I am a planner. I love to plan. I think it started off with my enjoyment of a good daydream. Throw in my need to have control, plus a fear of the unknown, and you have the recipe for a serious case of “plan-it-all-itis”. A very well known motivational quote is “to fail to plan is to plan to fail”.
This may be very useful advice when buying your first house or planning your dream holiday, but when it comes to pregnancy and childbirth, it can sometimes lead to some pretty unrealistic expectations and set women up for being shocked and traumatised when reality doesn’t seem to obey the plan. Most important of all is to realise that there is no such thing as failure when it comes to the process of becoming a parent. Accepting the lack of control you have in the process can be a relief and allow you to be honest with yourself as you experience this very precious but unpredictable journey.
Recently I watched the film What to Expect When You’re Expecting. I enjoyed it and there were definitely some funny moments. What I didn’t expect was how cathartic the whole experience would be. Or how much I would identify with one of the characters. The film follows four women through their pregnancies as they wrestle with the familiar realities of pregnancy and the impact that a child is going to have on their lives.
I saw myself in one of the main characters and even found myself sobbing on the couch. To prevent completely ruining the film for those who haven’t seen it, let’s just say one of the women loves control, knows everything about pregnancy and birth but when it comes to actually having her own child, nothing goes to plan. She hates being pregnant and despite her detailed birth plan, her baby’s arrival refuses to follow her directions. As I watched the film and let the tears roll down my face, I had to face the fact that I feel real sadness and grief that my three pregnancies and two births didn’t go to plan either. And despite having two beautiful children, I am still sad and struggle with the feelings I have about the whole process.
As you can probably guess, my first pregnancy was very much planned. And I was so excited about it. My secret shame was that I had already read most of the pregnancy, birth and parenting books at the library. I had been looking forward to becoming a Mum from as young as I can remember and my husband and I had always seen starting a family and having lots of kids as priorities in our lives. In hindsight, I wish I had enjoyed my childless coupled-up years a bit more instead of focussing on the future. It is a lesson I try to remind myself of now.
Anyway, as I saw those beautiful lines appear on the pregnancy test, I already had very strong ideas about what I would and wouldn’t do while I was pregnant. I wanted everything to be very natural and hands-off. I wanted to be as healthy as possible and as I read magazines with pictures of blissfully happy women, glowing with health, hand on gorgeous bump, I pictured myself enjoying the miracle of growing a little person inside of me.
Well, that dream lasted about one week from the positive pregnancy test. I was hit with morning sickness/all day sickness which reduced my life to whether I could keep any food down and if I could manage to remain horizontal for the rest of the pregnancy, or at least as much of each day as I could. I cannot describe adequately the suffering that hyperemesis (extreme nausea and vomitting in pregnancy) can cause.
Gone were any notions of pregnancy glow. My sense of smell was so sensitive that my husband could not come near me without me wretching. He couldn’t cook anything because any cooking smells had me heading for the bathroom. One night I even made him eat his takeaways on the deck in the middle of July so that I wouldn’t be able to smell them. If I moved off the couch after about 4:30pm, it was all over. My aim to eat healthily disappeared. All I wanted to eat was sugary cereal, strawberry milk and nutella on bagels. After a few weeks I almost regretted even getting pregnant. But I held on to the fact that it wouldn’t last and hopefully soon I would feel better.
But I didn’t. And at 17 weeks we had the very shocking news that despite my symptoms of pregnancy, our baby had died at about 11 weeks. I was diagnosed with a partial molar pregnancy. This is when two sperm get into one egg so that there is a whole extra set of chromosomes. Usually the woman will know earlier than I did but since I didn’t have an ultrasound at 12 weeks, it wasn’t discovered until much later when the midwife still hadn’t heard a heart beat. As I saw the images on the ultrasound screen flicker and the doctors explained what had happened, I watched my carefully planned world crumble and the ground opened up beneath me. My experience was extremely painful but it is only one of the unexpected realities of pregnancy for many people.
