Turning a corner?

I started out this pregnancy already exhausted. 2021 was a long, hard, draing, and demoralizing year. I have described it to friends (and perhaps already on this blog, but what’s some recycled imagery among friends?) as feeling like being punched in the face repeatedly. I won’t go through the whole year again — perhaps if I remember to, I’ll link the relevant post up here later — but to summarize, it felt like every time something good happened or, perhaps more crucially for exhaustion levels, every time I thought I had carved out a little break, more bad news swooped for another jaw-rattling punch. (Do punches rattle one’s jaw? I’m happy to report I’ve never actually been literally punched in the face, so that’s something to be thankful for, at least.)

As a result, when I found out I was pregnant in late December, I basically thought, super. We finally did it. And now I will never be well-rested again in my life. 2021 never did give me a break, and now 2022 never will either. All I want in life is a little break! Which… I guess is really not the emotion you’re hoping for when you pee on that stick. It’s definitely not what they portray in the movies. Then I felt guilty for feeling that way, because after a year and a half of trying, can’t I even just muster up some gratitude that it may have finally worked? What is wrong with me?

Anyway. The first three months have done nothing to disprove my suspicion that energy and breaks and feeling carefree are not a part of my life anymore: I have felt like a sack of hot garbage for a vast majority of the time, which has led to not really acting like myself. Old me thought nothing of waking up at 5 to crunch through a translation deadline, moving on to teaching for most of the day, and still finding the energy to drag myself out for a restorative walk at the end of the workday. Maybe even make it through an episode of something or other over dinner with the boyfriend, before slumping to bed, all satisied with the day’s achievements. Business trips and master’s degree exams and translations upon translations all crammed into the same week, bookended by hikes with friends and lunches with the in-laws on the weekends! I once spontaneously decided to make boeuf bourgignon, which takes actual hours of labor (I am not a natural cook) and cleaned the apartment in the same day. From my current point of view, that looks like a downright reckless squandering of energy. Now I have to budget my energy at the start of the day: shall I do my translation work first, while my mind is (relatively) fresh, or shall I empty the dishwasher and put in a load of laundry first because those are more physical, and then do the translations from the couch? Or I might look outside and see that there is finally a sunny day that would be lovely for a walk, but by the time I get enough work done to justify a walk, I’m too tired to even get dressed for a walk. To say nothing of days when I teach in person. Mercifully, there are only three a week this semester, but each of them feels like running a gauntlet of increasingly exhausting activities until I finally slump into my car and wonder how I will muster the motivation to drive home. (Podcasts, is how. Or things get really desperate, showtunes.)

However! Calling a post “turning a corner” and then complaining for three full paragraphs is a smidge incongruous, but I am getting to that part, I promise! So, as hinted at, during the past few days I have felt like maybe I am turning a corner. Maybe it’s because I’ve reached the magical 14 weeks when everyone says I will start to feel better. I honestly don’t feel particularly more energetic (the evenings still find me squished into a corner of the couch, trying to get into a position that does not trigger my gagging-on-nothing reflex) but I do feel slightly better, nonetheless. It might also be because the Bean’s NT scan was last week, and we also received the NIPT (non-invasive prenatal testing) results: all point to low-risk for the three most common trisomies. Perhaps that was weighing on me more than I realized. (In a miraculous turn of events, there were also two other items of good news in the very same day: my father’s 3-month check for the cancer he was diagnosed with last year came back all clear, and my best friend from college was accepted into the next stage of her graduate training.) A collective sigh of relief on many fronts.

It could also be that the NT scan would honestly be quite fun if it weren’t so serious: they have to get the baby into the right position in order to take the relevant measurements, and since little beans can react to external stimuli by this point in their development, they jiggle the ultrasound probe around on your belly, and you can watch your little bean wiggling around in response inside. The internet informs me that Bean is currently the size of a lemon, but during that scan they truly start to look like a real baby, arching and flexing and throwing limbs around, one can only assume in annoyance at being disturbed. This prompted a few moments of of picturing myself with an actual baby: for some reason, this has not happened to me very often yet during this pregnancy (I’ve primarily experienced it as a loss of independence and sense of self, instead), but when I do picture myself with an actual baby, I remember that I really like babies. I always have. Little loaf of bread newborns, and giggly squiggly 4-6-month-olds, and starting to crawl, and starting to walk, and 12-18-month-olds and their little emerging personalities and how all they want in life is for you to get down on the floor and play and snuggle. Teaching them to use a spoon… and not jump off the furniture… (I once worked in a daycare, and both spoons and the furniture acrobatics are prominent in my memories of that time). I declared to my mother that I wanted a baby of my own when I was about seven, and was crushed when she told me I needed to wait twenty years or so. I felt so ready for this step when we started trying in summer of 2020. So where is all of that now?

