The Lies We Live With

Around the sixth month of my pregnancy with my second son, my hip locked up to the point of debilitating pain. I had experienced something similar in my first pregnancy, but the second time was more extreme and I knew I needed help. I booked an appointment with a bodyworker and hobbled my way to his office. He asked if I was enjoying my pregnancy and I said, “I love that I’m pregnant but I hate being pregnant.”

He laughed and said that when his wife was miserably pregnant he conducted an informal poll, asking pregnant women everywhere if they enjoyed it. He was working in the prenatal unit at the hospital at the time so he was in contact with hundreds of pregnant women each week. According to his poll, only about 10% said they loved being pregnant. He didn’t do much for my hip but my psyche was lifted by this reminder that I wasn’t alone.

Having grown up with a mother who had gushed about her three fabulous pregnancies, I had always thought I would love being pregnant. This illusion was shattered within weeks of conception. After nine weeks of debilitating sickness, months of painful hips, and a weight gain of fifty pounds which left walking from the car to my front door a chore, I proceeded to have a forty-two hour labor with four hours of pushing, Fun? Not exactly!

While we’re all aware of morning sickness and other challenges of pregnancy, this isn’t the picture that our culture paints and the expectations that are created. Just like being engaged, we expect to love it from start to finish. And when the reality clashes with our fantasies and expectations, it’s easy to wonder, “What’s wrong with me? If I don’t like being pregnant, does that mean I won’t enjoy being a mother?”

Last week, I worked with a woman who has felt guilty for almost twelve years because of a thought she had the moment she found out she was pregnant. Because of her tumultuous relationship with her mother and a variety of other circumstances, she had felt ambivalent about having children. But her husband was passionate about the idea and convinced her to move forward. They tried for a year, then conceived. The thought she had when she saw the positive result was, “Oh my god, my life is over.”

Her son is almost eleven and she’s been an extraordinary mother. Despite her ambivalence, she connected to her growing fetus and fell in love with her baby the moment he arrived. But that first thought of motherhood has contributed to her sense of self-doubt and left her feeling unnecessarily guilty. Because of our cultural expectations, she’s lived with a lie for far too long.

Whether we’re getting married, having a baby, moving to a new house or city, or changing jobs, we’re culturally conditioned to believe that we’re supposed to feel unilaterally happy about these changes. We live in a culture that doesn’t allow room for ambivalence. We have a hard time metabolizing the concept that joy and sorrow that live in the same experience. We can experience joy around a death and loss around a wedding. The daily duality we endure as humans is magnified around transitions. Instead of annihilating this experience, we would benefit greatly by understanding it and welcoming it in.

The transmission of this cultural belief of “transition joy” is particularly acute around getting married and becoming a parent. Every image propagated by our mainstream media communicates the precept that you’re supposed to be blissed out around every stage of these transitions – from saying “yes” to “I do”, from seeing the positive purple line on the pregnancy test to giving birth. Nothing could be further from the truth. When we’re on the threshold of a major life change – and it doesn’t get bigger than getting married or having a baby – not only will we feel ambivalent, but we’ll span the spectrum of every human emotion, from bliss and excitement to fear and regret. The fear that sets in immediately after the proposal and the positive pregnancy test are normal and natural. With a “yes” and a confirmation of life, the opposite force will arise will equal intensity.

When I told my client that the thought she had was normal, she started to cry from relief. Furthermore, I shard with her that the thought originated from her alignment with the archetypal elements of her transition where a part of her life was ending with the confirmation of her pregnancy: in that moment, her identity as non-mother died as her identity as mother was being born. This is a highly sensitive woman who has been beautifully aligned with her instincts throughout her life as a mother. It didn’t surprise me that her first thought in that life-changing moment reflected her attunement with the painful reality that part of her life was ending.

The more we reveal the lies and replace them with the truth, the more we can accept the range of emotions that present themselves around transitions and begin each new stage of our lives on a healthy foundation.

6 comments to The Lies We Live With

  • Anna

    Another great blog, Sheryl. I have felt much of these feelings lately as we move closer to making the decision to start a family. It bugs me so much when I talk to my mother in law about some of the losses I think I will grieve (the old life, the childless life, my identity as a non-parent) and she waves them away and says I won’t care about those things because I will always love/want to be a parent from the moment of conception.

    I highly doubt that – and I’m ok with that!

    On a side note, it’s really neat (and very comforting) to see my husband recognize these losses, too. It makes for some great conversations… and I would have never known it was ok to feel this way if it wasn’t for your work!

