One morning, I woke up feeling weird. There was pain in my lower belly and breasts. I was slightly nauseous, and my balance seemed particularly off. I was exhausted, both physically and mentally. I didn’t feel like myself at all. The sleepiness immediately wore off as one thought crept in: I might actually be pregnant.
That wouldn’t be good news.
At the time, I had finally gotten to the point where I had time to myself to work on establishing my writing career. Having a new baby — a fourth, no less — would disrupt everything. Again.
Later that day, I took a pregnancy test. To my huge relief, it was negative. The problems I was experiencing were not caused by a baby taking residence in my belly. I was simply catching a bad cold, one that wouldn’t leave me for days. The belly pain and the tender breasts were just to fool me.
Many people consider pregnancy to be a natural thing. The phrase “Pregnancy is not a disease” is thrown around frequently. Pregnancy is thought to be just a normal part of a woman's life, especially in the Netherlands where I live. But I've begun to think this view of pregnancy is totally wrong.
Pregnancy has a lot in common with illness. Many women who don't know that they are pregnant actually think they are sick. Pain is one of the first symptoms of disease, and women who are pregnant experience it on a nearly daily basis: tender breasts, heartburn, sciatica and the very special pain when your baby kicks you in the bladder. During birth, of course, pain is pretty much a given.
Gross bodily fluids are another thing pregnancy and diseases share — there's blood, vomiting and mucus. Pregnancy and illnesses also both cause exhaustion and require time to recover.
Maybe the worst thing about the “pregnancy is not an illness” philosophy is the fact that it requires women to live as they did before. But many women are not able to function at the same level they used to before they got pregnant. When I was pregnant with my first, I was doing an internship at an NGO. I really believed that pregnancy would not prevent me from doing whatever I wanted to. The internship was a great experience but, sadly, I was getting premature contractions, and I often had to call in sick.
Often, women really feel sick in pregnancy, but their concerns are met with, “It’s a natural process.”
For many women, pregnancy itself is a state of heightened alarm. There are changes happening in the body, affecting blood flow and hormone levels as well as the alignment of organs trying to re-organize themselves to accommodate the new baby. Yes, women have been getting pregnant forever, but that doesn’t mean pregnancy has always gone well. In fact, many times it goes terribly, terribly wrong.
In fact, in my view, pregnancy offers more opportunities for things to go wrong. Pregnancy is a disaster waiting to happen.
I often watch videos showing how giving birth works. They are usually captioned with, “Women’s bodies are amazing!” To me, birth looks exactly like how I experienced it: an agonizing, painful process where everything can go wrong. Babies need to twist and turn so much in order to get through the mother’s birth canal that it’s a miracle that they get born at all.
When women really feel sick in pregnancy, their concerns are often met with, “It’s a natural process.” Translation: Shut up and don’t be a weakling. That's hard for women like me, who get physically sick while pregnant, to take in. With my second and third pregnancy, I don't remember a time when I was without pain and unreasonable discomfort: morning sickness, heartburn, sciatic pain. It was terrible. I felt sick.
This framing of pregnancy prevents women from getting medication and medical attention they may need, from seeking remedies for their comfort, from asking for help. And besides, it’s just plain annoying.
And it doesn't end after the birth of the child. Pregnancy-related mental illness — postpartum depression — is not a joke. It may be natural in the sense that it's common. One in every 10 mothers has symptoms of PPD. Depression is a disease, it's medical. It's another issue that would not have arisen were it not for pregnancy.
When saying “Pregnancy is not a disease, it’s a natural time in a woman’s life,” we make a distinction between pregnancy and disease. We're saying that, because pregnancy is "natural," it can't possibly be a disease. But guess what? Diseases are natural, too. Pregnancy and birth were natural for me, too, but in the way diseases are natural: Something was taking over my body. Pregnancy made me literally sick (it’s called morning sickness for a reason). It wasn’t merely uncomfortable, as this doctor seems to suggest. It made me want to jump out of my skin. Everything about being pregnant felt so terribly, terribly wrong.
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So let's not disrespect women who develop genuine medical conditions while pregnant, or dismiss their concerns about their own health and that of their babies. Let's not totally ignore their discomfort. This framing of pregnancy prevents women from getting medication and medical attention they may need, from seeking remedies for their comfort, from asking for help. And besides, it’s just plain annoying.
Maybe pregnancy IS exactly like a disease, or at least like a medical condition. I should know: I’ve been pregnant and I’ve been sick, and sometimes it was impossible to tell one from the other.
Olga Mecking is a writer and translator who lives in the Netherlands. Her blog, The European Mama, is all about traveling, parenting, food and living abroad. When not writing or thinking about writing, Olga can be found reading, drinking tea and reading some more.