By Amanda Parrish Morgan
I discovered babycenter.com shortly after I found out I was pregnant with my daughter. Babycenter consists of watered-down medical advice, product-placement-heavy blog posts, weekly produce-comparison updates about the size of a growing fetus (“your baby is the size of a butternut squash!”), and message boards. These message boards are like the comments section of a clickbait article: full of deliberately provocative personal attacks, unsolicited advice, and rampant misuse of your and you’re. Also like the comments section, engaging with the message board posters had the effect of making me feel like I’d been part of something unhealthy and malicious.
I noticed that the vast majority of Babycenter posts appear between midnight and dawn. The anonymity of the message boards invites confessional postings: women admit pornography addictions, cigarettes they’ve sneaked despite being aware of the well-documented dangers of smoking during pregnancy, suspicions of spousal infidelity, spending binges using a borrowed credit card. None of these particular transgressions speak to my own strain of pregnancy guilt and fear, but guilt and fear themselves were the defining emotions of my pregnancy. Perhaps this is what makes this collection of strangers, awake and typing away online across the country, so appealing.
At the beginning of my third trimester, I somewhat grudgingly, but dutifully, reported for my glucose screening test. I chose a midwife group for my obstetric care, and was surprised when, just as she’d finished complimenting my un-swollen ankles, continued running routine, and fundal height, my midwife presented the screening as routine and mandatory. I knew the screening resulted in a lot of false positives. I’d read that even for legitimate positives, the treatment was exercise and a balanced diet, which I felt proud–desperately so–that I’d maintained throughout my pregnancy. On one website, I found a list of criteria that might exempt a woman from the screening. The only one of these I did not meet was being younger than 25. I felt skeptical, annoyed, haughty. Though, ultimately, it was my intense desire to be a good patient (how much had I internally gloated after being told my belly was perfect?) that kept me from asking about the procedure to waive the screening.
She said nothing.
“What are the alternatives?”
That night, although it was already late by the time I got home from the meet, my husband Nick and I went out to dinner so he could eat a normal meal and I could order something with no carbs. But, not until after I squeezed in a short run around our neighborhood. I was tired, and had thought I might skip running any more than what I already had on the course during the meet, but in my Gestational Diabetes-googling mania, I’d read that exercise helps metabolise glucose. I was worried if I didn’t run more, I would fail the three hour test in the morning. That I was more concerned about passing the test than actually seeing results representative of my typical diet and lifestyle didn’t then strike me as irresponsible or self-centered. I didn’t exactly logically feel that I’d done something wrong in failing the screening, but I certainly didn’t feel I’d earned the right to start exercising less.
I couldn’t sleep that night, and the next morning I was waiting at Quest Diagnostics when they opened at six, already hungry.
This is when I made my first Birth Club post: sitting at Quest Diagnostics five minutes into my three-hour glucose screening test, defensive, worried (but unwilling to admit that I was worried), surrounded by pharmaceutical pamphlets.
Several people responded with tales of twelve pound babies spending weeks in the NICU due to undiagnosed GD, others responded with anecdotes of vegan yogis with GD. One woman accused me of fat-shaming. In the second before I got control of my consciousness, I thought, “yes, of course.” I’d like to think that the only person I felt deserved shame was myself, but I’m afraid that’s giving myself too much credit.
I’d brought a book to read during the test, but after I had the drink, this one twice as sweet as the one from the one-hour screening test, I couldn’t focus. My heart was racing and my mouth was dry. Were these signs I was going to fail the test? Between blood draws, as I grew increasingly exhausted, I obsessively googled. Who gets gestational diabetes? Gestational diabetes causes. Gestational diabetes treatment. Gestational diabetes outlook. Gestational diabetes complications.
Later, with the security of having passed the second test, I’d been able to admit to myself that there might be some relationship between my feelings about the gestational diabetes screening and years of insecurity about the intersection of weight, self control, and worth. I explained to Nick that when I’d gotten pregnant, for the first time I could remember, I hadn’t dreaded going to the doctor, getting on the scale, or getting my blood pressure taken. I liked the drive to the office, giving me distance from teaching and grading and coaching to enter into the mental space of expectant motherhood. I liked the appointments themselves, meeting all the midwives, hearing the baby’s heartbeat, and then leaving buoyed by reassurance from the checkup. I was sad, I said, that this once-positive medical experience had begun to feel like every visit to my pediatrician, every team weigh-in at in college, every look (real or imagined) from skinnier girls on the starting line of races.
The closer my due date drew, the more I read. I was–for fear of going to the hospital with a pile of ninth grade essays–totally caught up on grading, the days were short and cold. The mobile hung over the crib, clothes washed, sorted, and stored. I couldn’t think of anything to do but wait. For the most part, I was too anxious and distracted to read or write much. The notable exception were labor stories. I read blog posts detailing the labor experiences of professional runners. I read Labor Days, an essay collection of women writers’ birth stories. I spent more and more time on Babycenter’s December 2014 Birth Announcement thread.
