Content note: discussion of hospital, medical issues, baby illness
Today is the first anniversary of baby’s heart surgery.
It’s a very weird sentence to type. It’s probably a revelation to a lot of people reading this – even the ones who know me offline. I ran into someone just over the weekend, where I was MCing a pole competition, who had no idea that the reason I’d missed the same show a year ago was that we were all flown, with about 48 hours’ notice, to Auckland for our eight-week-old baby to have open heart surgery.
The technical term is ventricular septal defect. A hole in the heart. Big, but not so big they had to fix it immediately; we were sent home, under close observation by the absolutely goddamn phenomenal people at the Wellington Hospital NICU, with instructions to get some weight on that baby. If we could get her to five kilos, before any of the side effects of a heart pumping blood in the wrong direction became too serious, it would make things much, much easier for everyone involved. But outside those two metrics – one simple vital statistic and one terrifyingly vague, “her breathing will get steadily worse, get in the car and call us if she turns blue” fail condition – there was no timeline. No certainty.
It was the longest eight weeks of our life. And then one day we finally got the tick to take her down to the operating theatre, and hand her over to the anaethetists, and I sobbed my heart out for a good half hour. You can have all the reassurance in the world that it’s a very common defect, a regular procedure, an incredibly safe operation, but your child is in a room far away being put on bypass. For a few hours, her little heart isn’t going to beat, while someone tries to fix it.
And now, it’s a year later.
If that felt like a swerve … it’s a swerve.
I’ll have a lot more to write later – especially once I find where I kept my darn notes, because unsurprisingly, those two or three weeks are a bit of a blur – but for today I’m holding on to the happy ever after we got. She’s so happy and bouncy and independent and strong that no one who doesn’t know can even believe what she went through, when she was so small. And so many other things happened that year – her birth! My gall bladder surgery! Multiple job changes! Buying a new house! – that I frequently forget to even include it on the list. You get some funny looks when you’re talking about this beautiful healthy almost irritatingly energetic child and the phrase “after the surgery” just casually drops out of your mouth.
It’s not that I feel nothing – I’ve had a good long cry this evening (the day before), snuggling her to sleep, vividly remembering so many terrifying, anxious moments, how difficult it was to hold everything together, how much we can never repay the many friends and whānau who were so completely generous with their time and resources and homes.
But it’s nice to start with the happy ever after sometimes.
There’s been a lot of discussion online around the US formula shortage, and the petty, kneejerk, unthinking, callous response from many to “just” breastfeed. “What did we do before you pampered ingrates had (expensive, complicated, emotionally fraught) formula???” some sneered.
“Well, a lot of babies just died” was the understandably angry response.
Breastfeeding just isn’t that simple. Many parents don’t produce enough milk, or any milk, or their babies can’t take milk, or – especially in the US which has no mandated parental leave – breastfeeding simply isn’t feasible when you have to go straight back to work. And pumps are expensive and noisy and frankly become a hazard once baby is walking and grabbing and fascinated by anything that makes a noise.
But I’m not here to talk about formula today, as baffling and angry-making as it is that a country like the USA can even experience such a thing as a formula shortage (many have already made the “joke” that it’s weird how, once again, capitalism delivers all the bad things it warns us socialism would do).
I think I’m done with breastfeeding. And that word “think” is the first hard part of it. Some babies just wean themselves – one mama in our antenatal class had her baby flat-out stop at around eight months. Not mine; she would still be on the boob if she could, it’s just that when she does, there’s too much biting. I talked to a lactation consultant we know, who’s been really helpful in the past; she had advice for fixing baby’s latch. It might have worked, if going back to the office didn’t mean going down to barely two feeds a day – little opportunity and no patience for detaching her, letting her scream, getting her to open her mouth wide, tensing to see if I get bitten, lather rinse repeat.
I had some equanimity about it at first, because obviously, the key thing is that baby is fed – and she’s taken marvellously to solids – and of course, I could just keep pumping, and make sure that she got at least one bottle of my milk at the end of the day to send her off to sleep. Unfortunately, pumping has lost its effectiveness. One bottle a day became one every two days, stretching the “keep milk in the fridge for 48 hours” to its absolute limit (and if I’m honest, beyond) as I tried to scrap together enough 15 and 20 and 30mL sessions to make up a proper feed.
But as of today (when I’m writing this), it feels like the battle is lost. There’s no satisfaction in sitting and grinding out a meagre splash (other people who’ve pumped will know that “grinding” is exactly the right word), trying and forgetting and then regretting all the tactics that might work if you really kept them up for a few days, but just seem like too much work on top of everything else you’re doing. Add to that the aforementioned baby walking and grabbing and fascination with the loud machine that mama spends so much time with – it’s too much. It’s too difficult to go on.