I can only assume it is buried under the lingering effects of 2021. Which brings me to another reason I might be feeling better. I decided that none of this feels very normal… or rather, not to propagate some myth of “normal”, doesn’t feel like the real me. I lost the real me once before, when I decided not to go to medical school (long story), and I wish I had been more proactive about getting her back, and I wish I had sought help to do so. So, I am happy (I guess?) to report that I signed up for BetterHelp, the online therapy platform. Just in case the answer is that the real me is in fact buried under the rubble of 2021 and needs some help digging back out. After all, my father was diagnosed with cancer and did initially decide that he didn’t even want to try treatment, which was quite a blow. (That’s not really my story to tell here and so I won’t, except to say that overwhelmingly favorable statistics and the doctors and we, his family, eventually managed to convince him of a different path.) In the meantime, my grandmother also did keep getting sicker and sicker and eventually reach the end of her time with us last October. That was a natural and merciful end to a long decline, but it was still another breath-robbing blow to us in an already-hard year. I also begin to wonder if there isn’t at least some measure of burnout from the pandemic itself. Whenever I think about the pandemic, I mostly think about how good I had it: most importantly, I haven’t lost anyone I love due to it, but on top of that, I haven’t lost my job, and while lockdown was a truly bizarre time here in Italy, I had it comparatively easy. It wasn’t that hard to transform my job into a work-from-home situation, and I was locked in with my boyfriend and no children to keep track of or worry about, and I got to leave the house several times a week to go to the Red Cross for ambulance volunteering, thus allowing me to also feel that I was “doing my part”, whatever that means.

I won’t lie that I derived a great amount of satisfaction from feeling like I was helping, in my own small way. Lately, though, I’ve begun to wonder if even just that little amount of helping (I feel foolish even mentioning my two or three volunteer ambulance shifts a week when doctors and nurses and other hospital staff were deep in the trenches, full time and over time and for so long now) may have left some scars, deep under all of this ‘I was so lucky’-ness. Because you do have to dissociate ever so slightly, to trudge up the stairs of countless people’s homes and take their temperatures and cart them away, them and their hacking coughs and the look of fear in their eyes (which was doubtless mirrored in ours). You have to dissociate even more when people ask you when you think their beloved father/grandfather/uncle/brother/spouse/whoever will come home, because… when is honestly a silly question. The question is if. But you can’t say that. When I look back at that, and I think of the statistics in those first months, in the spring of 2020, the reality of the situation can only be this: a great proportion of the people that I carted away on a stretcher gasping for breath (which applies to both parts of that sentence: them from covid and me from being double-masked and visor-ed) probably never came home. So in effect, did I carry people to their deaths? Lonely deaths in the hospital, isolated from their loved ones? I guess so. Rationally, I most definitely did. I vividly remember one week going to a house for the grandfather (code blue, he literally died under our hands, if you want to get dramatic about it), and at my next shift that week going back for his adult son (still standing, coughing up his lungs, but I like to think he probably made it through) and his wife (the grandfather’s wife, I mean; I try not to think about what statistics would tell me probably happened to her, but I guess you never know). And we left the son’s wife there all by herself. She asked us, am I next? Do you think I have it too? We pretended to be too rushed to answer, because what could we have said? In another shift, this during the fall of 2020 when things ramped up again, when we were orange-zoned again (no crossing city limits unless it’s for work or any emergency!), when we already thought we were exhuasted (ha), I remember emptying out half of a floor of a nursing home. We just kept getting called back to the same nursing home. The whole shift. What can possibly have happened to all of them? Nothing good, probably.

So… I mean, I just meant to mention it and I vomited out a whole excessively long paragraph. So it seems like maybe some online therapy at least won’t hurt. And I am mentioning it willfully and on purpose because I don’t think we should hide mental health struggles, but I don’t feel bold enough to mention it in my real life. Maybe this will give me the courage, though, because it’s the right thing to do. I don’t want people to think I’m floating along, happy as a clam with my almost-visible little pregnancy when I’m actually seeking support through therapy. What if it gives someone else the little bump of encouragement to also seek therapy when they need it?

