The Secrets We Keep

Secrets are lonely.

 

Children waiting for the day they feel good
Happy Birthday, Happy Birthday
Made to feel the way that every child should
Sit and listen, sit and listen

– Tears for Fears, “Mad World”

 

I suppose I’ve been unintentionally keeping a secret from you for the past several months.  Mostly because I haven’t really said anything at all.  Well, no longer.

My husband and I are expecting our first child in December.  We’re thrilled.

In planning this pregnancy, I’ve come to realize there are a LOT of secrets involved in the process.  I find this somewhat baffling, given that these days most people over the age of five know generally where babies come from.  Also (Spoiler?) roughly half the earth’s population has the necessary equipment. 

All this secrecy seems superstitious as hell.

If you don’t quite understand what I mean, let me explain.

“Trying”

My husband and I have been discussing children since we were dating.  Before either of us made a longterm commitment, we established that we were on the same page on a lot of the Big Issues, our mutual desire for children being one of those.  This just seemed smart. 

It wasn’t uncommon, after we’d gotten engaged, then married, for people to ask, “Do you want children?”  To which we answered truthfully.  Sometimes this took on the tenor of impatience and cajoling, sometimes mere curiosity.

As time passed, we started to make more concrete plans.  We knew we wanted a few years as just “us,” to learn to understand each other and married life.  After a few years, and some time spent sorting through our unique sets of baggage, we by no means felt like we’d perfected ourselves, but we felt ready for the challenge of parenting.  This was the point at which taboo reared its ugly head.

Suddenly, etiquette demanded that our plans become entirely hush hush.  I suppose this has something to do with the fact that becoming parents involves sex, but the secrecy created some inconveniences.  For instance, rather than asking trusted relatives and friends about the best techniques for “trying” and “improving our chances,” I spent a lot of time sifting through Yahoo! Answers threads on Google.

Is it okay to take x medication when trying to get pregnant?  Does putting your legs up the wall really help?  Does the kind of lube I use matter?  Should I start limiting my caffeine?  What do implantation cramps feel like? 

Yes, I went to my doctor with some of my questions (particularly the medication-centered ones), and she was a great help, but sometimes you want to poll the room.  Maybe talk to someone actually related to you, who might have some insight into your particular biology.

But, at least in my experience, which is perhaps made worse by my own introversion, these topics are walled off from comfortable discourse.

If you’re wondering, according to my research and experience, the answers are:

  • It depends on the medication. 
  • Not really, but it’s good to lie still for a little while. 
  • It could, and there are lubes designed to create a better environment for conception. 
  • It’s not a bad idea. 
  • They can feel like a very very mild period, but in my case I didn’t get any at all—nor any implantation bleeding that I noticed.

In fact, let me take a moment to tear down the euphemism.  “Trying” meant me using a period tracking app, taking my basal body temperature  every morning before getting out of bed, and peeing in little plastic cups so I could test it with tiny strips that told me whether or not I was ovulating.

Oh, and having sex in the correct intervals surrounding appropriately charted days.  No matter what was going on that day or what mood we were in or where we were staying that night.  While using a particular brand of lube called Pre-Seed (which doesn’t sound creepy at all) that came in syringes and made my vagina more “habitable.”  And then lying still for as long as I could bear, with my hips propped up on a pillow, because despite my internet research, I figured it couldn’t hurt.

We love each other dearly, but we both had to admit all this felt a bit like work.

So much so, that the periods I got during these months were real low points for me.  In addition to the disappointment, I even dealt with more physical pain than usual.  Usually, when I feel the slightest twinge of menstrual cramps, I pop a Midol or two to take the edge off.  But since I didn’t know what implantation felt like, I worried taking drugs would affect the process, so I waited and let the pain get away from me.  There was a fair bit of depressed moaning and writhing around on the couch. 

Not to mention the panicked thoughts of, “What if there’s something wrong with me?  What if I can’t do it?  What if he can’t do it?  What if this takes years?  What if we have to adopt?”

Spoiler: Everything was fine.  In fact, the three to four months it took us is about the average length of time it takes a couple to conceive when they’re “trying.”  But it was hard to know that while living through the thick of it all.

Twelve Weeks—Or Else?

When we’d “succeeded,” another wave of required secrecy washed over us. 

Actually, for a few weeks, my pregnancy was a secret even to us.  Because the pee-on-a-stick type of pregnancy test is looking for hCG, the hormone released into a woman’s bloodstream by the fetus, the fertilized egg actually has to implant itself on the uterine wall and have been there long enough for the appropriate level of hormones to build up in the woman’s bloodstream and be released into the urine. 

