For my Master’s thesis, I worked in a maternity clinic where I collaborated on a longitudinal clinical study. The study was aimed at finding out which psychological factors would potentially have an impact on the risk for preterm birth and how this risk and other complications during pregnancy would impact the mother’s mental well-being. The study compared women who had a time delivery and women with a preterm delivery. During the study, I got to know a lot of women with very different experiences during pregnancy and delivery. A common topic that arose quite often was the expectations all women faced and how they doubted their self-image as pregnant women and mothers-to-be. Based on my experience, here are some aspects of pregnancy that I would like to highlight-
All pregnancies are only beautiful, miraculous, and fulfilling
Make no mistake, some women have a beautiful experience going through pregnancy. However, there is also another side to pregnancy that often gets left out of the conversation. Whether conception and pregnancy are accompanied by complications or not, women are confronted with this societal image of pregnant women being very happy, “having a glow”, enjoying the progress of pregnancy or feeling confident and “naturally maternal”. Although pregnancy is a very exceptional experience (some men may even be jealous of) and brings a lot of joy to many women, this image neglects the fact that it also comes with intense physical, hormonal and psychological changes. There are the obvious changes in the body, common symptoms like:
- Morning sickness
- Back and hip pain
- Frequent urination
- Stretch marks
- Sore breasts
- Increasingly limited mobility
Additionally, it can be a challenge for any person to accept that they now “share” their body with another being. They are now a part of and observing the growth of new life inside their own body.
A minority of pregnant women do suffer from severe complications that lead to hospitalization. There are several factors that can affect the course of the pregnancy like the mother’s age, weight or pre-existing conditions, but most pregnancies take a low-key course. While hospitalization might be scary, sometimes it can be necessary to treat complications such as cervical incompetence, gestational diabetes, premature rupture of the membranes. Many times, with the appropriate treatment these complications don’t result in preterm delivery or even miscarriage.
Why does my pregnancy not look like everyone else’s?
I met a lot of women, personal and professional, who told me that they were frustrated and annoyed by this public image of pregnancy. Some of the patients in the clinic even got angry that no one told them about the challenges related to pregnancy and that they could be hospitalized before delivery. When these women didn’t meet the societal expectations, it made them feel as if they are not a dignified woman. Instead, they started to see themselves as outsiders, a disappointment. It is taboo to dislike going through pregnancy, especially if you want to have a baby. As a result, these women might feel guilty and ashamed and hence are unable to voice out their discomfort without feeling judged for it. Postpartum, women can continue to feel that way when they are faced with the potential consequences of delivery such as incontinence. Yet again, these women go through another round of changes to their body. Additionally, they may struggle with breastfeeding and adapting to their new role as a mother. This can be an extremely isolating experience if women feel as if no one else faces similar challenges.
It is simply not fair to expect women to just enjoy the “beauty of pregnancy” without having some level of difficulty adjusting to their new lives. Yet, there seems to be a small amount of space for women to share about their discomfort and struggles that are just as much a part of pregnancy as the good parts are. In movies, on social media, in books and magazines we mainly see happy, glowing mothers-to-be who don’t have a care in the world. Everything seems to be light and easy, optionally glossy and rose-coloured. Life is not as picture perfect as it is largely depicted in the media. And it surely doesn’t help that we live in a success-oriented society that values performance and success but struggles to deal with failures and setbacks.
Most women will have good days and bad days during their pregnancy. Going through gestation and becoming a mother can be exciting and bring joy, but at the same time it can be unpredictable, exhausting and even scary. But there needs to be a more open conversation about all parts of this experience. By accepting and acknowledging the challenging parts and normalizing them, the joyful and exciting parts can be enjoyed even more freely. Everyone can start this conversation. Some women may be surprised what a friend might share once they open up about their own challenging experiences with pregnancy, conception or maybe even miscarriage. And if someone is not affected themselves, they can ask the women in their life without judgement or making assumptions but with genuine interest about their experience. Everyone has their own unique experience, but there can also be some similar journeys and we can empathize with each other.
We as a society need to stop romanticizing pregnancy. Once we can begin to talk more honestly about it, a more sophisticated and honest image of pregnancy can evolve.