There’s a bottle of milk in the fridge. And it will probably be baby’s last. And from then on it’s solids and formula – so we come full circle. She’s had formula on top of breast milk practically since day one, and I hated it, even though it was necessary, even though it’s perfectly good food for a baby. The message that breast is best is important – but on some level it also tells you that formula is failure. Not just “less good”, but “actively bad”. Even when you don’t have another choice. And it’s not. The problems with formula aren’t formula. They’re capitalism. But that’s a discussion for another day.
The World Health Organisation recommends breastfeeding until age 2. And I won’t make it. And it’s so difficult not to feel like I’ve failed, even though we’ve gone well past her first year, even though she’s completely happy and healthy and bouncy and bright. Once again, I’ve done parenting Wrong, and as much as I can tell myself that these feelings are inaccurate and disingenuous and irrational, it doesn’t stop me feeling them. Not for a little while anyway. As with all the anxieties and pressures we’ve already been through, I know it will pass. It “just” sucks right now.
It is a very “newspaper columnist who’s running out of proper ideas” understatement, but: you learn a hell of a lot in the first year of a baby’s life. At least, I did. Some of it was stuff I already thought I knew!
Obviously, I can only speak to my own experience, but it’s difficult not to use the standard parenting-blog “YOU will think this”, “YOU find that” language – which is something I’ve tried to avoid in my posts so far. But today I’m giving in, especially because this one goes out to all the new parents, or expectant parents, who haven’t been through and come out the other side yet.
Hearing these things would have been comforting to me at the time. I hope they’re comforting for you. I know I’m not the only person saying them; but quantity also helps, because if we’re all saying this is how things are, we must be on to something. The fears and worries that come with being a new parent are completely normal. It still sucks to experience them. It helps to know that other people feel the exact same way.
1. A lot of the anxiety is unfamiliarity, and it will pass.
When it’s your first baby and you’re living in a typical “nuclear family” household – i.e. you’re not already sharing child-raising duties with other parents in a big communal multi-generational home, which is a huge failure of modern capitalist society – so much is completely new. You might have changed a nappy or two – in my case, probably twenty years ago because I’m an only child and all of my cousins are grown up – but there’s a difference when it’s changing every nappy. And doing the associated laundry.
You might have seen a baby napping in their capsule, or been at a friend’s house while their bub was asleep in another room, but it’s completely terrifying when it’s your baby, it’s the middle of the night, and you genuinely don’t know how quietly they breathe because you’ve never shared a bedroom with a newborn. I was checking baby’s breathing so often in those first weeks. When she and I were sleeping in the lounge (it was part of the system J and I figured out so we both got at least one decent chunk of sleep) and settling after her 3am or 4am feed, I would lie on the sofa, holding my own breath, eyes straining open, counting the seconds until I heard a little snuffle from the bassinet.
I still get up to check she’s breathing, some times – but the terror is gone and the anxiety has faded significantly, because we’ve been through so many nights together now.
I don’t demonise anxiety – it’s our brains’ way of trying to manage difficult and unfamiliar situations. On the other hand, it’s also good to be aware of when that anxiety is getting too strong, and having ways of reining it in. One thing I did a few times was allow myself ONE check – not five or ten or fifteen. Counting those seconds when we were going to sleep in the lounge was another – it meant I wasn’t getting up every five seconds to check her, and I knew how long it had been since I’d last heard her little puffs of breath.
2. Men can parent. Duh.
This one is obviously coming from my perspective as the woman in a hetero relationship. Even before baby arrived we had a lot of conversations, some funny, some very aggravated, about the way people talking about fatherhood. The classic is asking a dad, looking after his own children, “are you babysitting today?” because obviously it’s not really his job.
Since we’ve swapped roles – I went back to office work in November and J is now the anchor parent at home – it’s even clearer that the only fundamental difference between us is that I make my own milk. And if I weren’t still breastfeeding, or hadn’t been able to continue breastfeeding, even that difference wouldn’t exist. J changes more of the nappies. He takes care of the laundry. He has a much clearer grasp of baby’s daily routine, even when I’m working from home under different levels of COVID restrictions.
He’s not heroic for doing any of this. He’s a dad.
One thing I remember from our antenatal classes was a bit of advice: “Just because the other parent is doing things differently, doesn’t mean they’re wrong.” And I’ll admit that took a lot of work – especially because I’m an anxious person, and because as feminist as I am it’s really, really difficult to push past the constant messages we receive that men are useless, especially with small babies. Obviously they get to be cool and fun and engaged when the kids are older and don’t need food spooned into their mouths or their butts wiped, but young babies? The province of mothers. (Even my favourite author, Terry Pratchett, has a bit of that going on in the later Vimes books.)
But you can work through it. And you both need to be on board for those early weeks, because they are bloody tough – but it’s much, much easier to say that from the other side of it.
3. The baby will eat stuff off the floor.
Yes, babies need things to be pretty clean, especially in the early days. Sterilising bottles and other equipment is really important.
But they will eventually eat something off the floor and you won’t be sure what it is and they have definitely swallowed it by the time you get a finger into their mouth to check. And hang on, did you wash that finger?
