man on one occasion when faced with two tests, one with very faint lines.

"You f*** off," I said. "That's no help."

It was then while neurotically googling anything to do with that particular brand of pregnancy test I came across the digital ones. They are the business. They say pregnant or not pregnant. You can't argue with that.

So there I was at 37, pregnant with my first child. It was a situation my husband and I had discussed and planned and really wanted, but I was in no way prepared for the impact it would have on me.

For the first 12 weeks I was deliriously happy, demented with worry and stressed in equal measure. And tired, so, so tired. No matter how much sleep I got, I felt as if I was walking through mud.

I couldn't exercise properly. I was dizzy. I was simultaneously ravenous and nauseous. I was nipping into the toilets at work for a quick nap every two hours and falling asleep again as soon as I got home.

And all the while trying to act as if everything was normal.

I worried endlessly about miscarriage, and for this I blame the medical profession. If you ask me, there is too much talk of miscarriage in the first 12 weeks. Way too much.

This talk about one in four pregnancies ending in miscarriage is not useful. And it is bad maths when you take into account the fact that most of these miscarriages take place in the first two weeks, when most people don't even know they are pregnant.

Women are not stupid and we know that with every pregnancy there is a chance of miscarriage, so stop telling us about it.

And enough with all the warnings of increased likelihood of this and higher rates of that. We know things can go wrong in pregnancy like anything else, and if it happens we will deal with it, but this sense of impending doom that permeates anything to do with pregnant women over 35 is just plain annoying.

In the days when women had eight, 10 and more children, did the mother pop the youngest out before she was 30?

Of course she didn't. Women have been having children in their 30s and 40s for as long as time. So there is no need for all this alarmist talk. We are going to worry anyway -- there is no need to make it worse.

Also, a large measure of the information going around about what you can and cannot do in the first 12 weeks is a bit dubious in my opinion.

No tea or coffee and no hot baths is pretty harmless, but I was advised by one medical professional that I should engage in no exercise other than walking for the 12 weeks, "just in case".

It didn't make sense to me. I had been exercising vigorously four or five times a week for the three years before I got pregnant and here I was about to go through the most physical act known to man and I was told to stop exercising. Nonsense.

I worried and I fretted for a while and then I went with my gut instinct and went back to the gym, albeit with modified exercises and under the supervision of my trainer, Damien Maher, who was the second person I told, after my mother, when I was about two or three weeks gone.

Telling people before the 12 weeks brings a whole other level of worrying. The fear of miscarriage is so strong that you then stress about the people you have told feeling sorry for you if something does go wrong.

Then you get to the 12 weeks and you feel great for about a day, before you start to worry at a more manageable level about the other stuff, such as foetal abnormalities, chromosomal disorders and all the other stuff us geriatric mothers are told to worry about.

I also had the misfortune of seeing a documentary around this time about chimeras, whereby two fertilised eggs fuse in the womb before four weeks, creating an individual with two completely different sets of DNA.

If the two fertilised eggs are male or female, no problem. If they are male and female, you get a hermaphrodite. So I worried about that for a while, too.

But mostly I worry about how I will cope with this massive change to my life. It is easy to feel alone, weird, and as if there is something wrong with you because you hate feeling out of control in your own body; that you don't seem to be excited enough compared to other women.

And on top of all this, as soon as word gets out that you are pregnant, the whole world sees you differently.

Men no longer flirt with you, people ask you personal questions, and strangers and kin alike have an opinion on your diet, your work habits, your exercise regime, your weight, your attitude and so on.

"You look tired, you should slow down, are you eating enough? Should you be lifting those heavy weights?"

The whole world changes for you. As a childless woman, be it single or married, you can pretty much do whatever you want without anyone bothering you. You can choose your friends, the people you socialise with, do pretty much whatever you want with impunity.

As soon as you embark on that road to becoming a mother, all that goes out the window. You are no longer a person in your own right.

You can no longer be an island. You are part of something greater than yourself and it requires you to subsume aspects of yourself that you previously prioritised, even cherished.

It requires a massive change in priorities and the very way you perceive the world. And I think that's worth talking about.

Yvonne's pregnancy column starts next week in Weekend Magazine

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