In my second pregnancy, I’ve had exactly one moment in which I felt like my previous experience made me better prepared. I was about five weeks in, and the fatigue and nausea were just starting to obstruct my view of life, like that asshole who picks the seat in front of you in an empty theater. As I mentally charted all the plans that pregnancy would now affect, I was slayed by the realization that, for my upcoming visit with my best friend Jess, I’d be consigned to a condition of sobriety and nausea and probably zero fun. This thought — I’m not going to be any fun — brought me to tears.
And then, lightning-like, I realized, Wait a minute! I haven’t crashed my entire future into a funless ditch. I’m just hungry. And I veered my triumph of experience into the McDonald’s drive-through, and everything was, momentarily, fine again.
Other than that, I’ve been disappointed to find that pregnancy is not a skill I can improve with practice. This was especially crushing to realize in my second first trimester. My first first trimester consisted of 12 exhausted weeks of vomiting multiple times a day, though by week eight my doctor had prescribed something that helped. My second first trimester was 16 fucking weeks of relentless, exhausted nausea — relatively little puking, just constant, debilitating seasickness — stanched by no drug my clinic could throw my way, including the one that had helped last time. I couldn’t work. I couldn’t go out. I could barely move. As the lifelong possessor of a Midwestern work ethic and an addiction to overachievement, this killed me. Despite a nagging suspicion that this expectation might be irrational, I kept thinking, Shouldn’t it be easier this time?!
The fallacy in comparing one pregnancy to another, and in comparing diverse pregnant bodies, is the wrongful assumption that such comparison rests upon: the myth that there is a Right Way to be pregnant. That pregnancy is something one can succeed or fail at. Depending on your social and cultural milieu, rotten myths of pregnant “success” can include: avoiding a C-section or epidural; never touching alcohol, coffee, or sushi; and, of course, not gaining too much weight. Failures can include succumbing to any of the above, plus not glowing brightly enough, gaining weight anywhere but your belly, complaining too much, giving salty retorts to handsy strangers, and losing control of your farts.
So while my second second trimester granted me some reprieve — the smog of nausea lifted, my energy increased, and I resumed work and general functionality — it also brought with it a chorus of unwelcomed assessments of my condition. It’s in the second trimester that one usually becomes visibly pregnant, and thus begins being appraised by family, friends, and strangers. And what better tool to over-analyze whether you’re being pregnant correctly this time than the uninvited commentary of the general public?!
The sodden bullshit of the idea of correct pregnancy belies one of reproduction’s most difficult components: Pregnancy entails a near-total loss of control. My body aches despite my best efforts to keep it stretched, rested, and nourished. I cannot predict my energy level on any given day any more than I can predict my ability to sleep at night. The urgent need to eat consistently outpaces any desire I might have to maintain a socially acceptable body. Most terrifying is the fact that — short of trying to ingest some nutrients and avoid huffing whippets or cocaine — there’s only so much I can do to ensure the health of my baby. It’s not even possible to assess the “success” of pregnancy by its resulting in a healthy baby or mother, because this would imply that people who suffer pregnancy loss, have babies born with complications, or those who die in childbirth have somehow failed.
So, no. Handing over my body to biological and spiritual forces unknown is distinctly not easier this time. Fate rolls its dice the moment sperm meets egg, and we are, during pregnancy’s unique and fleeting state, not its arbiter, only its host. And all of this is not even to mention that I’m now four years older, tireder, and saltier than last time — and busier, considering I already have one child to contend with who is literally not old enough to wipe himself yet.
Deep in the hellish nausea of the first half of my second pregnancy, I wrote to an older, wiser poet friend, a mother of two, in “a naked plea for sympathy.” “I’m so fucking disappointed in my body for not feeling better than this by now,” I unloaded on her. “I just alternate between full/exhausted and hungry/nauseated, and it reminds me of the bad joke people make about how there are only two seasons in Minnesota, winter and road construction. Plus, people who know I’m out of my first trimester keep greeting me with things like Are you feeling better? and these hopeful faces full of expectation and I want to punch them.” (PSA: “How are you feeling?” is a more sensitive question than “Are you feeling better?” Also, the only acceptable question to ask a pregnant person is “Can I bring you a snack?”)
Calmly, wisely, my friend wrote back with “all the sympathy.” She advised, “Don’t be a hero,” and then switched into all caps, perhaps intuiting that I wasn’t internalizing this message on my own: “YOU ARE MAKING A PERSON. SIT DOWN AND EAT A DOUGHNUT.” I guess sometimes it’s easier to benefit from somebody else’s experience than it is from one’s own.
Just as it’s right to question the premise of a successful or correct pregnancy, the conclusion that pregnancy does not get easier with practice has allowed me to interrogate my assumption that it ever should have been. Pregnancy is not a skill. Pregnancy is not a talent. Pregnancy is — like being in love, bereaved, or out of town — a condition, a state of being. One cannot excel at gestating any more than one can excel at grieving: In both, the best we can hope for is to be a little more patient with ourselves, a little more forgiving, a little gentler and kinder to our own compromised state. Or to remember that transition is, even at its most humbling, always temporary.
If it is not exactly true that what doesn’t kill us invariably makes us stronger, it is almost always true that we are capable of enduring much more than we think we are. This is the one real benefit of my previous experience: I know that, despite the pain, intrusion, inconvenience, and messiness of pregnancy and birth, I’ve survived one version of it once before. Not only that: Growing a human inside my body and pushing him out of an orifice (previously) the size of a tampon made me feel superhuman. And not only that: After that great push, I fell in love again; a changed condition, permanently transformed. Total transformation never gets easier — it’s not meant to. We grow to meet it.
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