In other words, you don’t just know immediately.  I had to wait until the first day of my missed period, per the package instructions of the test I used.  For our “successful” month, this just happened to be the day we left for a two week vacation on the West Coast.

So, I got up that morning, collected my pee, dipped the test stick in it per the instructions, saw “Pregnant” on the little digital read-out, went to work for half a day, then packed up and boarded a plane.

Needless to say, that was one dazed plane ride.  And my day at work was alternately spent marveling at the things going on inside me and feeling certain people could look at me and tell I was keeping a secret.

We even stayed with dear friends the first few days of our trip and couldn’t breathe a word about it to them, partly because we wanted to be absolutely sure—I hadn’t even taken a second test yet—and partly because of the Twelve Week Rule.

For some reason, society dictates that a pregnancy must remain under wraps, at least from the general public, for Twelve Weeks.  The main “reason” for this being that these first twelve weeks are characterized by the highest risk for miscarriage.  Which basically equates to a pregnancy “not counting” if it ends within this time period.

Of course this is ridiculous.

A couple trying to get pregnant certainly has no less reason to feel the loss if a pregnancy fails in the first three months than if it fails later (although the physical and emotional toll might be greater the longer the pregnancy lasts). 

And what do people need in times of grief?

Support.  Understanding.  Love.

Sure, they deserve their privacy to sort through and feel their emotions, but not to the point of feeling alone in their despair.  And what if they have questions?  It seems a great injustice to isolate them at such a vulnerable time.    

I Feel Sick

Another complication of dwelling in the Cone of Silence for the first twelve weeks is that this is one of the absolute worst times for symptoms like morning sickness.  I was lucky enough that my body cruised along like normal for the first few days of our trip (about as long as we stayed with our friends). 

But then…I hit a wall.  A big wall. 

Of nausea.

The second leg of our trip took us to Yosemite National Park, and by breakfast of our first full day there, I was feeling…off.  Then we did a hike (at a fairly high altitude) that made me feel like I’d gone ten rounds with a yeti.  I didn’t actually vomit, but at our fancy meal in the dining room of the Ahwahnee Hotel—where we stayed because we’re huge fans of The Shining—the lamb might as well have been dog food.

Now, my husband and I plan entire vacations by plotting out where we’re going to eat and when, so this definitely put a bit of a damper on things.

Oh, and I have IBS.  So some combination of the nausea, hormonal changes, and possibly the altitude set off a raging feud between my colon and all food-like substances.  Resulting in the frequent, forceful evacuation of everything I took in.  While I was on vacation in a beautiful hotel I’d dreamed of staying in for years.  Which happened to be in a remote California valley with no pharmacy for miles.

While I got to know the beautiful tile work in the bathroom of our expensive suite with a view of Half Dome, I panicked a little. 

If I got dehydrated, would I have a miscarriage?  If I couldn’t keep food inside me, would I have a miscarriage?  If I stayed at altitude too long, would I have a miscarriage?

I sent my husband to the hotel store to find whatever anti-diarrhea medication they had, which happened to be a tiny bottle of liquid Imodium.  Then we Googled frantically to figure out if this was some kind of baby killing agent.  We found enough answers to make us feel like it probably wasn’t, and I was feeling so terrible in that moment, that I took it.  I also sent a message to my GP (because I hadn’t even set up an appointment with my OBGYN yet) asking if this was a terrible mistake.

After a day or two of medicating myself and surviving mostly on protein shakes and water, my GP responded in an abundance of caution and made me promise to tell my OB about taking the Imodium at my first appointment, because it “wasn’t recommended.”

Commence several weeks of worrying that I’d given my baby two heads.

When I did inform my OB, she rolled her eyes and laughed.  Obviously it was better for me to not be dehydrated and pooping my guts out.

Eventually my colon settled down a bit, thankfully before the trip was over.  But the constant low-grade nausea remained.  I was able to eat my way up the West Coast, but feeling like I was on a cheap carnival ride all the time dampened my excitement for the cuisine.  Ironically, the only meal that made me feel good for a few hours was a quesadilla from Taco Bell. 

In Portland, Oregon. 

Home of the hugest, freshest, most delicious variety of food you could ever imagine.

This continued until about week fifteen of the pregnancy, which added another interesting layer to keeping everything a secret.  Previously, I was a pretty healthy breakfast eater.  I’d pack little plastic containers of tomatoes, cheese, and salami and nibble my way through the morning.  But after the nausea hit, sweet things and carbs were the only things that hit the spot.  So I developed a Pop-Tart habit. 

