So I’m pregnant. Yay. Oliver and I want more babies and ideally we’d like them soon.
As a society, we don’t talk much about pregnancy. Before having my first child, my basic understanding of the process was that someone breathes on you the wrong way, you get pregnant, and then you die. Or effectively your life ends. It was a very bad and enigmatic thing. Then in TV shows a character gets knocked up in one episode, has a belly the size of a small elephant in the next, and then *bam* a baby appears.
And for my first pregnancy, Oliver and I blinked, four weeks later I peed on a stick to a little red plus sign. That is to say it was instantaneous and effortless. Getting pregnant, at least. But then no one mentions that the condition drags on for almost a year. Yes, technically I knew pregnancy lasts nine months. I just had no idea how long nine months could last.
After this experience I was expecting the second one to be just as seamless. Oliver and I started trying in August. That’s when I found out that women have a three day window of fertility during which it is possible to get pregnant. Three days. Twelve times a year. That’s it. You’re not even considered to be struggling with infertility unless you’ve been trying unsuccessfully to get pregnant for over a year. Then if you actually do get pregnant, the average woman has a 30% of miscarriage.
It’s a little more involved than I thought.
There are a great many things one could talk about with respect to bearing children. I’m going to talk about our assumptions of what a life event should be like VS the actual experience. You can extrapolate this to any circumstance.
We have an unwritten law in our society for how much it is acceptable to suffer or rejoice for any particular circumstance. No one says this in so many words, but everyone can feel it. I promise you. It is okay to suffer for being female and the brunt of misogynistic attention. It is not okay to suffer for being male and harassed to fit some male stereotype. It is okay to suffer for being an ethnic minority. It is not okay to suffer for being white and having ethnic minorities hate you simply for being white (what, in another time, might have been known as racism). It is okay to suffer for being gay, transgender, having a fatal illness (or cancer, even if its not fatal), and if you don’t fit into any of the above categories, you better have tried to kill yourself at least once, or by god, you’ve surrendered you’re right feel any pain at all. You can suffer for miscarriage, you MUST suffer for cancer, sexual abuse, racism etc. Many people do suffer for these reasons, but experiences vary widely. Pregnancy, on the other hand, is meant to be a beautiful walk in the park where your face glows, you pick out cute onesies and paint nurseries while wiping away a sentimental tear.
There is a lot of suffering in the world. Everyone suffers. How about we stop telling people how they “should” feel and instead ask how they do feel?
The situation gets even stranger, because we don’t simply tell people that they’re not entitled to pain; we also tell people when they need to be experiencing more pain. I had a miscarriage in November and it was not an emotional event for my husband or I. I’m not saying that everyone should react the way that I do. I’m saying the opposite. Our expectations have nothing to do with how pain and pleasure manifest in someone else’s life. So Oliver and I are lucky. We’re young. Our odds of getting and staying pregnant are pretty high. The miscarriage didn’t phase us. Certainly it had nothing on the hell that is pregnancy for me.
When I tell people that I have bad morning sickness, I usually get the response, “Oh, that sucks. Yeah, I threw up once when I was pregnant.”
Mmmmm. Out of the goodness of my heart, I don’t shank people when they say this. At five weeks pregnant– when most people don’t even realize they’re pregnant– I was so dehydrated from throwing up everything plus my guts that I had to go to the ER for an IV. I was so nauseous that I couldn’t drink water or get out of bed for three months. Couldn’t keep down any food for a good while.
I say this as if it’s over, but I’m still this nauseous. It’s just that I’ve switched to a medicine that allows me to function. My first pregnancy was just as difficult. Until I switched medication, I was trying to talk Oliver into adoption because I can’t go through this again. People ask me if I’m excited for another baby. Honestly, I haven’t had a chance to think about it. My main concern is how to survive the next hour without murdering the child I’ve already got.