I might have been able to tell myself I was looking for camaraderie, a way to feel less alone or confused or scared had any of the interactions I witnessed through the message board been supportive. Instead of downplaying anxieties and offering reassurances, women posted stories of prenatal cancer diagnoses, sudden infant death syndrome, horrible birth accidents, tales of spousal abandonment, emergency hysterectomies performed before the fog of general anesthesia had even worn off. The spectres of loss and death–mine or my daughter’s–that felt increasingly menacing as I tried to heed advice to focus on the positive. I couldn’t verbalize these fears precisely. I guarded vigilantly against negative thoughts which meant I couldn’t even bring myself to confront them.
But before this–before I’d given birth, before I’d become a mother, the most concrete and tangible way that my life was changing seemed to be that long-distance running, my primary social activity and vehicle for self worth was off limits. The end of years of keeping bodily shame at bay through distance running, was the loss I feared. Mostly, of course, the notion of control over my body was an illusion, but it was an important illusion that had defined decades of my life.
I wish what I felt viscerally that I needed had been as simple as a cheeseburger. What I craved instead was connection. Not like “I’d like to spend the evening with some friends,” but deep, insatiable yearning for a connection both to the person I’d spent thirty-two years understanding myself to be and to a much bigger and even abstract community of mothers.
Before I got pregnant, I thought of myself as someone who needed a lot of alone time. When I was about five months pregnant, Nick was gone for a week at a conference, and instead of enjoying the opportunity to watch independent movies while eating all the pregnancy-safe-sushi a person could ever want, I grew lonely, and moved to fill my evenings with plans. I went to my parents’ house for dinner, caught up with friends from work. But, all the while. I couldn’t shake this feeling that I was still lonely. That the real me was watching a different me go through these motions.
I once heard depression described as a floating sensation. In Marjane Satrapi’s graphic autobiography Persepolis, she depicts herself as a teenage Iranian refugee floating with terrifying rather than joyful weightlessness in an almost entirely black sky.
The first time that the sensation of loneliness got strong enough to knock me over, I sat on the bottom step of our staircase, crying inconsolably, imagining myself as a hybrid of Sandra Bullock’s character in Gravity, space shuttle untethered and tumbling hundreds of miles a second in some unknowable direction, and the image of young Marji, lost without a place that feels like home (and how absurd, I realized even as I imagined it–I was not woman fighting for oxygen in outer space, nor a refugee in the Iranian Revolution, but a lucky, healthy, American woman with a good job, a kind husband, a supportive and loving family, expecting her first baby after few months of waiting for a positive pregnancy test). Over and over again, I kept telling Nick, “I’m so lonely,” to which he kept responding, hurt, confused, “But, I’m right here.”
Even before I met my husband, I wanted to be a mother. I had an uncomplicated vision of what this relationship meant in the same way, I had wanted to be a teacher, a wife, a friend. I thought that I’d share my passion for literature with a classroom of undistracted and eager students, or that marriage would be cozy Sunday afternoons with chili on the stove, that my childhood friends and I would remain close for life. That none of these relationships were as simple as what I’d once imagined didn’t make me any more prepared for the disconnect I’d feel during pregnancy. I still could not envision motherhood or pregnancy as nuanced in the way I’d come to understand these other relationships. What kind of person would I be to admit fear and loneliness, sometimes building on one another until I’m floating, untethered in the middle of the night? What did my preoccupation with fear and my feelings of shame mean? That I would be a bad mother?
In movies, pregnant women are often shown crying at commercials about puppies. Hormones! Ha! I both did and did not want to blame hormones. I wanted to be able to explain to Nick that he really had done nothing wrong, and that in the light of most days, I could see how irrational my panicked, lonely tears really were. But, the emotions were as real to me as any others I’d experienced, and so, it seemed unfair to dismiss them as a side effect of pregnancy hormones.
I’ve tried to think of all the rational reasons I might have felt so lonely while pregnant. I do not have many friends, at least not friends from before motherhood, with kids. Although Nick and I were going to become parents together, I was the one who was pregnant. With daylight savings, the nights came early and those exhausted hours between the end of the work day and bed felt bleak.
There was some voice in my brain telling me that I should not feel so alone. That pregnancy connected me, not only to my own mother, but to women everywhere, and for generations before and to come, who have carried and borne children. All these women on babycenter.com, even the ones who named their children something I found tacky or who posted pictures of baby shower cakes with a doll’s head crowing from a frosting vagina, had something fundamental in common with me.
The last time during pregnancy that I cried, I cried about fear of labor. Much of what I tried to explain was the same feeling of alone-ness, of being alienated from myself, that I’d tried to explain on past nights. On a logical level, all I could explain was that I was worried about complications. Somewhere, floating far from my space craft, I mumbled aloud that I was scared I might die.
