(One person’s experience)
Pregnancy is fascinating. There’s so much no one tells you about, and of course every person has a different experience. I’ve had probably the easiest pregnancy of anyone I know — now into a second trimester and thankfully healthy — and it’s still hard. I wrote a letter to myself during the first trimester, and am sharing it in case it helps anyone out there understand this crazy process a little more or empathize with others going through it.
What I feel throughout my first trimester:
1) Loss of control:
The prevailing feeling throughout my first few months of pregnancy is a loss of control. In the wonderful little bubble that some of us get to live in now, we lead lives of so much control — most of the people I know are lucky enough to decide what work we do, and when we eat, and when we sleep, and how we travel, and what we want to do at any particular moment — and we convince ourselves that we actually have control over our lives.
Pregnancy is the most jarring correction to this. For the first time, it feels like I’m not in control of things I thought I was: my body, my hunger, my sleep, even the safety of the little being that’s starting to take shape inside me. I can’t control whether I’ll suddenly be nauseous, or too cold, or devastatingly hungry, or forget the names of the people I see every day — all things that as adults we feel we should be able to predict.
My body is doing something it so clearly knows how to do — and it never asked my opinion, and doesn’t really care that I don’t understand what’s happening. Some people say this is an amazing and beautiful reminder of how primal we are and how much the body knows — that’s true, and it is. But it’s even more a surprise — and a disturbing realization that I control nothing.
2) Physical changes:
For me, the first trimester feels like a multi-month hangover. I’m tired, dehydrated, suddenly ravenous, occasionally nauseated, with my brain not quite working at full speed. I’m so hungry, all the time. Once, a few years ago, I fasted for 3 days. Afterward, I ate for a solid week like I had just finished a marathon. This is the only other time I’ve felt that hungry. I go out for breakfast with friends and find myself ordering 3 separate meals sequentially while sitting in the same spot. I wake up in the middle of every night ragingly hungry even though I’ve eaten just before bed. My wedding ring is the first thing to stop fitting, just 5 weeks in.
Added to that, for the first months, a constant thread in my head repeats “I’m pregnant I’m pregnant I’m pregnant I’m pregnant !!! ” — part wonder, part terror. In meetings, giving talks, eating — I’m always intensely conscious of this new fact, and it’s an added tax in my head. I learn about “pregnant brain,” the inability to focus when your mind is bewildered by your body trying to grow another person inside of you. When my background processing comes back after a few weeks, when I can listen to one conversation but jump into another, I feel immediate joy and relief — and more like myself again, something I hadn’t even known I missed.
It’d be easier if I could tell more people. As soon as I know I’m pregnant, I tell 2 people: my husband and my best friend. My BFF (a hero), messages me with support whenever I need it. When I first feel nauseous (of course, in a big meeting with a new team at work), she texts me tips. “Stay cool! Drink ginger tea! Nibble on snacks! Think about other things!”
It’s odd to walk around and know that the most important thing in your life — that could change the course of your life — is a secret that no one around you knows. If I told people at work, I know they’d offer support — but I’m also afraid of telling them.
4) Fear (of judgment): I’m afraid that, if I tell people I’m pregnant, and sometimes tired, or hungry, or distracted, that they’ll think of me differently — they’ll think I’m weaker. Out of the best of intentions, they might try to protect me, or start planning around my inevitable absence, or assume I’m less invested in my work, or that my decisions aren’t as thoughtful — all things (in my personal insecurities if not in reality) I’ve fought against for years.
Even in writing this, I worry that I’m letting down Women Everywhere. Is it okay to acknowledge that I can’t work as long hours as I used to because I need to sleep more, or that sometimes I’m distracted by this process which affects only women? Will people judge me or second-guess my work? Will someone think, even secretly, I — or any other woman — am less fit to do my job?
4') Fear (of a miscarriage):
I’m constantly terrified of a miscarriage. I know there’s probably nothing I can do about it, but that fear is always somewhere in my mind. What if that cup of tea I unthinkingly drank this morning somehow compromised the safety of the little peanut I’m carrying around? What if I shouldn’t have done those exercises at the gym? Or, 2 miles into an uphill hike I wouldn’t have thought twice about before, worrying: Is this reckless? Will I regret this? Tiny risks are magnified by this unknown I’m carrying around, and my sense of responsibility for anything that goes wrong.
I’m lucky that a number of women I know have been open with me about their miscarriages. And as soon as I told her I was thinking about kids, my best friend (again, a hero) forced me to read about the unreasonable stigma around miscarriage and the fact that it happens to everyone. Even knowing that, if something went wrong, I think part of me would feel guilty. Without having these women and their openness in my life, I know I’d feel irreparably guilty. I owe them all.
These two fears are why I don’t tell more people. I worry about them thinking I’m not pulling my weight, or trying to protect me by making decisions without me, or (worse) having to see their sympathy if the pregnancy doesn’t work out. Maybe I should’ve told them anyway.
5) Exasperation: I learn there’s not a lot of evidence-based info out there for pregnant ladies — it mostly seems to be moralistic opinion masquerading as science.
For instance, when I look for ways to combat pregnant brain, what I find is basically “Enjoy it! Quit your job now! This is evolution telling you that motherhood is the only important thing you do.” When trying to figure out whether it’s okay to drink a cup of tea in the morning, I find, “Why would you put your baby at risk?!”
It isn’t a woman who points this out to me, of course. Instead it’s the husband of a pregnant friend, who was looking for info and couldn’t imagine this being the level of scientific discourse on something half of the population goes through.
My solution is to stay off the internet and try to figure out answers to questions the same way I’d manage anything else — trial and iteration. It turns out the things that help me focus are 1) constantly consuming *a lot* of calories and, 2) (somehow this works) reminding myself to focus.
It’s impossible to not get attached. I pride myself on my emotional control, and here that doesn’t work at all. The first trimester is like a real-life Schrodinger’s cat — for the entire first 3 months, you aren’t exactly sure what’s inside your body, and there’s no way to know whether you’ll still be happily pregnant at the end. The rational part of me tries to stay emotionally neutral and plan for both options — which is crazy. Again, my BFF comes to the rescue. The only thing you can do, she says, is be hopeful that it works out, and be sad if it doesn’t — and you have to be open to that sadness. There’s no protecting yourself.
She’s right. From the first ultrasound, six weeks in, when I see a little inch-long peanut with a pulsing heartbeat like a hummingbird, I’m attached, painfully attached. It’s hard.
Pregnancy is so specific to every person, and mine, like my life right now, is informed by the fact that I’m incredibly lucky. I’m healthy, I have the support of friends and family and an amazing husband, I have control over where and how I work, and financial stability — and these parts of pregnancy are still hard (and interesting) for me.
I’m sharing this partly because it’s a fascinating experience that many people (eg, many of my male friends) don’t have visibility into, and it could be useful to understand some part of this process that affects a whole population.
I’m also sharing this because I wish someone had told me these things earlier. It wouldn’t have changed anything — the hard things would still be hard — but I might have felt more understood, and less powerless. But, of course, those feelings might just be part of the journey I’m signing up for.