On the other hand, I have friends that literally run marathons and take care of three children while pregnant in NYC. None of this is to garner sympathy; I’ve been blessed with all the resources I need to get through this and, most of all, the ability to even have children. It’s to illustrate the importance of asking before assuming. I know many people that have gone through seemingly horrific things in life: sexual abuse, illness, death of a loved one. No one reacts to these things the same way and not everyone is drowning in pain when something apparently sad happens.
Let me use another example. Elizabeth Wurtzel, author of Prozac Nation, was recently diagnosed with breast cancer. To quote her: “So I have cancer, which, like many things that happen to women, is mostly a pain in the ass. But compared with being 26 and crazy and waiting for some guy to call, it’s not so bad. If I can handle 39 breakups in 21 days, I can get through cancer.”
I’m on the same page as Elizabeth on this. I’ve never had breast cancer, but the hardest times of my life were my adolescence, the times where I was hurting so badly but nobody wanted to see it or deal with it or acknowledge it. And no one could. So they dismissed it, told me I shouldn’t be sad, that it was just college decisions, or it was just one boyfriend, or it was just the classmate you barely knew that killed herself, so buck on up and get over it. That was the hard part of my life. Motherhood? Tough, but manageable. Solutions exist. People expect there to be struggle. Marriage? An enjoyable breeze in comparison.
I survived my adolescence (barely) but guys? Let’s not treat people like that anymore, okay? Because it was never just about the college decisions. It was about my life being a miserable black hole of despair, not being able to identify a problem, not daring to believe in a way out and when one hope finally army-crawled its way into my chest, having it then crushed to bits under the boot heel of a faceless giant.
To further quote Elizabeth on being 26 and, in her case, hopped up on speed: “Having serious emotional problems is really hard. Insurance doesn’t cover it, nobody cares, you are not a sympathetic person at all, you’re awful. No one wants to help you. I’m pretty good at making people somehow help me anyway, and still no one cared. Somehow I was amazingly demanding, and I found people who gave me incredible help. But it was awful, it’s the worst kind of problem to have, because you’re awful, you’re hideous. And you’re really in pain. Unbelievable pain that no one cares about, you can’t even find it in yourself to care about. You just want to die.”
She goes on to say that breast cancer is 90% treatable and entirely covered by insurance– complete with plastic surgeon stripper boobs and all (her words, not mine).
I would have killed to have cancer when I was a teenager. I am not saying that flippantly at all. I daydreamed about having mysterious, fatal diseases (I would collapse, or cough up blood and everyone would rush to my aid, like the intro to an episode of House, MD). I craved this for the sole reason that it would make my pain acceptable. I didn’t even need sympathy, really. I just needed a couple less people to roll their eyes every time I described some seemingly insignificant struggle.
I know, too, that we have all experienced this. Why have all been injured by something deemed unimportant by others. Maybe you were a kid, heartbroken when we weren’t allowed to have a gumball out of the gumball machine. Maybe you were a teenager getting turned down for a date. Maybe you got fired from your first job. Maybe these things hurt so much because you were young and had no perspective or because you were old and lost perspective or because they grazed deeper, underlying problems. Point is, they hurt.
There is no objective metric by which we can measure the grief of others. How about we just ask?
I am not suggesting that we let people drone on and on about their grief unabated. This I believe to be the second greatest mistake we make when dealing with people’s suffering. The fact that someone finally challenged my overwhelming despair is what saved my life. What I am saying is that when we care about other people, when we first listen to their stories, the next course of action becomes clear. We know then when to stop them and, rather than scoff or ridicule them, suggest an alternate way of viewing things that may help them move past the pain and onto happiness.
And aren’t we in the business of healing wounds rather than inflicting matching ones on our perpetrators?
There is a scene in David Sedaris’s book, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, during which his dad kicks him out of the house and his mom is a sobbing wreck over this decision. He finds out later that his dad kicked him out of the house for being gay. He had assumed it was for one of the many valid reasons (being drunk or high all the time, out of school and not holding a job, not paying any rent) so it rolled off him without incident. In fact, he was grateful because it finally forced him to become independent.
Our experiences are not universal, even when it comes to people who have lived through similar events. We benefit from remembering that and from listening.