For somewhere around three months, usually longer, you are invisibly pregnant. Your stomach doesn’t yet betray the geyser of life involuntarily erupting within you, nor are you “supposed” to talk about it with anyone but your partner, and perhaps your family. Of course, your natural impulse is to talk about nothing but this profound phenomenon occurring inside of you, and yet we are unilaterally urged against it until the supposed “safe” zone of 12 weeks has been reached. It’s a pathological paradigm, belied by a culturally-enforced shame that holds hands with the extraordinary vulnerability of pregnancy.
It’s also macabre, our culture’s counsel to stay quiet about being pregnant in case of a miscarriage. The underlying code is: Don’t tell anyone you’re pregnant until you’re 12 weeks along, because if you miscarry or find out it has an incurable disease and you decide to abort, you might have to (gasp) explain to people the unexplainable: your own immeasurable despair. The subtext is: You might have an unendurable time experiencing a miscarriage, but also just imagine what your friends, co-workers, family, and acquaintances might feel about it. Don’t burden them with your personal tragedies.
The possibility of miscarriage already forces the realization that your body is now an island unto itself, over which you have so little control. You can avoid all the raw fish, soft cheese, cured meats, runny eggs, alfalfa sprouts, lox, delicious Pinot, and fresh-squeezed farmer’s market juice (UNPASTEURIZED!!!) in the world, but even that can’t stop your insides from deciding, no, not this time. Not this one.
I’m not exactly the close-mouthed type, but my husband didn’t want to share the news on our various social media until we made it through the first trimester, and I respected his wishes. Instead, bursting with brand-new maternal pride, I revealed the secret of my fecund abdomen to anyone it made sense to do so in person: diner waitresses, vague acquaintances I ran into at auditions, any of my more amiable Lyft drivers. Partly because I felt the need to explain my pallid geriatric appearance, and partly because I didn’t want to be the only one (literally) carrying around this news, this bold-fonted all-caps headline being waved about by a tiny newscap’d British boy in my womb.
Maggie Nelson wrote in The Argonauts, “Is there something inherently queer about pregnancy itself, insofar as it profoundly alters one’s ‘normal’ state, and occasions a radical intimacy with — and radical alienation from — one’s body? How can an experience so profoundly strange and wild and transformative also symbolize or enact the ultimate conformity?”
The first week I found out I was pregnant, I walked around the world feeling unremittingly elated. I felt a constant buzz of mirthful energy coming from inside of me. A baby! I’d wanted this so much! I was so ready to be a mother, to learn about the world anew through a tiny set of eyes! Eyes that would hopefully be much less astigmatic than my own!
But a week later, exactly when I hit 5 weeks and 2 days pregnant, that happy amphetamine ardor was brutally and without any warning at all replaced with mono-level fatigue and knock-out nausea. Sure, I knew morning sickness was a possibility — I’d seen the movies, and I knew the shtick that it shouldn’t be referred to as morning sickness when it can and does come at any time. What I wasn’t prepared for or informed of was that the morning sickness could and would — for me — be positively ceaseless. That truly, 15 of my 16 waking hours would be spent in unbearable nausea.
Imagine being seasick for months on end.
A constant tidal wave of queasiness crashed around my insides, leaving me so feeble all I could do was lie in the fetal position moaning (moaning loudly actually really helped). Hapless crying jags, extreme constipation lasting multiple days on end, and oh, and let’s not forget about dysgeusia, a rare condition that feels as disgusting as it sounds. It is the persistent taste in your mouth of rotting, metallic sewage. Joy of Pregnancy, indeed.
Although I didn’t think I had internalized our patriarchy’s derision of women acting “crazy” or “hormonal,” but a handful of times, after being whiplashed with constant nausea for so many days in a row, I would burst into tears, uncontrollably sobbing for hours on end. (I think about this now and wonder how it was possibly me — I’m not really a cryer. Hell, I’m a Capricorn! I’m very emotionally even-keeled, to the hearty dismay of both of my extremely anxiety-ridden parents.) When my husband would come home and find me sobbing, hours after the tears began, I would try to explain why and couldn’t find a reason. He would hold me and attempt to to comfort me, but I remember blubbering, “I KNOW you think I’m making up how awful this is, but I’m not. This just feels. So. UNILATERALLY. AWFUL!!!!!”
I would burst into tears, uncontrollably sobbing for hours on end.
“Of course I believe you!” he would cry out, holding me tighter. But I didn’t believe him. My puffy eyes would narrow at him while I continued to weep. A kernel of me just knew he thought I was being a drama queen. A hormonal wreck. Being a despondent bummer for no reason. Because I didn’t have any external symptoms of the plague I was very much experiencing internally, I felt tremendously lonely. At least when you have chickenpox, or a broken leg, strangers and loved ones alike can imagine themselves in your situation — they can readily see it, plus they’ve probably been there.
I believe the biggest reason the contemporary narrative of pregnancy is not open about the real atrocities of the first trimester is that by the time it’s socially acceptable to tell the world that you’re pregnant, you’re already through the rough part. The cathartic elation of informing the world of the news of your secret practically immediately eliminates the truth of the last dark months, and thus the entire first third of pregnancy gets swept under the rug in the narrative.
By the time my uterus received its first houseguest, I hadn’t come across any true accounts of what the first trimester really feels like. A major caveat here is that all women are different and some feel completely fine in every trimester, and many other women feel much, much worse. I wanted to share my experience so those considering becoming pregnant can be more aware of what this first third can look and feel like, and those who are currently going through it can not feel so alone.
I am currently a few days away from my due date. Contrary to the proliferation of cursive-scripted, Earth toned “Mama Blogs” you have likely come across whether or not you too are pregnant, my experience has clearly been nothing in the remote vicinity of blissful, magical, or earth-goddess-like. The first third was an astonishingly lonely, wholly isolating, and quite literally nauseating experience. The second trimester improved greatly, allowing me the energy and psychological room to enjoy the active snorkeler inside my belly, and my final trimester has settled into a kind of multifaceted discomfort that I also, somehow, couldn’t have anticipated. But of course we all must stumble through this alone, there’s no way even the most well-read and well-prepared of incubating mothers could know what pregnancy feels like until she finds out firsthand.
I regret not writing this essay when I was still in my first trimester, but there was no room for anything remotely creative or thoughtful in those dark 10 weeks, the darkest physically and psychologically that I’ve ever experienced. Ironically, this essay proved its entire point: by the time I came out of the tunnel and was well into my second trimester, I sat down to write this and realized I couldn’t quite grasp at the corporal wickedness I’d just spent so many weeks enduring. The true way to describe it eluded me, ironically just like the pain of childbirth must, otherwise why would women return to it again and again?
I have written my little fetus a love note every week or so. The first few letters I wrote to him were positively hemorrhaging with impassioned, sentimental platitudes, but after a certain point in the first trimester I’d had just about as much as I could take.
“Dear You,” I wrote. “I used to like you. I really did. But these past weeks have been a radical species of hell. What did I ever do to you? Do you hate the name I picked out for you? I’ll change it. Do you not like your father? I WILL LEAVE HIM!! I’ll do anything. Just please, please, let me feel normal again.
Nevertheless, I love you tremendously, despite your tiny, very possibly sadistic temperament.
Your beleaguered mom (MOM!!!!!)”
Welcome to Mothership: Parenting stories you actually want to read, whether you're thinking about or passing on kids, from egg-freezing to taking home baby and beyond. Because motherhood is a big if — not when — and it's time we talked about it that way.