If it’s poisonous or genuinely hazardous, don’t read this blog – get medical advice asap! But if it’s a scrap of paper, or a dried-up bit of grated cheese dropped during last night’s dinner, or a plastic straw they want to chew on for a minute … it’s fine. It’s probably good for the immune system. I’m not a doctor. I’m just a very tired mama who thinks raising an entire small human is a very big job and doesn’t need to be made even more difficult by trying to meet Home & Garden magazine levels of tidiness and vaccuuming.
The baby will also bump her head, a lot, and I promise you, you will figure out when it’s actually serious enough to warrant a rush to the hospital and when it’s only a whoopsie. See point 1. And also point 4.
4. Babies are pretty resilient.
You won’t do everything perfectly and there will be screw-ups and you will feel like the worst person in the world every time you wait too long to change a nappy, or the baby bumps her head because you stopped paying attention for a second, or she’s gotten overtired and won’t settle and literally nothing you can do will stop her crying, and oh my god, colic. Baby might scream and scream for hours, every evening, for no diagnosable or fixable reason, and you’ll already be completely exhausted, and it is impossible not to think that she’s going to be traumatized for life and it’s your fault.
Babies get through.
When we were in hospital, preparing for her heart surgery, the surgeon and anaesthetist came and talked us through the risks – risks we had no choice about taking because, let’s be real, her heart wasn’t working properly and needed to be fixed. But they reassured us that babies are pretty elastic and can recover from a lot.
And that was heart surgery. Colic has nothing on heart surgery: it’s mostly an endurance test. Again, I know: it’s so very easy to say that with hindsight. That’s where point 5 comes in.
5. You are pretty resilient.
There were plenty of times J and I both thought we wouldn’t survive parenting. Or that our relationship wouldn’t survive parenting. We’ve both said some pretty dark, hopeless things to each other and we desperately needed – and thankfully, were able to access – outside support to get through.
We got through.
And yes, that is much simpler to say with a good night’s sleep and a happy, squawking baby scrambling around your feet. When the colic is a fading nightmare and even the surgery feels like a blip quickly disappearing off the radar instead of the longest eight weeks of our lives. But it’s important to know it, and hear it, precisely because it can really, really feel like you’re alone. You’re not. Millions of people have done this, just like you.
Give yourself time and patience and a bit of leeway. You’re doing the best you can and it is more than good enough.
I had a COVID test this week – after being notified via the tracing app that I was a close contact last week. I’ve been self-isolating, monitoring for symptoms, and trying very hard not to freak the heck out about the worst-case scenario. I’m double-vaccinated, I wear KN95 masks whenever I go out (baby pink with ear loops which my mother bought me because I am that millennial), I scan in everywhere and obviously the Bluetooth is working. I even got my booster shot the very day I was notified about the close contact.
So the odds were pretty strongly in my favour. Not that that did anything to reduce the anxiety, especially when it comes to having a small baby with a history of pulmonary issues due to her heart condition!
The queue at the testing centre in Porirua was long. It opened at 9am; I arrived at 8:20 and the line of cars was already around the block; I was out with a sore sinus and very watery eyes at noon. That’s a heck of a long time to be sitting in the car with nowhere to go, and I definitely felt the glute cramp when I got home. But I had water, snacks, a full phone battery, podcasts and knitting.
(And between starting this draft and posting the finished product, I got a negative test result! Yay!)
More importantly, I had someone at home who was watching the baby.
There were a lot of people with kids in their cars, waiting in that queue. Some probably had to get their kids tested, which is a whole other nightmare I never want to have to face. But I’m sure many more just didn’t have a choice. There wasn’t any other option – no one to watch the kids, no one who could take sick leave, stay home from their paid job, spare a completely uncertain amount of time while the driver went and sat in that queue. Nobody available at short notice, or nobody who could take the risk of looking after kids who might themselves be household contacts of a soon-to-be-diagnosed COVID case.
It seems like the smallest amount of support imaginable – just having another adult around, parent, grandparent, uncle or aunt or older sibling or neighbour, to watch the kids for a couple of hours – and yet a lot of parents don’t even have that. Don’t have the financial means or flexibility to manage sudden upheavals in the usual routine. And the consequence of that is spending three-plus hours with that kid in the car, getting increasingly and very understandably hungry, tired and cranky.
The pandemic has really laid bare a lot of problems in our communities. Things that weren’t quite at breaking point but snapped once they encountered all the pressure of anxiety, illness, insufficient infrastructure and inadequate support systems at once. For the rest of us it can highlight the small privileges we don’t even think about on a daily basis.
I was very grumpy and tired and sore when I got home from my COVID test. But there was a whole huge chunk of care and anxiety that I didn’t have to deal with. The question is, how do we make sure no one has to?
It’s been a month since my last post, which was definitely not planned, but also probably inevitable. There’s only so many hours in the day, and there seem to be even fewer when you’ve got a little one getting increasingly mobile and able to insist on imposing her will on her poor, hapless parents.
