In my 20s, I attended a fair number of baby showers and pregnancy/childbirth-centric events. It’s like a bad take-off of the Jane Austen line, “It is a truth universally acknowledged…”…that if you are a married woman in your 20s, you are interested in conceiving/pregnancy/birth. As someone who was at best ambivalent about having babies (oh, the irony) at the time and more focused on going back to school, I found this emphasis frustrating.
When I arrived at 30, suddenly in a tearing hurry to have babies and getting into increasingly expensive, painful interventions that seemed to fail at every turn, the amount of social pressure turned into something far darker. While there are areas of the US where women in their 30s having first babies is the norm, where I live, I was one of the oldest people in my peer group married with no kids. Most of my friends have older kids, including a kid who is a teenager currently.
In the throes of infertility, I quit going to baby showers. I stayed out of heavily female spaces because it felt like pregnancy/childbirth stories came up a surprising amount as a bonding activity. I figured one day I’d get wherever “there” was to feel emotionally secure enough to start attending again.
I had the kids. And then something strange happened: I still don’t belong. Not really.
There’s more room for sharing of “less than optimal” experiences now than perhaps there once was, but there’s still a pretty heavy social price for relating certain parts of stories. I’ve personally primarily experienced this in regards to miscarriages/pre-viable PPROM/NICU – so that’s what I’m writing about here – but I also know this happens in some very difficult ways in the infertility community as well for people for whom treatment doesn’t work or adoption doesn’t happen (because this isn’t my story to tell, here is an excellent blog post on that subject, as well as here).
The first time I naively waded into a discussion after my older daughter was born, I simply spoke part of the truth: that I’d been in the hospital for quite some time after my water broke at 21 weeks, the doctors thought the baby wouldn’t make it, I somehow stayed pregnant until 28w4d, and E was born, spent awhile in the NICU, and was now doing pretty well. Never mentioned the infertility/IVF/miscarriages or the messiness of the subchorionic hematoma/hemorrhages. I actually watched someone’s mouth drop open. People weren’t sure what to say. There was some shuffling and looking down and the subject got changed. It wasn’t the last time this happened. Eventually, I started being a lot quieter during these conversations.
“It’s like I’m Stephen King giving a speech at the romance writer’s convention,” I once quipped to Arthur. I’ve also heard more than once complaints about how people love to tell expectant women the worst stories about infertility/pregnancy/childbirth and scare them.
Obviously, there’s an element of knowing your audience here and being polite or sensitive. I don’t tell anxious pregnant women my story because of this, because they’ve got enough concerns going on. There are times that people can’t handle certain stories and I get that.
But other times, there’s an element of silencing. Stories that are too uncomfortable and too taboo to tell out loud.
As I was reading Sarah DiGregorio’s book on prematurity Early, a passage helped crystallize the vague sense of not-belonging I’ve felt at times: “I also didn’t want to be the bearer of dark information, and I couldn’t imagine how I would participate in ‘normal’ conversations about my baby.” DiGregorio also notes that “The emphasis on ‘natural’ birth that is meant to be empowering can be painful for those of us who needed every unnatural intervention to get our babies (and/or ourselves) out alive.”
I hear that.
I know that I’m (thank goodness, as I wouldn’t wish this on anyone else) an extreme outlier to plenty of statistics. Of people who struggle with infertility,less than 5% go on to use IVF according to the ASRM. Subchorionic hematomas are one of the most common reasons for first trimester bleeding, but very few are anywhere near as problematic as mine turned out. Periviable PPROM affects only around 0.4% of pregnancies. While preterm birth is an enormous problem in the US, only a little less than 2% of all births and around 16-20% of preterm births are before 32 weeks’ gestation. In other words, my experiences are definitely not the norm. I don’t think policies or procedures or public health should be based around women like me.
But the suggestion that anyone can (fill in the blank: get pregnant without intervention, get pregnant with intervention, prevent a miscarriage, give birth without certain interventions, prevent a c-section, etc.) has the weird effect of sort of erasing people like me who don’t fit into those narratives that we are ultimately in control. At times, I’ve found it also can have the effect of almost turning my story into a spooky fairy-tale, the thing that lurks in the shadow, the uncomfortable specter at the feast.
It’s a tricky thing: I want women to be empowered to seek answers and have authority over their own bodies, I want to see fertility treatments covered by insurance but not hailed as ‘the’ solution to infertility, I want as many miscarriages as possible prevented but women not blamed for miscarrying, I want to see unnecessary c-sections curtailed and more choices for women but also the understanding that c-sections can be life-saving preserved, I want better public health to help prevent as many pre-term births as possible and also better NICUs/treatments for those that happen anyway, I want campaigns of information that can help people avoid bad outcomes but don’t ‘other’ or shame those that don’t fit or have less than optimal outcomes anyway. I did nothing wrong and yet so much went sideways for me. There was no extra prenatal care or information that would have helped me, there were d*mn good reasons I had c-sections, and I get very tired indeed at times of explaining why (fill in the blank) would not have prevented this, the suspicion that I had to have done something to make this happen because surely these things are preventable?
I don’t know the answer here. I don’t know how we make space and genuine understanding for all of these realities. Telling stories is a starting place, I suppose.