Many young girls and newly-wed women fanaticize about the day they’ll finally become pregnant. But it is remarkable how little most of us know about pregnancy before we become mothers ourselves. By communicating more openly about what to expect, women can better help each other prepare for the difficult—and rewarding—task of childbearing. These are the ten most important lessons I learned during my pregnancy that I would like to share with the not-yet-initiated.
1. You can’t do it by yourself.
Pregnancy is probably harder for the independent-minded than for anyone else. If you’re used to doing everything for yourself, it can be hard to accept the amount of help you’ll need dealing with the physical and emotional side-effects of having a baby.
- Surround yourself with a community of women who have already had children who can answer your questions and provide a helping hand.
- Clearly communicate your needs with your husband—he is probably desperate to help, but may not know how.
- Look for a few pregnant friends. Pregnancy loves company and it will make everyone’s life better to have a friend to commiserate with.
2. No one talks about “normal” pregnancy.
As a culture, we’re used to watching medical dramas with last-minute deliveries and reality TV programs about women who didn’t realize they were pregnant. We’ve come to believe that normal pregnancy just isn’t exciting.
- Don’t be surprised when other women want to talk about the strangest or worst parts of their pregnancies—but don’t be frightened, either.
- Your first pregnancy will seem much less “normal” to you than it will to your obstetrician. Don’t expect her to have the same amount of wonder or alarm as you have. In fact, she probably won’t even see you until you’re at least eight weeks along. But don’t let her cavalier attitude stop you from asking as many questions as you’d like.
3. There isn’t much you can do to cause—or prevent—a first-trimester miscarriage.
I’m sure I’m not the only woman who trolled the internet looking for everything I could possibly do to prevent a first-trimester miscarriage. The reality is that up to 25% of pregnancies end in a first-trimester miscarriage—although many of these occur before women even realize they’re pregnant.
- Follow safe pregnancy behaviors like giving up smoking and eating a healthy diet, but don’t drown yourself in worry.
4. Pregnancy is really uncomfortable.
Maybe most women expect pregnancy to be uncomfortable, but I sure didn’t. I was unprepared for my breasts to increase two sizes in four weeks, to be unable to breathe because of my growing uterus, to be exhausted but kept awake by night sweats, or for every joint and muscle to ache. Even the baby’s kicks become painful in the third trimester.
- Slow down. You cannot keep up your normal routine while you’re pregnant.
- Ask for help. Let your husband, parents, siblings, or friends help you pick up the slack.
- Treat yourself to a prenatal massage. Most spas don’t offer massages to women in their first trimester, but second- and third-trimesters massages are one of the most effective ways to reduce pregnancy pain and tension. If money is tight, look for a local massage school with a therapist eager to learn pre-natal massage.
5. It takes a long time to look pregnant.
Most women—especially those who are pregnant for the first time—don’t show at all during the first trimester. You’ll almost certainly ask yourself, “Am I really pregnant?” And when you find yourself vomiting in the grocery store parking lot, you’ll wish people knew there was a good reason behind your sickness.
- Don’t be hasty. Believe it or not, by the end of your pregnancy you will be desperate to return to your normal size.
- Even if people can’t tell you’re pregnant, it’s okay to ask for help. People are usually willing to bend over backwards to help a pregnant woman as soon as they know she needs it. I had a special friendship with the butcher at the local Whole Foods. While I waited in the cosmetics aisle, she would bring heavily-wrapped ground beef to me so I could avoid the smell of the meat counter.
6. Pregnancy is embarrassing.
The embarrassing side effects of pregnancy include gas, constipation, body odor, or hair growth. My husband told me he thought he was stroking his own leg and feeling manly—except it was my leg!
- When something is embarrassing, admit it. You cannot wish away embarrassment, but sometimes owning it can turn a humiliating experience into a funny one.
