Marissa Maciel’s previous work for The Toast can be found here.
If you’re pregnant, one clue that you might be having emotional difficulties is when you tell people the news and their first reaction is, “Oh, is that okay?”
No matter how planned my second pregnancy had been (trying for months, taking prenatal vitamins in advance, storing hand-me-downs from our first child for years); whenever I told anyone I was pregnant, I felt like a teenager copping to a broken condom. My mouth was saying, “I’m so excited!” while my face — eyes wide, mouth drawn tight — said, “What am I doing?”
This baby was wanted and loved. I hoped that our son would have a sibling with whom to share stories, build forts, create adventures. Someone he could always relate to, who would understand when he said, “That’s just like mom.” Comrades in arms. The future big brother was already coming up with names (“Let’s name her Sweetheart!”). Getting pregnant was a relief and a blessing and the realization of at least Phase One of my imagined happy family recipe.
But I was also in the throes of a serious hormonal smackdown.
The same had been true during my first pregnancy: anxiety that turned my stomach inside-out; constant crying; questions about how I would be able to care for this new person when my emotions seemed to be out of control. It was exhausting and near-crippling. I white-knuckled my way through each trimester. I caused a brief family rift when I refused to allow my parents to have a baby shower for me, because I was too depressed about being depressed and pregnant to want to celebrate. I hardly traveled anywhere other than to work and back home. Every day I worried that I would somehow lose my baby, that my body would fail me the way my emotions were. And the Internet was not my friend. It was too easy to spot stories that I was trying to avoid — stories of child abuse, miscarriages, rare illnesses in pregnancy — and by the start of my second trimester, I had sworn off the Internet for all but email and work. I applied blinders to everything and took care of just the bare necessities: eating, working, sleeping, bathing.
When I came through that first pregnancy — after a traumatic birth experience — I promised myself that if I ever got pregnant again, it would be different.
Apparently, those were fighting words.
During my second pregnancy, the first trimester again left me clinging to whatever emotional stability my brain could muster. I was losing sleep, sobbing in the shower for no concrete reason — and for every reason I could imagine — too worried to say anything to anyone for fear of what they might think of me. An endless loop: too scared to be happy, too scared to speak up.
One morning I was crying at work, feeling paralyzed by my depression, when I realized I was going to have to fight to follow through on my promise: this was going to be different, goddamnit. For my sake and for my family’s, it had to be different.
I stopped crying just long enough to walk to another coworker’s office and wait for her to ask me how I was doing. The tears came back in an instant. I admitted how anxious I was that I wasn’t going to be a good mother, that I didn’t know if my body could handle a baby at my age, that I didn’t know if I could afford another child (just as I found out I was pregnant, rumors of layoffs in my division started to swirl). Everything I had figured out before was suddenly flipped and inverted in my pregnant mind, as if I just woke up this way, and what was I going to do?
My coworker suggested I see her acupuncturist. Normally I would have poo-pooed this suggestion as New Age hooey, but she had seen good results with own hormone-related issues. I called the acupuncturist and explained my situation, and she said she’d be able to fit me in that same day. It was a relief to be able to be honest about my fears and my emotional state, and to be offered help instead of what I had dreaded — judgement.
I had never had acupuncture before. During the first few appointments I was too nervous to be alone in the room, lying still with pins in me, for more than five minutes. So the acupuncturist stayed with me, massaging my feet and rubbing my ear with a hot “pen” called a Tiger Stick. After about four appointments, I was comfortable being alone for 20 minutes. The appointments stopped feeling like an act of desperation and started feeling like a treat. Eventually I worked up to the full 45-minute treatment.
I was able to relax during my appointments, and the effect would last for days and then weeks. I wasn’t having the shits every time I had to do something outside my normal routine. I could stop holding my breath when I drove anywhere other than work or home. I was able to reflect on my wellbeing, once again recognizing the things I was grateful for, and started to feel confident in my ability to take care of myself.
But while the acupuncture did help my emotional state of mind, I was still worried about the pregnancy and my future. I began to call my mom regularly — she’d had three kids, and had been through divorce, near-homelessness, and spousal abandonment while pregnant. Nearly every day I called and listened to a desperately needed pep talk.
“When I was pregnant with your sister, her father disappeared and I had to get a car,” she told me one day. “This was back when you needed a man to get a bank account or a loan. So I had to lie the whole time at the car dealership about my husband, say that he’d sign the paperwork at home, and I was just scared to death that they would refuse. If I didn’t get that car, I couldn’t go to work, and then what? We’d starve!”
My mother also told me about her pregnancy with me. She had toxemia (preeclampsia), which left her with painful edema and dangerously high blood pressure. “They said I lost 40 pounds in water alone when you were born,” she told me. I thanked her for not letting me kill her.