It feels like every year since 2016 (you remember. Him.) we’ve all been telling ourselves things can’t possibly get weirder, or scarier. And that was before the pandemic. And now in New Zealand we’re starting to see Omicron variant cases on the rise (and rise and rise), and there are some very scary people camped out on the front lawn of our Parliament threatening to try and execute (because the trials they have in mind aren’t exactly fair) politicians, journalists, and healthcare workers over the vaccine mandates which have been keeping a lot of us safe.
I can’t remember the last time climate change was the major story of the day. That’s just another ever-present cloud hovering slightly out of sight, swinging back into view every now and then to check you haven’t started to feel hopeful about anything.
In the midst of all that it feels bizarre to be a parent. To have a beautiful, strong little person growing up before my eyes. Someone with literally her entire life ahead of her. A life which I hope – which I just assume – is going to involve a lot of pretty normal things: going to school, learning to swim and ride a bike and knit a wobbly scarf. Even though we live in disastrous times. What else can you hope for? If the future were truly completely hopeless, why would you have a child at all?
I could say that having a baby has opened my eyes and expanded my thinking and really made me care about the kind of world she gets to live in. It didn’t, really. I already cared about these things a hell of a lot, and the inaction of decision-makers on issues like climate, poverty and violence already made me really angry. Besides, I also hated it when people pulled that “well, as a parent of course I understand …” line before I had a child, and I don’t want to become one of them now.
It is different. Now, instead of wanting to somehow save the world for all kids, I have a very specific one in mind. What might have been an abstract idea has become much more concrete. When I see things like our Parliament passing a ban on conversion practices, I’m not just thinking of random queer kids being tortured for who they are, often by their own parents, I’m thinking about my baby, and how unimaginable it is that I could ever reject her for being different, for being herself, for loving who she wants to love.
But it’s not like having a baby made me realise that children are precious and important (or, and this bit is specifically for the men, I didn’t need to have a daughter to realise women are human beings, you get it?). I knew. Now, though, there’s a face on all those issues.
And I feel guilty for it. Guilty and responsible, in that classic progressive activist way of wanting the world to be better but being unable to fix it with a snap of your fingers but also feeling like you should be able to. Why didn’t I end patriarchy, erase every relic of our colonial past and save the planet before I had children? What was I thinking, bringing her into this chaotic nightmare which only seems to be getting worse every second?
Well, for a start because that’s a bit of an unrealistic bar to meet. On a more pragmatic basis, people will tell you that there’s no perfect time to have kids: not financially, career-wise, emotionally, psychologically. There’s different advantages and challenges no matter when you do it. That applies to the big picture political stuff too. You can’t wait for the world to be perfect to have kids. If you want them – and god knows I wanted it so badly it was ruining my brain – you make it work, and you fight every day in whatever way you can to make the world the place they deserve. And when she grows up, she’ll fight too.
Last week, baby had a fall from the sofa, onto the carpet, onto her head. There had been a couple before – onto her butt, which is very well padded – and the sofa isn’t high, but this was terrifying. She paused for a moment, she cried loudly, she was comforted quickly. So far, so good (except for the fall). Just one of those moments you freak out about at the time but really, just something that happens to every baby, right?
Except you do have to take every blow to the head seriously. Even if every bit of literature says it’s probably nothing serious, they all conclude but get it checked anyway. That’s nice and straightforward. So I called Plunketline and waited, and waited, and was presented with my first dilemma: did I keep waiting, or hit the number 3, which was tantalisingly presented as offering a quicker response from a Healthline nurse who could do triage. I mean, the baby’s condition wasn’t “hang up immediately and dial 111” serious, obviously, but was she “take up a triage nurse’s valuable time” serious? Or only “wait your turn” serious?
I pressed the number 3 and felt terrible about it. The lovely nurse – I have only ever had positive experiences of Healthline and the Plunket line, even though almost every call has been more about my own anxiety than a genuine medical issue, and I think they understand and empathise with that – went through the checklist. No vomiting, no unconsciousness, no floppiness, acting like her normal self. Probably fine, just like I thought, just like the literature said, but then again, at the end: but get her checked face-to-face by a doctor.
I hung up, and did a huge melodramatic sigh, and thought, “Really???”
It’s a situation that feels like a dilemma because you know that in 95% of cases the doctor will find nothing wrong and you will have, in some sense, “wasted” their time. But the 5% of cases where things are more serious justify every single one of those 95. On the other hand, you have so many cultural narratives about parents – usually, specifically, mothers – being too sensitive, too concerned, too worried, not “letting kids be kids and take a few bumps”. You really, really don’t want to play into that, or worse, have other people think you’re playing into it.
I was determined to do the right thing, with “better safe than sorry” going around and around in my head. But boy, did the baby pick the very best day to test me on this, because there was a massive pile-up on the motorway, the local medical centre had literally no doctors available because the roads were closed, the local community hospital had an estimated 1.5 hour wait and because there was clearly nothing wrong with the baby we were bottom of the queue, and we ended up going all the way back into town to our GP who happened to have a free slot.
