I’ve recently complained that a certain doctor spent some time convincing me and my partner that (a) I will go bonkers with fear next time I get pregnant, and (b) this fear will be silly. The context was a discussion on potential prenatal testing, following on a pregnancy that resulted in a full-term, stillborn baby girl. Frankly, I was unfazed at the time. Benevolent patronization puts you in a position that’s nearly impossible to maneuver out of, but to my female and fertile self, the reality of being its recipient is almost routine. I plodded on to the concrete questions I had, and was eventually happy with the answers.
But I have difficulty understanding where this notion that pregnant women shouldn’t worry their pretty little heads comes from.
Is it due to the rarity of problems during pregnancy? It can’t be. Plenty of pregnancies end well after the baby is perfectly formed. I knew of three babies who died around birth before it was my daughter’s turn to join their ranks. Doctors know this is common.
Is it because average numbers can predict my fate better than my own history can? Surely my history has relevance to more than just triggering an emotional memory. It can’t be that a doctor wouldn’t take this into account.
It is because stress is so bad for the baby that worrying should be avoided at all costs? Somehow, I doubt it. (Admittedly, I haven’t dug into this literature in a long time, but…) The prenatal stress studies I’ve seen either involved animals repeatedly given higher doses of cortisol than what the body can normally produce when in a full-blown a panic, or humans living through the complex aftermath of natural disasters. I’m not sure there is reason to think that being concerned about a baby in a motherly way is comparable to these.
Is it simply due to the belief that pregnant women can’t connect two gray cells? There is possibly something to this. Disregarding female opinions is standard societal practice, and nothing reminds others of our gender quite as starkly as a baby bump. After all, pregnancy is a time when hormones run rampant. If you don’t believe this, all you have to do is take a look at pregnant women in a hospital waiting room. They’ll wail in despair one moment only to swerve into a fit of hysterical giggles the next. What, no? Hmm.
Is it a fatalistic attitude towards stillbirth? I think this is key. Treating children before they are born is fairly new, while the attitude that nothing can be done is fairly old, and well entrenched. The guiding idea then might be that stillbirth can’t be helped, so it makes no sense to worry because worrying won’t make a difference either way.
Worrying itself might not, but a helpful medical system, one that is concerned together with the woman, might.
I’ve written many lines about my stillborn daughter, Nadia. This one is about my son Luca, the one who came through the pregnancy alive and well back when we lived in The Netherlands. And yet, and yet…
10 weeks old and tilting with the effort to keep his head lifted
At the 20 week scan, his bowels were showing up a bit too clearly on the screen: he had been swallowing blood. It’s from the placenta, they told us, and then – not to worry. All right. No further scans until he’s born.
Around the due date, something didn’t feel right. When I told my midwife that Luca had been moving less and less, she put me on the bed, squished my belly this way and that, and told me that he is simply big. Running out of space. Don’t worry about it! All right. No further worries until he’s born. Promise.
A few days later he came out. The clinical term is intrauterine growth restriction – there had been a problem with the placenta. He was underweight. He had so little body fat that his skin was hanging off his bones. He had low blood sugar, he couldn’t maintain his body temperature, and he couldn’t stay awake to feed enough to thrive.
The midwife gave me a call. She told me that Luca simply has his Dad’s body type – thin arms and legs. Very good. It’s in his genes. Noted. Then she also said they couldn’t really assess his size properly because I’m fat. Well, I guess it’s all right then.
He could have died inside me.
Most babies roll over between four and six months. He was nine and a half. He took his first, single, shaky step, on the very last day of the ‘normal’ range. Then didn’t take another one for several weeks. He was a bit late to talk. I observed him obsessively and I didn’t relax until a fierce intelligence started to shine through around 18 months old. He is fine. But he might not have been.
The next pregnancy seemed fine, until the dating scan showed an embryo that died weeks before. The one after was fine, there was a heartbeat, until there wasn’t anymore. And then came Nadia, all of 4.3 kilos and with a heart that stopped during delivery.
So let’s be clear about one thing: I am going to worry if I get pregnant again.
I am going to worry that nobody will take action if something is wrong. I am going to worry that nobody will listen if I get concerned. I am going to worry that my baby’s life will not be considered important. I am going to worry that I will be brushed off as silly and irrational. I am going to worry that I will be powerless to protect my baby. I am going to worry, and it will not be the hormones. It will be the experience of the general attitude towards pregnancy as something that a woman can happily go through as many times as needed, regardless of the outcome. I will worry every day, and I will not be told not to.