“You just take things one day at a time,” she said to me, week after week, a steady drumbeat of motivation pushing me forward. “Put one foot in front of the other. You’ll know what to do and you’ll do it!”
I was just beginning to feel more in control, exercising regularly, when my blood pressure started to drop. It made me feel like standing up was a risky move. I relegated myself to easy walks and lifting 10-pound dumbbells at home. I missed proper workouts and was disappointed that I couldn’t get an endorphin lift, which would have made it easier to wind down at night.
One night, as I was trying to fall asleep, my mind kept wandering into darker territories. I needed to sleep so badly, but I was so amped I needed to find something mindless to do. I ventured cautiously online and launched a web search…
I went with one of the safer choices: pregnant celebrities.
I know that I wouldn’t appreciate being photographed and blogged about by strangers while pregnant. But even though I tend to look down on tabloids, I still clicked. And I am glad I did.
While I was pregnant, two major celebrities were also pregnant: Kate Middleton and Kim Kardashian. The photographs of them going through their pregnancies with an air of fabulousness allowed me to loosen my grip on my own concerns, lightening my thoughts about being pregnant and giving me something else to consider in the “pregnancy section” of my brain.
I avoided the stories about Kate’s hyperemesis, the severe morning sickness that sent her to the hospital. But I definitely checked out her maternity clothes! I imagined what it would be like to buy any number of expensive maternity outfits for your wardrobe, instead of waiting for the clearance section of a discount maternity clothier to fill up with things suitable for the current weather season.
Seeing pictures and reading about Kate’s life as an expectant mother gave me an escape, a way to imagine life as if I were a pregnant princess, too — financially secure, in a lovely home, with a husband who can fly a helicopter…
Kim Kardashian’s pregnancy, like every other aspect of her life, was also being monitored by the tabloids. I didn’t look too deeply at stories about her pregnancy because it was obvious that the tabs were just going for the lowest common denominator. But when I saw pictures of Kim pregnant at red-carpet events, I lived vicariously through her, too. I could imagine flying in a private jet to a glamorous event while pregnant.
Research has been done on the benefits of living vicariously. Our brains gain a positive effect when we imagine experiencing someone else’s positive experiences. And positive, guided imagery has long been used in meditation and therapy to reduce stress. When I threw out all the other offerings on the Internet and just looked at happy pregnant women, pregnant women living full and healthy lives, I felt better about my own pregnancy. Heck, even looking at Fake-Kate Middleton being Fake-Pregnant was a fun exercise in escapism.
I had a few false alarms towards the end of my pregnancy, caused by some added, unexpected stress. Fearing the looming layoffs, I interviewed for another job, and was hired. During the interview my blood pressure was rising and falling, so I was surprised I made it through without passing out. Soon after, I started having contractions that lasted for a few hours. It was related to being dehydrated and was easily resolved, but it was still scary.
Later, about four weeks away from my due date, I was deposed as a witness in a court case. I was completely freaked out when, a few weeks before the deposition, an imposing-looking Process Server appeared at my door and handed me a summons. It took me about twenty minutes — filled with stress-induced flop-sweat and a frantic Internet search — to understand that this was for someone else’s court case, and that I wasn’t being sued. I was nervous at the deposition, but it went smoothly. However, soon afterwards I was worried I might be leaking amniotic fluid.
With both false alarms I had to drive alone to the maternity ward to get looked over. Had I not worked so hard in the previous months to regain my self-confidence, to find levity and breathing room in my pregnancy, I don’t think I would have been able to get through those appointments — not to mention the interview and the deposition — without suffering extreme anxiety.
Each time a new challenge arose, I was able to hear my mother’s advice: “Put one foot in front of the other.” I tried to remove my emotions from the experience. During the second false alarm, as I drove my heavily pregnant self to the maternity ward, I remember thinking: “If this turns out to be nothing, then the next time I have to make this drive will be a blessing.”
A few weeks later, hours before the sun would rise, my husband and I arrived back at the maternity ward, completely frazzled and bleary-eyed, but in good spirits.
The anesthesiologist warned me that the medication might make me feel nauseated, and that this was a normal reaction, so I wouldn’t feel alarmed. Then, like every good anesthesiologist, he changed the subject.
“What kind of music do you like to listen to?” he asked.
“I like all kinds. Basically anything that’s fun, or good to dance to.”
“Okay,” he paused a bit. “So, you like One Direction?”
“Oh, there’s that nausea kicking in…”
I was so relieved to be through with my pregnancy, I let myself be overcome with excitement to meet my baby. When I held her for the first time, I reflected on all the challenges I went through to get to this point and finally let myself relax. I kept her close to me for a good long hour after she was born, before they washed away all the bits and pieces of me that had helped her come into this world.
Marissa Maciel is a writer and illustrator.