My first pregnancy and loss of our first child had a huge impact on my planning for my next pregnancy. I was scared and wary and chose to have early ultrasounds to put my mind at ease. In reality, nothing would have made me feel secure. I think if you have ever experienced something shocking or a sudden loss the fact that you have so little control can be very difficult to process. That second pregnancy was very hard. I suffered with hyperemesis again and was very anxious.
As I approached 40 weeks my confidence disappeared. My commitment to giving birth without interventions remained but inside I was very afraid that I would have to face the loss of another child. It is like my mind was protecting itself from another shock and so I couldn’t believe that things would be ok because of the risk that I would not survive if they were not. Unfortunately, my daughter became stuck, and even though I dilated to 9 cm, I still needed an emergency c-section. Again, I had to accept that my plans were not able to create the reality I wanted. But there she was. She was born healthy and with a very reassuring cry. As I held her I knew that this was what it was really all about for me, actually meeting the little person who had been growing inside me.
We imagine ourselves as one of the pregnant yummy mummys on the front covers of the magazines. We research and try to make all the best decisions for our unborn babies. We exercise and eat well. But in the end there are so many things in the amazing process of making a whole new person, that we just can’t control. And sometimes just surviving it is pretty amazing.
Many women are blessed with fantastic pregnancies and they love the experience and I think we should celebrate each time this happens. I never want to take that away from anyone. Just because pregnancy is hard for me shouldn’t mean others can’t make the most of that precious time. But I also believe we need to listen to each other as we deal with the reality of the experience.
When I have said to a few people that I hate being pregnant, it has been such a relief for me to be honest, and lots of women have heaved a sigh of relief and agreed. Not liking being pregnant does not mean you don’t love your baby or that you aren’t going to be an awesome Mum. I often think that if you turned up at the doctor with a list of symptoms present in pregnancy but without the evidence of the baby bump, they would be certain you had some serious illness. The process is all pretty miraculous but that doesn’t mean we have to somehow live up to a romantic ideal of how it “should” be. And if it doesn’t go to plan or you don’t have the experience you wanted, it is ok to be sad and mad about it. And remember that you are not alone. Many women feel just the same as you. Your pregnancy is precious no matter whether it is front cover material, or something you are glad is over. It is something only you can experience or understand.
As I sit hear writing this I look back again on my journey as a Mum. I have had a second child and so another pregnancy and birth to reflect on. While my two children sleep, I have to ask myself whether I would still consider myself a fan of planning, especially for pregnancy and childbirth. Despite my plans not coming to fruition in many ways, my answer would be yes. I liken it to planning an expedition. You do your research, you plan the route you will take, you pack the right equipment and you plan to succeed. But you also consider the things you cannot control such as the weather, an injury or equipment breaking. And you plan what you would do.
In response to trauma or loss, some people become hyper-vigilant and try to be extra careful. Others wrestle with a sense of guilt and failure or feel that in some way, they were responsible. For others, a sense of hopelessness and despair can creep in. I mean, if you can’t control anything, then why try? And for others there may eventually be a sense of relief. For someone like me who had already tried to control so much, to realise that I actually had very little control, reduced some of the pressure I felt to be on top of everything. I like to know what the “right” thing is to do and to be the “good” girl. I want to be responsible and well informed. But as I continue to come to grips with the unpredictability of life and that there really are no guarantees, I am able to be more grateful for what I have and not to try so hard all the time.
I am still a really new parent. My daughter has just started school. There are so many unknowns. I could continue to plan out our lives in some kind of attempt to keep everyone safe and ok. But at a certain point it is really out of my hands. I cannot predict or prevent the unknowable and uncontrollable. My children need me to be present with them now, not always focussed on the future. So in a way I am very grateful for my bumpy journey and the lessons it has taught me. I hope to pass them on to my children so that they can enjoy dreaming dreams and making plans but can hold them lightly and be open to possibilities that they had never imagined. So as you make plans I wish you joy in hoping for the best and that no matter where this parenting journey takes you, that you would be gentle with yourself and those parents you meet along the way. We are all just doing our best and trying to hold on for the ride.