That fall, one or both of my parents began attending my team’s cross country meets. At first, I thought they were just really getting into the team’s success. Then, somewhere around the third week in a row when my dad made a ninety minute drive one-way to watch my girls race across a field in Manchester, CT, I realized that they were worried something might happen to me. Not necessarily that I might die, but that I might go into labor while far from the hospital where I planned to deliver, far from my husband and his car with its infant car seat carefully installed, that it might take longer than it needed to, or be more uncomfortable than it could have been for me, their daughter, to have her daughter.
I grew up with the unquestioned understanding that it’s bad luck to even mention early symptoms of a cold outloud, and that denial is a powerful tool of self-preservation. I feel immense guilt that I allowed myself to vocalize my fear of dying. And even now, pregnant with my son, that I might have courted disaster by articulating the unspeakable fears of my first pregnancy. I’d like to think that I meant “dying” metaphorically. That I was afraid the self I’d always been would be replaced by a new, unfamiliar self, and that the process would be one of death and rebirth rather than of transformation. I was reading a lot of Joseph Campbell then, so that may have been a part of it. But, I’d also been reading all those labor stories, many of them natural childbirth testimonials (meant to be empowering, but often quite the opposite), and that fear I articulated was at least on some level literal. Childish, wimpy, selfish… everything other than what I believe myself, or an ideal mother to be.
Some of the posts are marked “*trigger,*” the warning women use to label threads about seriously ill babies or domestic violence, and it was here, not in the news that I first learned this term. One of the most common pieces of advice I received while pregnant was to shield myself from negative thoughts. That I should avoid the sensationalist, violent news coverage, cut out obligations that drained me, sever ties with the kind of friends who would judge me if my house was dirty in the months after my baby was born. I took this advice seriously.
But what about darkness–triggers–that are of my own making, sprung from within? I like to think of myself as positive, kind, hopeful, optimistic, energetic. It wasn’t just the life I’d always known, or the friends I’ve always had that I feared I might be floating away from on those rough nights (though of course I was), but that in facing the darkest parts of myself, I feel I’d found something in myself that was meant to remain locked away and banished. Maybe I was lonely from myself because I’d come face to face with a part of myself I never wanted to acknowledge existed, a part of myself I don’t want Nick or any of the people he so gently suggested I reach out to to know about.
“Maybe you should call Laura,” Nick suggested an hour into my sobbing. I was curled embarrassedly into the corner of our brand new couch (I picked it out imagining our little family of three snuggling here). And, because I was worried that all these lonely nights were taking a toll on Nick before the sleepless nights of the baby even began, I did.
Laura and I got lunch, but there was only so much I could say. We sat at Panera, where I picked at a slimy turkey sandwich (many women on babycenter.com don’t eat cold cuts during pregnancy; I ate any protein I could stomach, but always felt guilty to be seen eating turkey in public). Laura is a woman who’s opened up to me about her own postpartum depression. We’ve been friends since before she got divorced from her first husband, before she got remarried. She introduced me to Nick. But, when she asked how I was feeling, although I managed to tell her that I’d been having some hard nights, I couldn’t help myself: I steered our conversation away from the places my mind goes untethered, and we talked about work, about running, about our sandwiches.
I’ve heard some women say that labor is less frightening the second time around because they know what to expect. But, I felt so keenly aware of death’s proximity during labor, which is something I had tried to stop myself from realizing beforehand–and I know that now. I was a healthy, thirty-two year old woman with no history of complications or serious medical issues. But perhaps it was something I had considered. Or, if not considered, known. Perhaps that’s what I was looking for–an acknowledgement of this dark side, a validation of the fear I felt, not just of labor’s pain and unpredictability but, for all of medicine’s advances, the extent to which the life of my child, even from the very beginning would depend on me. And not in the passive way of pregnancy, but on my work–my labor. Instead, I read the confessions of women hundreds of miles away, I kept track of my weekly running mileage, tried to find new ways to wear the few pieces of clothing that still fit and I said that I missed being able to put myself in pain.
Next week, when I’ll be 28 weeks pregnant with my son, I’ll go for the one-hour gestational diabetes screening. I haven’t had any cravings this pregnancy, either, and I’ve still been running. Is it different this time? I haven’t been on Babycenter much–just every few weeks to check in on the physiological changes my baby and I are experiencing. Motherhood has undeniably separated me from decade-long friendships, and at the same time precluded forming new friendships of the intensity I once took for granted. In the mom’s group or at preschool drop-off, women ask my due date, how I’m feeling, if I know the baby’s gender. Sometimes we even talk about why our toddlers are crying, but in these stolen moments of adult conversation between women who are not exactly friends but part of the community of mothers, we don’t talk about shame or guilt or fear or where the word delivery really comes from.
Amanda Parrish Morgan taught high school English in Connecticut for seven years. Currently, she is raising her young daughter, coaching the local cross country and track teams, and working on a collection of essays. Her short story “Teratoma” was named a finalist in Glimmer Train’s Short Story Contest for New Writers. Her essays have also appeared in N+1 and The Rumpus and The Millions.
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Excellent post, loved it!