7. Pregnancy makes you stupid.
Folk wisdom suggests that baby girls steal looks and baby boys steal brains. I don’t know whether that’s true, but fetal Thomas made me forgetful, distracted, and clumsy.
- Even if you’ve got a great memory, you’re going to need to write things down. Be especially sure to record doctors’ appointments and commitments you make to other people.
- Cut yourself some slack. Beginning with the day you conceive, motherhood is one long story of not living up to your idealized expectations. Learn early that you can still be happy even when you aren’t everything you’d like to be.
8. The last few weeks of pregnancy are the worst.
The final weeks of pregnancy will be the longest of your life—especially if you watch that magical due date come and go with no baby to show for it.
- Even though it’s hard to do, keep your due date to yourself. Save yourself the disappointment of a missed due date by changing the way you think. You aren’t due June 26—you’re due toward the end of June. Don’t share your real due date with others, either.
- Don’t count on knowing when labor starts. The “false,” Braxton-Hicks contractions most women get for the second halves of their pregnancies are hard to distinguish from the real thing. I had contractions ten minutes apart almost continually for a month before I went into true labor. Don’t get overzealous and jump into the car at the first contraction, but don’t be embarrassed if you visit the doctor on a false alarm.
9. Few labors go according to plan.
Many women go into the labor and delivery room with a careful birth plan detailing how they would like their deliveries to go. Unfortunately, even birth plans developed with obstetricians are often ignored by other members of their practice, the hospital staff, or by OBs themselves.
- Meet every doctor in your obstetrical practice. Your pregnancy is likely to involve more than a dozen routine check-ups. Schedule one or two with other doctors in your practice. Discuss your concerns and desires with them.
- Because you won’t be rational, delegate someone who cares about you to call the shots. Explain your wishes to her to she can fight with the doctors and hospital staff instead of you—if it’s necessary.
- If you can do it without scaring yourself, read up on a few on the most common labor and deliver complications so you know what’s going on if something goes wrong. Be sure to learn about caesarian delivery—and it’s 2-week-plus recovery time—just in case.
- Don’t let your dreams ruin your reality. Just because your natural birth didn’t work out or you ended up with an emergency C-section doesn’t mean you are a failure. Childbirth is about bringing a baby into the world. Period. Everything else is unnecessary.
10. Your body will never look the same.
I always told myself I looked “fat,” but I never really believed in until after I’d given birth. Now I struggle with my body image. Pregnancy itself permanently reshapes our bodies.
- During pregnancy, try to gain the right amount of weight. The more reasonable your weight gain, the more quickly your body will return to it’s original weight. In my experience at least, it is virtually impossible to tightly control the amount of weight you gain during pregnancy. But it is still important to make healthy choices to keep weight gain reasonable. Swimming and walking not only keep weight gain down, but also make you feel better.
- After pregnancy, learn to accept your new body. Our culture celebrates youth, but that doesn’t mean a woman’s body can’t be beautiful after she has given birth. Ask your husband: Adam is surely not the only man who loves the matronly figure of the woman who brought his child into the world.
- Consider breastfeeding. Most of the structural damage to the breasts of new moms comes from pregnancy itself—not nursing. Because nursing burns up to 500 calories a day (more than pregnancy!), it is not only a healthful choice for your baby, but also a great way to get back to your pre-pregnancy weight.
- Expect to put some work into getting your body healthy again Pregnancy and caring for a small baby really take their toll. After your six-week dismissal from the OB, you’ll probably need exercise or even physical therapy to repair some of the damage done by pregnancy. And ask your doctor about continuing to take prenatal vitamins to replenish lost nutrients.
Pregnancy is hard—no matter what anyone might say to the contrary. But knowing what your in for may make things just a little bit easier.
Like many pregnant women before me, I found solace in Jenny McCarthy’s humorous pregnancy memoir, Belly Laughs: The Naked Truth about Pregnancy and Childbirth. You might also enjoy Modern Mrs. Darcy’s series, Sharing Our (Baby) Stories.