So add worrying about being stuck in traffic forever – I had no idea if the gorge was still closed or how long the gridlock would take to disperse – with, now, exposing the baby to multiple places sick people go to the pile of evidence that I am the world’s worst mother. I mean, I obviously let her fall off the sofa in the first place!
The brain can only handle so many things to stress out about simultaneously.
She’s fine. She checked out. But there was one more hurdle to clear: just on the offchance everyone had somehow missed signs of a concussion, we – I – had to wake the baby in the middle of her sleep cycle, in the middle of the night, just to check she would rouse normally.
No parent ever wants to hear the phrase “check she can rouse normally in the middle of her sleep cycle”, am I right?
It felt like a kind of penance, setting an alarm for 2am (and knowing always that I’m already lucky having a baby who sleeps pretty solidly) and shaking her awake, hearing her startled, indignant crying begin, realising she now needs a feed and a change and all my hopes of just gently easing her back to sleep were shattered.
But why the hell did I have to do penance?
Explaining these thought processes feels like trying to teach someone a recipe in a language neither of you speak. It makes no sense. Babies have falls, and helplines are there to take your call, and doctors are there to check them over, and waking them up is a good thing. Nobody did anything wrong in this situation. Yet the starting assumption of my brain was: yes you did, at every conceivable stage of this process. And not just this process; everything. You are at all times and in every way a Wrong Mama.
It’s an exhausting way to live. And it’s dangerous, because when all that anxiety gets on top of you, the instinct is to not ask for help. You feel like you’re being silly or paranoid or overthinking things. You’ll just look like a fool if you go to all that bother for nothing.
And maybe you are, and maybe you will. But you’re allowed to ask for help anyway.
If you’re pregnant/hapū or breastfeeding, one of the best things you can do to keep your baby safe from COVID 19 is get vaccinated. The antibodies your immune system makes get passed to baby through your placenta and breastmilk, and give them protection while they’re too little to be vaccinated themselves.
Babies can get COVID. And it can get really serious. But there’s been a lot of disinformation spread around about the vaccine, and especially how it (DOES NOT) impact pregnancy, miscarriage, and fertility.
On the miscarriage side of things, and to get to the point of this post: I am so, incredibly, angry at Dr Simon Thornley.
Thornley, who is somehow still a senior lecturer in Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the University of Auckland, has been a critic of New Zealand’s response to the COVID pandemic and a member of Plan B, the weirdo lobby group who declared (I’m not linking to their website) “New Zealand’s attempt in 2020-21 to eliminate Sars-Cov2 was unnecessary, and would cause more health, social and economic harm than the virus itself.”
If anyone needs me I’ll be over here looking at NZ having some of the strongest economic stats in the world AND not thousands of people dead.
After been proven wrong on every point for a year and a half, Thornley (and others) decided to stage a defence of their position by “reanalysing” a study published by the US CDC on the safety of mRNA vaccines in pregnancy.
Stuff have an excellent piece outlining all the different ways in which this “reanalysis” is complete bunkum. This is the big one:
Many of its promoters focused on one specific aspect. The paper recalculated the reported miscarriage rate to only include people who were pregnant in their first or second trimester when they were vaccinated. Doing so increased the miscarriage rate to between 82 and 91 per cent, a shockingly high figure.
Doing so, however, makes no mathematical sense. Because the study lasted three months, the only way for a person to complete pregnancy in that timeframe is to have a miscarriage (unless they were late in their second trimester).
This is like studying the safety of the vaccine in Formula 1 drivers and coming to the conclusion it’s dangerous because, of the drivers who finished the race after only 20 laps, 91% had a crash.
No shit. The race wasn’t finished yet. There aren’t many other ways to retire in the first 20 laps!
In very weaselly style, the authors of the paper claim they only did this math to prove that the CDC study was insufficient. Except you don’t need to do the math to explain that – you just say “the study was only three months long so we don’t have full data on all the pregnancies recorded.” And Thornley has gone on to say things like “vaccination early in pregnancy “indicates a substantially increased risk from background””. The paper itself recommends withdrawing the vaccine not just from pregnant people, but also children and people of “child bearing age”.
(I have a whole other post or two in me about the sexist smugness of people who want to treat everyone with a uterus between the ages of 16 and 50 as though we’re automatically pregnant at all times. Another day!)
This whole situation made me deeply angry. Miscarriage is an incredibly traumatic experience. When it occurs there’s a huge question hanging in the air: what did I do wrong? There is so much pressure and anxiety on pregnant people to make the right medical choices for themselves and their baby, so much risk and so many unknowns, and as I wrote in my last post, it’s impossible not to hold yourself responsible if something goes wrong.
