The Struggle to be Perfectly Pregnant

Midway through my first pregnancy, I was at a party where a woman came up to me and gushed, "Oh, aren’t you absolutely thrilled about having a baby?!" The question stopped me cold. I knew the right answer of course, but didn't happen to be feeling "absolutely thrilled" right then. In the course of those nine months I struggled constantly with how I "ought" to be feeling and acting, and lived with a chronic sense of inadequacy and inappropriateness.

Many of us grew up with the traditional image of women as child- and home-centered nurturers. Yet a new image, of the independent, self-sufficient woman has come increasingly to the fore. With each image comes its own expectation of what it means to be pregnant. In the traditional image, as found in ads for maternity products, the beautiful pregnant woman sits in a rocker in a lacy pastel gown, gazing out the window with an expression of serene expectancy, her whole being focused on the great event-to-be. In the modern image, she works with undiminished efficiency at her job, then goes home to paint the nursery before her evening meeting. The pregnancy is like a cold.

Neither woman acknowledges any physical discomfort--they both have their minds on more important things. How do we mere mortals come to terms with exhaustion, nausea, back-ache, heartburn, constipation and hemorrhoids? Anything less than ignoring them completely appears as failure in either camp.

Within the growing "natural childbirth" movement, there is space to pay attention to physical discomfort. Yet this approach comes with traps of its own. The more I know about all the things I should be doing--or not doing--to keep myself and the baby in the best possible shape, the more opportunities I have to fail. And if I conscientiously follow through will all the proper reading, exercise, breathing, massage, diet, classes, etc., I won't have much time left either to sit in my rocker or to go to work.

So how do I respond to all these conflicting expectations? I spend a lot of time feeling guilty. I feel guilty about not taking good enough care of myself, being self-indulgent, not feeling thrilled enough, not knitting enough booties, not working till the last day. Wherever I turn, there's something to feel guilty about. I am awed by the hold that these expectations have on me. I wonder how other women have come to terms with them and what pregnancy would be like without them. I feel a little cheated, and intensely curious.

I think we would be hungry for information, fascinated with everything that was going on, and awed at the reality of creating new life; we would also surely find it a drag at times. So it would make sense to pay plenty of attention to the pregnancy. But I can't imagine that it would be all-consuming. Although you start changing in significant ways from the moment of conception, you still maintain a separate personhood of your own that needs to be nurtured.

Knowing the pitfalls and dangers better, I imagine entering into another pregnancy: boldly ready to do battle with each "ought" as it rears its ugly head--laughing at their absurdity, crying out the hurt of how they’ve limited me, shaking them off, and emerging victorious, free to experience all the joys and pain of pregnancy just for what they are.