    • Thanks, Anna. It’s wonderful that you’re able to trust your own experience and you know that the range of emotions is not only okay, but important! I, too, love hearing about men’s experiences. I’ve been hearing from them more and more lately for some reason; it’s great when they can articulate their own losses. Is your mother-in-law open to learning the truth about what people feel during transitions? Since your husband is on board with recognizing his losses, perhaps he could share that information with her as well…? Although I had to chuckle when I read your mother-in-law’s responses to your losses as it’s so typical of people, especially mothers! We just have just a hard time as a culture accepting the difficult side of these life transitions. It’s like people think that if you “dwell” on them that you won’t move forward with the transition. And obviously your MIL has a lot invested in you moving forward with this one!

      • Anna

        You know, I think the reason why my mother in law thinks this way is two-fold:

        1) she got married at 18 and had her first child at 20, (this was 45 years ago) so the whole getting married later in life and waiting to have kids thing really wasn’t the norm back then. So I don’t think she understands really the loss of a former life because she didn’t experience it the same way that Dave and I did. It was entirely acceptable and expected to dive right into marriage and family at age 18, unlike it is today.

        2) Her youngest is 27 so I think there’s some “selective memory” going on there… lol! It’s like she knows that it must have been difficult at the time to have a newborn, but she doesn’t remember those things. She just remembers all the great things about having a baby…not any of the hard things.

        Dave actually has tried expressing his unease/grief about it all to his parents before (I’m proud of him for that!) but they both seem to think we’re just joking. Like, who could possibly have any negative feelings about having a child? Unheard of! 🙂

  • Natalie

    I agree with Anna… this is a great post! My husband and I both know and discuss on occasion how much our lives will change when we have a child. I’ve told him “I’m scared to death about this” and am not just talking about getting pregnant and being a parent, but also about the timing of it, and the losses that he and I may not have discussed as in depth as some of the other, more “immediate” changes (he’s in between jobs right now). While we haven’t discussed all the losses as in depth, they’ve been discussed. He also watched me go through all my anxiety prior to our wedding and listened to me as I processed what it all meant afterwards, thanks to your book, website, and encouraging words that we are not alone in this process of going through transitions.

    So thank you for being there for me then… helping to explain what was happening at the time… so I can fully understand what may come at this stage in my life. It’s so easy for others to focus on their own life experiences and to wave off fears they didn’t feel or didn’t recognize. It’s nice to know that I can smile, nod, and think to myself “yeah, sure”… and that it’s not wrong. 🙂

    (If this didn’t make sense, I apologize… and blame the medicine I took for allergies today. 🙂 )

  • Leisha Clendenen

    Oh my! I did not enjoy pregnancy at all. I had to voice it from time to time because people don’t even ask, “How are you?” Instead it was, “Don’t you just love being pregnant?”
    Labor was miserable and equal to yours Sheryl in terms of time. Each time a nurse said, “It should be any minute now.” I was thinking that it WOULD be any minute. Instead, my nurse had to take a lunch break in the midst of me pushing because it lasted so long. I didn’t anticipate the recovery being so painful either. My body is different and I resent that. I am still working on “surrendering” and adapting. I am still me and still enjoy the same things. I may not be able to go on a run the minute I want to, or volunteer for all the extras at my work, but I can still do so much with and sometimes without my little one. She has fit into my life perfectly and I can’t wait to take her out of her crib each morning. Life has purpose and meaning like never before and the love is so intense you will never look at anything the same again. People are already asking me when we will have another one and I can’t even think about it. We love our little team and the fact that I still feel like I am recovering while working full time, adapting to life as a wife and a mother, and finding time to revive my own soul, makes me want to wear a sign that says, “I am not thinking about getting pregnant- don’t ask!” Plus, Chloe is still so little. I feel like she needs just me and if I were pregnant, your focus shifts. Hard to explain…..
    I certainly didn’t lie to others about my pregnancy and childbirth experience. But I did get looks of disdain and rebuttals of “well it will all be worth it, I loved being pregnant.” Hmmm, despite their remarks, I would have to agree with the poll.
    Natalie and Anna, I have had all of your fears- write me anytime.

  • Katie

    Thanks for all of your comments, ladies 🙂 I find it refreshing that people are willing to be honest about what their experiences with pregnancy are! Though I don’t have any children yet, I often imagine how much our lives will change once my fiance and I decide to. It is an exciting and terrifying thought all at the same time! Honestly, I imagine my anxiety over having a child will be even greater than what I’m experiencing prior to my wedding! I mean, the whole idea of being responsible for a living, breathing, person who you love more than anyone else?? Awesome, exciting, amazing, but yes, extremely scary! I appreciate all of your honest words about your experiences. What scares me is the idea of somehow losing the closeness of my relationship with my fiance once we have a baby in our lives. That may sound silly, but the thought definitely spikes my anxiety! Can anyone comment on this fear and whether or not you had similar thoughts about being a mother? Thanks again to all of you for sharing your thoughts!! 🙂