And Simon Thornley et al, in a desperate, cynical attempt to scrape back a bit of credibility, seem to have deliberately exploited that anxiety by essentially telling all those people who had miscarriages after getting the COVID vaccine: it was your fault. You made the wrong choice. You harmed your baby. And by telling everyone who is pregnant and has had the vaccine: your baby’s going to die and it’s your fault.
That is simply unforgiveable to me.
(It’s been suggested that of course we cannot know for certain if Simon Thornley did all this on purpose. The alternative is that he’s completely incompetent, so it’s still baffling he can hold a senior academic position.)
I thought my rage was subsiding a bit over the past day, and then yesterday afternoon I was driving home listening to Checkpoint’s story on the new community cases in Rotorua. And I heard a young woman say she was going to get the vaccine – after her baby is born. Why? “I’ve just heard too much things, ay.”
“Things” like a senior lecturer in epidemiology insisting that pregnant people (in fact, anyone “of child-bearing age”) shouldn’t be allowed to get the vaccine because it increases the risk of miscarriage, maybe?
This isn’t some high-minded, good-faith academic debate. This is people – scientists – manipulating data to create fear and anxiety and to dissuade people from getting vaccinated. Which, again, is the single best thing you can do to protect your baby in pregnancy or infancy. This kind of disinformation directly contributes to low vaccination rates and they’re using the credibility of their doctorates and institutions to do it.
These unscientific thought experiments are having serious, real-world impacts, affecting pregnant people and their babies and making it even more difficult to persuade hesitant people. I don’t know what to say except how appalling it all is.
And it was exciting, and terrifying, at the same time. It also didn’t feel quite real – or maybe it’s more accurate to say, I didn’t let it feel real.
As I wrote in that previous post, every bit of good news just kicks off the next cycle of anxiety. A positive pregnancy test is only one step in confirming you’ve got a bona fide healthy pregnancy on board, and the moments of greatest excitement are also the moments of greatest risk.
I think I managed to not cry, not shed a single happy or upset tear, until the seven-week scan.
It’s the big cut-off point for IVF patients. Either everything is looking good, and they happily send you off to go find a midwife and carry on like any normal pregnancy, or, well, it’s not and you have to decide whether to go through it all, all over again.
I hadn’t had any bleeding (good sign?) or cramps (neutral sign?) and maybe just a little low-level nausea in the evening (good sign?), which naturally I turned into another thing to worry about because my mother had horrific morning sickness with me so maybe not puking my guts out was a bad sign??? But I managed to lock everything down into an itty-bitty box and refused to look at it.
Bottling everything up is not typically a great long-term strategy for mental health, but (personal reckons, and I am not a psychiatrist!) I figured in the very short term it was better than having a full-blown meltdown.
And then, there it was. A weird little flicker in the middle of a weird little bean-shape sitting smack in the middle of my uterus, on a big screen for all three of us (me, J and our lovely fertility doctor) to see.
I will happily admit I cried. That little flicker made it real.
(And it also made me angry because of that whole “heartbeat” meme that anti-choice monsters use to deny pregnant people the right to choose, and I didn’t want to feel angry and political in that moment. Though it is on brand. But that’s all a rant for another time.)
Although I had done my best not to get my hopes up, in case they were dashed, I had started talking to the baby. Trying to build a sense of connection to something not even a centimeter big. Hoping in a vague and ridiculous way that it would create a positive environment, a good vibe, some more luck. But it wasn’t as real as it became when I saw her on that screen, thumping away, oblivious to literally everything.
We all react differently. J started planning things. I bought one of those week-by-week antenatal books. This was pretty typical for both of us.
And it was all fine for a couple of days. Then I had a bit of a crash.
This is really where the title of this blog comes from, because the note I wrote on 3 September, four days after the scan, was entitled “Everything you do is probably wrong”. It was my first, proper, massive panic attack of the pregnancy.
If you’re like me, you start off thinking you’ll be sensible about it all. Just follow the normal guidance. Definitely don’t believe everything you read on the internet! Check the advice about food and exercise and sleeping and symptoms to watch out for.
And then, somehow, it all spirals into a freakout because what if the pet guinea pigs have contracted a rare virus from a mouse so now you can’t be in the room while their bedding is being changed and maybe washing your hands for the third time in 10 minutes will help??? on top of the ten other things you Googled today.
I could tell it was bothering J. Suddenly I was stopping meals halfway through to check if I was allowed to eat them. I was transformed from the stroppy feminist who’d happily rant about diet culture and food policing and the way patriarchy constrains pregnant people by creating an environment of fear and blame, into a nervous woman whose favourite phrase was “no, I can’t eat that.”
But it was really difficult to break out of it because it made total sense.
The fact was, at that point, if anything went wrong – if we lost our pregnancy – no one would ever be able to convince me it wasn’t my fault.
When our first embryo didn’t take, it was actually kind of easy to shrug and say, well, fertility science is basically witchcraft, they have no idea why it does or doesn’t work a lot of the time, it’s a coin toss roll of the dice cross your fingers kind of game. And it was even easier than that knowing we had an embryo on standby in the freezer, so we didn’t have to consider re-starting the whole bloody process.
