August 4, 2022

The Pallor of Early Pregnancy

 I knew I was pregnant when I woke up one morning with a heaviness sitting in me and I couldn’t move it. The heaviness wouldn’t budge with exercise, which is my usual immediate source of energy; with breakfast, which is my favorite meal of the day; or with the company of my husband who patiently asked if I wanted to talk or if I preferred silence, to which I irritably responded “I don’t know!”  When I then started crying over my oatmeal about something inherently ridiculous, I told G that I was going to get a pregnancy test after work because there was something wrong with me. Because that’s what it felt like, like my body was out of whack and my emotions weren’t mine and I just wasn’t me. 

When the second line appeared almost instantly on the stick, I was first impressed by how much hormone must be coursing through my veins to make the test turn positive so quickly, and to make me feel so messed up. Then I was excited, about the impending journey of pregnancy, this bodily phenomenon that I’ve been so curious about since delivering babies in medical school. 

The excitement lasted for about a week, when the first trimester hormones really kicked in, and I was consumed by fatigue and nausea. While I had been a little prepared for my emotions to expand beyond my grasp, I hadn’t anticipated the suddenness with which my physical self slipped from me. We were on our honeymoon in Lofoten Island, an archipelago in northern Norway. Our plan had been to climb granite mountains overlooking the sea, and instead I lay in bed and looked at the rock through the window without any desire to be outside, or to be moving in any form. I’m not the snooze in bed type; I generally get up soon after my alarm goes off. Now it took me about half an hour before I felt ready to sit up and every motion to get ready for the day felt like sludge.

When I willed myself to hike and climb, everything felt like an enormous endeavor. To lift an arm to grab a hold, to bring a knee high up, to push down on my hands to pull myself over something. Motions that used to flow now felt like pulling stale water taffy. Nausea settled into my stomach like an immobile rock, and I faced a prospect I spoke to many patients about but had never experienced myself: having a symptom prolonged for several months.

Because many of my interactions with my friends involve physical activity and I felt compelled to explain the change in my energy level, and because I wanted to complain, I told several people I was pregnant well before the first trimester was over. I usually simply stated I was pregnant, and followed up with a longer lamentation about how I was bummed about how quickly my body had been taken over. 

I was surprised by how almost no one empathized, or even acknowledged, what I saw as the bulkier part of my feelings. People universally, reasonably, responded to the news with excited congratulations. That was expected, and kind. But no one paid much attention to my sadness or sickness. I can’t really think of another situation in which I’ve expressed feeling exhausted, depressed, or ill to my stomach and didn’t receive an expression of sympathy. Instead, I was advised by multiple people to enjoy this time. I realized that our society views pregnancy as such a wonder and gift that any associated pain isn’t worth discussing. It’s not a conscious thought process. It’s just what people naturally prioritize. When I told a friend that I was too sick and tired to do much, instead of considering that this must be pretty hard for a person who’s usually very active, the response was “But I bet you have the pregnancy glow!”  

I most certainly did not have the pregnancy glow. And if that glow comes from within, from the joy of carrying a child, I thought with shame and guilt that maybe I didn’t have the glow because I wasn’t happy. I wasn’t happy about relinquishing control of my body and my life so quickly. I had considered for many years what having a child meant for my freedom, both in the process of growing one and then in raising one. But I was shocked by how fast it happened. I’d barely started processing how to maintain my sense of self (a different one, but still mine), when it was taken so swiftly that I had no remnants to piece together into a new me. To myself I felt, and to everyone else I was, simply pregnant. 

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