One morning after retching up nothing in the sink while getting ready, I got desperate enough to bring a bottle of Gatorade to drink with my breakfast.  I was sure this would be a dead giveaway, or at least make people worry I was recovering from a stomach bug, but for some reason no one asked.

Because I didn’t want to draw attention to myself, this meant having to keep up my usual work and leisure routines as best I could, even though any non-pregnant person would take a sick day if they felt half as bad as I did.  I’m lucky that my job consists of sitting at a desk most of the day.  I can’t imagine feeling like I did and working in retail, or worse, food service.  But of course it’s impossible to ask for leeway when you can’t give a reason.

On a scale of Tired to Dead, it was an 11.

It may seem like a no-brainer that pregnant women feel tired, but I’m here to tell you, “tired” doesn’t even begin to describe it.  For pretty much the whole first trimester and the beginning of the second, my daily routine consisted of waking up from a full eight hours of sleep, going to work for four hours, coming home and scarfing a turkey sandwich and tomato soup (pretty much the only thing that appealed to me), then falling asleep on the couch until my husband came home at five. 

I was basically awake about the same number of hours a day as my cat.

My husband very astutely compared it to the time he had mono.  And he works eight hours a day, so basically his only waking hours were at the office.  I really can’t imagine how women who work eight hour days manage that time, much less anyone who does serious labor at work.

And, again, for much of the time you’re dealing with this…mums the word.

This is a symptom?!  Seriously?

Some of the unpleasant symptoms just came out of nowhere for me. 

For instance, pregnancy rhinitis.  I had never heard of this until suddenly, about eight or ten weeks in, I stopped breathing through my nose.  My first thought was, oh no, a sinus infection, and I can’t take anything for it but Tylenol!  But it didn’t progress like my sinus infections in the past.  Usually I get a stuffy nose, then a headache from the pressure, and then it blocks up my ears.  It was like I was stuck in the stuffy nose stage, with a little bit of pressure in my sinuses, but not as much as usual.  Also, the mucous was clear, not yellow or green like I get with an infection.

I again went to my friend Google, and lo and behold, this was somehow related to pregnancy!  Apparently when pregnant, a woman’s body goes into overdrive producing a lot of different fluids, and some of these are more convenient than others.  The most terrifying thing I read was that it could last until several weeks after birth.  Meaning I not only had to deal with nausea and mono-like fatigue, I had to talk like Chucky from Rugrats for my entire pregnancy.

Thank the Lord, after a week or two it dissipated, possibly thanks in part to my use of a humidifier at night.  But the thought of dealing with something so…stupid for so many months was infuriating.

The second symptom, which I still haven’t managed to shake, is a hair-trigger gag reflex almost exclusively when I’m brushing my teeth.  This isn’t really connected to the nausea I was experiencing at the beginning of the pregnancy—although when they were both happening at once, neither symptom helped the other—because it has persisted even after my nausea disappeared.

It’s like I have a hard time limit on how long I can brush my teeth, particularly when it comes to the back molars and my tongue.  Before I was pregnant, I did gag a tiny bit sometimes when I hit a sensitive spot on my tongue or brushed for too long.  But during pregnancy this escalates into much more forceful gagging after much less time brushing, often ending in me throwing up bile in the sink.  I have a suspicion it’s connected to me being hungry in the morning, as it’s not quite as bad when I brush my teeth at night.  Anyway, thank goodness for mouthwash.

***

Ultimately, I feel like forcing individuals to deal with the confusion and pain of trying to get pregnant and early pregnancy on their own is playing into the hands of the unfair power dynamics of patriarchy. 

Think about it like this.  Why do you think the handmaids have to wear those big white bonnets in The Handmaid’s Tale?  To discourage them from connecting with or talking to one another as they go about their business.  They’re also only allowed to go in groups of two.  Because the more women communicate and the more women gather amongst themselves, the more they can accomplish. 

Better to keep us feeling alone and worried than let us get busy organizing and turning the world upside down.

However, much like Offred and her fellow handmaids, no one can stop women from connecting with one another. 

So, my recommendation is, the next time you have a “secret” related to family planning, pregnancy, or any feminine issue, as unnatural as it may feel, tell someone

The next time you see another woman struggling in silence, say something

You’ll be surprised how much you have in common and how many ways you can shed light for one another.  You’ll be changing the status quo.  Most importantly, you’ll be tying one more knot in the great safety net of women helping women.

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