But now – then, after the seven week scan – the baby was there. She had a heartbeat (see previous note about awful anti-abortion losers). And the only person who could screw things up was me. The doctors had done their job. J had performed his part. My body became the weakest link, and I just didn’t have a lot of faith that my body was up to the job.
The trick I always (try to) use with anxiety is: find the thing you can control. For me, it was finding a midwife. At the same time I felt like everything was exploding around me, I was scanning online profiles for a lead maternity carer, hoping I’d find the perfect person who would make it all smooth sailing again. Someone – a third party, not my partner or my mum or my best friends, who are obviously all biased and therefore liars – who could reassure me that every pregnant person goes through this stuff and comes out fine on the other side.
The baby had an unusual 3am wake-up last night – and I know I’m very lucky that that’s unusual for her, but it doesn’t make the shattered sleep patterns any easier to deal with – and ended up lying back in bed, around 4am (after feed and burp and change and pump) with my two favourite people on either side of me making their usual snuffly and/or snorey noises, reflecting on a mantra that got me through those earliest weeks at home when it felt like I’d never sleep again.
It’s enough to just lie here, in the quiet and the dark.
We spent the first week of baby’s life in hospital, and I was absolutely sleep deprived – she was on a three-hourly feeding-and-top-up cycle for jaundice and I was trying to learn to latch her and still knocked flat by the C-section and in a strange room with strange noises and lights and midwives appearing what felt like every five minutes to take my blood pressure. In a way, there was just so much going on that I didn’t notice how tired I was. I’d gone through “tired” and out the other side. But you can’t keep that up for long.
The second week, once we were home and lost the massive omnipresent support network the hospital offers, that was when things, specifically my and J’s brains, started to break.
There is a piece of advice that gets passed around pregnant people: sleep when the baby sleeps (and its corollary, clean the house when the baby cleans the house). It’s a lovely theory, and on the few occasions I’ve managed to do it, it’s incredibly healing. I think that’s why I’ve shared it myself – it does help, when it works.
But the fact is, some chores still need to be done, if you want to have a bottle to feed the baby with (or a mug for your own precious twilight cuppa) or cloths to wipe her butt. Sleep gets pushed down the priority list pretty easily, and when you finally get to it, on a timer that could go off any minute, it feels impossible. As though you’ll never sleep again and the only possible outcome is putting your brain in a robot body.
Like a lot of obligations, it creates a cycle of anxiety. You know you need to sleep in order to function and if you don’t sleep you’ll feel worse so you need to sleep and all the time you’re spending worrying about not sleeping is time you are not spending sleeping which you know you need in order to function … etc etc etc.
On top of that, you’ve just gone through a huge series of changes. Again, you don’t notice so much in hospital because there’s so much else going on. But back home, in your own bed, without the distractions of beeping machines and doors opening and closing in the corridor outside, you try to revert to old patterns. Except those were the patterns you had when you were pregnant. You’re not pregnant any more and you’ve barely had the opportunity to realise that. You don’t need to do those pre-sleep Kegels any more – or at least, not for the same reason. Which might mean – it did for me – having a little cry because you missed out on the birth experience you were hoping for. And then you wonder if your knees were always this hard, before those months spent wedging a pillow between them to alleviate your hip pain. And hang on, which side do you even like to sleep on when there isn’t stabby sciatic pain making that decision for you?
Finally, it’s the wee hours of the morning, it’s dark and you’re alone and all the worst thoughts your brain can conceive of start bubbling to the surface. It becomes very easy to believe that you can’t do this, and there’s no one around to contradict and affirm you. I mean, you can’t even get to sleep in your allotted sleep hour, how can you possibly raise a baby?
And that’s where the mantra comes in.
It’s enough to just lie here, in the quiet and the dark.
It’s not sleep, but it’s still rest. It’s a moment of stillness. It’s not getting any of the “real” things on your list ticked off, but it’s what you need to get them done tomorrow. And when those intrusive awful thoughts came crowding in, for me, it was something concrete and simple to focus all my attention on. Sometimes, that would be enough to get me off to sleep. And if it didn’t – if the baby had a nappy explosion or an offensively loud truck drove past the house or next door were having a party (on a TUESDAY? You MONSTERS) – it was the best thing I could do, in that moment. That was the job, even if it was “just” lying in bed staring at the ceiling.
It didn’t make everything magically perfect and easy, but I am absolutely certain it would’ve been a lot worse if I’d let the anxiety goblins feast on my delicious brains instead.
There were mantras for other times, too. Maybe I’ll write about them next time.
So I’ve already written a lot about the IVF process we went through to get pregnant. The next obvious step is to talk about pregnancy. And that’s a topic that could (and will) fill a lot of blog posts. So I’m going to try to break it down in as logical a way as possible – and probably occasionally swerve back into the present day when there’s something I want to rant about (yesterday it was “people pushing kids’ faces into birthday cakes” because WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU).
