At my 22-week checkup my Obstetrician had a frank discussion with me about “how I’m doing.” This wasn’t a discussion I ever had with my previous OB during my first pregnancy so I was a little surprised when it happened.
Before having been pregnant, I had expectations of loving the experience. Friends had said the time had some “uncomfortable” aspects, but that they felt better, healthier, and more in touch with their bodies during pregnancy. Meanwhile I was all of eight weeks pregnant with my first when I sobbed to my husband, “I don’t know if I can do this for another seven months!”
I went into this pregnancy expecting it to be different. I knew what to expect this time and how to work around it, or so I thought. And while the first few weeks were much better than my first pregnancy, I soon experienced terrible morning sickness that lasted until week 17 and have never really bounced back from it.
So, when my OB asked me how I was doing my response was, “I’m pregnant. I’ve been better.”
He broke the news to me that I was anemic, which didn’t shock me as anemia runs in my family. “So, iron supplements?” I asked, thinking this would be a simple solution. He said yes, but he also wanted me to take vitamin C and take care of myself because he could tell I wasn’t. How could he tell I wasn’t taking care of myself? I was showered, my hair was combed, I had on clean clothes, I was gaining weight, my prenatal tests were all normal.
What I realize now is that he was trying to tell me that I looked like I’d been hit in the face with a frying pan, and while I wasn’t aware of it at the time, I felt like I had too. He ordered that I get more sleep, eat healthier, and that my in-laws take my son for the weekend so I could fully rest. He even offered to write the last order down on a prescription pad.
Our conversation completely threw me. It was not a conversation I was expecting to have with my OB and for sure one I hadn’t come prepared to have that day. I thought I had been taking care of myself. I took my prenatal vitamins, I was going to the gym whenever I could, and I was sleeping better than I had in my first pregnancy. My husband had taken on a huge chunk of the child care and housework, and my in-laws even watched my toddler son once a week, sometimes twice.
I told him that I had a lot more help than many women do. His response was that having help wasn’t the same as having enough help.
He asked me what I thought at the time were a series of unrelated questions. What did I usually eat for breakfast? If I got breakfast it was usually a granola bar. How often did I eat? Three times a day, usually a snack before bed. What did I eat for dinner? Lean protein. What did I do when my in-laws took my son? Client work. Why was I still doing cardio at the gym despite ligament pain? It was best for the baby. How often did I wake up at night? How many fingers do you have? How was my energy level? I’m pregnant, I’m tired all the time. Did I ever have dizzy spells? Yes, a few times a day but I’m pregnant, that’s par for the course. When was the last time I did something for myself like take a long bath, read a book or have dinner with friends? I’m a parent and pregnant again, those aren’t things I have time for.
His words rung in my head as he said them, “pregnancy is not just about the baby. You matter too.”
During my first pregnancy when I’d brought up complaints of feeling excessively tired or not having the capacity to eat as healthily as I’d like, my previous OB’s response was that pregnancy was hard, nothing was out of the ordinary, and it was all about doing what was necessary to have a healthy baby at the end. After my son was born, family joked, “nobody cares about you now, we’re all here for the baby.” It took a week for my milk to come in and in the hospital when I fed my hungry son some formula to supplement what I couldn’t produce, a nurse admonished me, “you’re doing what’s easiest for you, not what’s best for him.”
The message was clear: You don’t matter.
I didn’t realize how closely I’d taken that message to heart until my new OB pointed out that much of what I’d categorized as taking care of myself was actually taking care of others.
I held back tears long enough to get out of the office and into my car, and bawled the entire way home. A blubbering mess, I arrived home to a very confused but concerned husband.
“But it’s just anemia, you can take a pill for it, right?” he asked,
“It’s so much more than that!” I sobbed.
Until that day I don’t think I’d processed how much the overt and implied messaging from those around me had truly impacted how I viewed myself. I really didn’t think that I mattered and trying to make myself matter to me involved a significant mental shift.
Since surviving my son’s first colicky few weeks I have said repeatedly that Western society does a terrible job of supporting new parents, but I hadn’t taken my own message to heart. From healthcare infrastructure to family structure, to societal expectations, we essentially give new parents a pamphlet on swimming, throw them into the deep end, and act confused when they start to drown or annoyed when they ask for a life raft.
When I asked other friends if they felt like they didn’t matter after having had a child the response was overwhelmingly in the affirmative. Many mentioned family that offered to help initially didn’t come through, or had nothing but ‘helpful advice’ about what was best for the baby, watched while they were struggling. Others mentioned how specific language made the feel like non-persons:
“I felt like a cow. My family thought it was a joke to hand [my daughter] to me when she was hungry and say ‘this is your job now.’ Even when I had pumped milk in the fridge my mom refused to use it because she only wanted the best for her granddaughter. What about her daughter?” said one friend.
Another confided, “we had this big family dinner the night we brought [my son] home from the hospital. Everyone was there and it was this running gag for everyone to ask ‘oh are you still here?’ to my husband and I. Yes, I’m still here, cleaning up the dishes because everyone is cooing over the baby and I can’t sit down because I pushed another human out of my body 48 hours ago. Thanks for asking.”
While these may seem like awkward jokes from friends, study after study after study has shown that new and expectant parents feel unsupported ,and that lack of support leads to poorer outcomes for the parent(s) and baby. Yet we as a society seem to persist in the mentality that in order for a baby to thrive the mother’s well-being has to be sacrificed.
The last two weeks has been a learning experience for me. I have been slowly re-learning how to take care of myself, while still working and caring for my family. It has not been easy and at times self-care has felt like one more thing on my to-do list. But I’ve noticed a difference.
Mentally, I’m more focused and my mood has improved. I have more energy and I no longer feel like I’ve been hit in the face with a frying pan. I’ve gone back to the gym, but I’ve traded in the treadmill and elliptical for the recumbent bike and am focusing on strengthening the muscles in my back and shoulders which will help me survive the impending third trimester.
Some things have had to be sacrificed. Our living room and basement perpetually look like they’ve been hit by a tornado. The laundry is washed, but hasn’t been folded and put away in two weeks and the stairs haven’t been vacuumed for the same amount of time. I’ve learned that these are signs that I am a good mother, actually. Because when I’m ok, it supports my family. Today, I feel better.