Except it’s not a logical process, from the very beginning. The way pregnancy gets portrayed, in books and movies and TV and even in the pre-natal books you read for homework, it just happens (no IVF!) and then you get the test to find out (not multiple tests and scans and weeks of anxiety to confirm!) and then you (the joyful-despite-being-ridden-with-morning-sickness mother) break the news joyfully to the totally-oblivious dad, possibly involving some elaborate surprise like hiding the stick you just peed on in a can of his beer, and suddenly everyone knows and also in the very next scene the baby has arrived.
While we were trying, the scary algorithms that control YouTube marketing kept showing me an ad for ClearBlue pregnancy tests, which can, they say, tell you to the week how pregnant you are. They showed two nice normal skinny white ladies (the only people who can acceptably be pregnant in advertising) sitting together. One tells the other, “I’m pregnant.” “How far along???” her friend (I assume, pregnancy ads are usually aggressively heterosexual). “Two weeks!”
Who the hell is telling anyone when they’re two weeks pregnant was my main question.
Also … did they actually mean four weeks? Because at “two weeks pregnant”, you’re not actually pregnant. Pregnancy is timed from your last menstrual period, not the date of conception, because one of those is a lot easier to keep track of due to the, um, physical indications and extra laundry. At “two weeks” the best you can hope for is that your ovaries are in a good mood.
(This is why the recent Texas 6-week abortion ban is so ridiculously restrictive: even people with a clockwork 28-day menstrual cycle will have “only about one week before the “six-week” threshold to confirm pregnancy” before they’re out of time to seek abortion care, if they want or need to.)
It was very irritating, is what I’m saying.
The process of telling people wasn’t that tidy for us, by any means. When you’re doing IVF, a lot of people know, not just that you’re trying, but that there are very specific dates involved. Some of our closest family members knew very quickly, and thankfully, were very understanding that we didn’t want to go public or even really commit ourselves emotionally until more time had passed. If you’ve confided in a work colleague or supervisor, especially because you’re taking sick days for procedures like egg harvesting and embryo transfer, they have a pretty clear sense of whether you might have news or not.
The day of our successful embryo transfer, I’d already had a massage booked for weeks and figured it wouldn’t be a terrible idea to be nice and relaxed – and the therapist was already a very good friend – so I had to mention it to her, just for caution’s sake, before baby had even had a proper chance to implant. I was being a Wrong Mama again: you’re not meant to get massage during the first trimester, they say. But it wasn’t even the first trimester yet, was it?
The point is, she was literally the first person I told after I left the clinic and while I love her, that was not the plan.
When we went into COVID level 2 restrictions I needed to call my GP to see if my fleeting sore throat warranted getting a test, and felt it was something I should probably mention then, too.
My regular feminist book club / fight club / wine friends were always going to figure it out when I started ordering ginger beer instead of my usual sours and ciders. They were good enough not to ask but the big reveal lacked a bit of revelation given they’d all been sitting there staring at my glass for the whole evening.
What this all added up to was people finding out in a very higgledy-piggledy way, well before I was really comfortable with the idea. And for weeks afterwards I was trying to remember who knew, who I should call, who would have seen the Facebook post we eventually did.
I wish it had been easier. And I wish I could have been more comfortable telling people in those early days.
The main reason I think people don’t, is that there’s a huge cloud around losing pregnancy. We – I really mean Pākehā, I can’t speak for others! – aren’t comfortable with the grief, with the loss of such potential, the disappointment of such hopes and expectations, and on top of that we don’t have cultural mechanisms to process it well or even at all, probably coming from our fairly locked-down / patriarchal / Christian / British roots. So we don’t tell people until the “risky stage” is over, to save them from the grief and to save us from having to suffer it publicly. It’s a dark personal secret, and gets treated as a brave revelation when people talk about their experiences of miscarriage – because it is brave. It invites a huge additional emotional burden on top of everything you’re going through (and opens you up to abuse and judgement because that’s the nightmare society we live in).
Even when everything goes according to plan, there’s still that period of hunkering down and hoping and praying, without being able to reach out to other people to share the load.
For us, having kind-of lost our first attempt (I don’t really count it because it was so fleeting and I did, somehow, manage not to pin all my hopes and dreams on it) and having told a few people – the necessary ones – I really didn’t want to get anyone else’s hopes up on our behalf again. But I also wished for someone to share it with who wasn’t my partner, i.e. the other person going through the experience. Some perfect, detached, supportive being who wasn’t also weighed down with the what-ifs and the what-if-nots.
I don’t have a tidy answer (I almost never do). As with everything in pregnancy, I don’t think there is one. You’ll feel wrong if you tell people, like you’ve jinxed yourself, and if it all goes well you’ll feel wrong for worrying. You can only make the best decision for yourself – which isn’t the same thing as a comfortable decision.