Okay. Well. This post is already ridiculously long, but I have one more item in my maybe-turning-a-corner list: it is physical comfort. So, physical comfort is hard to come by during pregnancy, it seems. There’s nausea and tiredness and other assorted weirdness, but it recently dawned upon me that there are some discomforts I may be able to do something about: for instance (my puniest example first), I get eczema and a patch has flared up in the past months and it itches horribly. So I can just itch it and let it spread and get worse and itchier and then itch it some more, or (literal months into this) I can make an appointment with a dermatologist and get permission to use cortisone cream for three days despite pregnancy, and now, a mere two days in, it itches much less. Magic! Similarly, I went through my dresser the other day and took out any sweaters that are in any way tight, in any way itchy, in any way don’t drape right, etc. There are perhaps times in life to suffer an itchy sweater because it looks nice, but now is not that time. I have also retired most of my pants due to being too tight. I tried that belly-band to hold up unbuttoned pants for exactly one day and hated it, so I have retired that too. I will live in my two pairs of comfy-enough pants until it’s time for maternity pants, and (I am very proud of this one) I have already proactively ordered some to try on so that I can make that transition seamlessly when the time comes. As opposed to waiting until long after things are already unbearable and wishing I had addressed the situation earlier, which is my usual modus operandi. (For example, I would probably be more comfortable in a larger bra and everyone said this would happen and did I acquire a larger bra when I was in the US and could easily try on a bigger size of my usual bra? No. No, I did not. And now I wish I had, because here the only option is to order my usual bra online in a larger size or two and hope for the best.)

Okay. Now instead of closing on the exceedingly dramatic imagery of nursing home denizens on stretchers, I can close on the tragicomic mental image of my ill-fitting undergarments. I wish you all a splendid day, and I leave you Bean’s 13-ish week head for your enjoyment in the header image – Bean is starting to look like a real human!

2 thoughts on “Turning a corner?

  1. First: ultrasound pictures are so sweet.
    Second: “It’s definitely not what they portray in the movies.” My experience with pregnancies, birth, post-partum and motherhood has been SO far off what I expected. It is not like they show in the movies. It is hard and exhausting and raw…and it is transcendent and blissful and heartwarming. You are going to feel every single feel and I promise that any feeling you have has been experienced by countless women before you.
    I can relate to so much in this post. 2021 was one of my hardest years ever…but I really feel like I learned A LOT. A lot from the hard and it has given me courage to say – I’m ready for 2022 to look a bit different. Here is what I need to change.
    Most days it is baby steps (it’s currently 2:56 pm and I have a raging headache, I’m exhausted and will have to go back on “Mom” duty soon and really don’t want to – so it’s not all going to be rainbows and butterflies)…but I do feel like I’m making some forward progress.
    Now that you’re feeling better and with some extra emotional support (I think we ALL can benefit so much from therapy), I hope you feel lighter and more enthusiastic for what’s to come. But, if you don’t, I promise that’s normal too!
    Sorry – that’s a very long comment…I just feel SO passionately about making sure women (especially when pregnant/becoming first-time mothers) know that it’s okay to feel it all. Really. I felt (and still feel) so unready for my role so much of the time but I’ve stopped feeling guilty about that and started to realize we’re all just trying our best and what more can we ask of ourselves? End rant!

    1. Thank you so so much for this comment and the words of wisdom it contains!! I so appreciate your speaking out to normalize not feeling all blissful and floaty and “like the movies” during pregnancy – I feel like almost universally, people ask me if I’m feeling excited or happy or whatever else (which, fair enough, I guess they’re just trying to be friendly and positive) and I think it doesn’t do anyone any good to pretend that everything is super-duper if secretly, so many pregnant people are dragging themselves around feeling like a they’ve been run over.

      Anyway, inspired by your solidarity, I have been especially careful to present a balanced opinion to friends who I know are planning to start trying soon: I want them to feel comfortable sharing, if/when they do get pregnant, if they also feel like crap and if, like me, they’re a bit nervous about the life changes that this will bring, etc. I agree with you one zillion percent that it’s so important to make sure everyone feels that there is space for them to share how they’re really feeling, and that it serves no one to just soldier through in silence. I went to a fairly pressure-ful university, and after soldiering through pretending everything was fine when I actually spent lots of time crying and wondering if I could do it and fantasizing about dropping everything for a lower-pressure environment, I later found out that my best friend had also soldiered through and felt all of the above to such an extent that she considered suicide, and I have always regretted that I didn’t reach out to her at the time and share how stressed and sometimes hopeless I was also feeling, because maybe if we had been there for each other instead of pretending to be fine, her situation wouldn’t have become quite so dire, and mine also would’ve been significantly improved.

      All this to say, thank you so much for your support, and I will definitely be taking up the banner of “it’s okay to feel literally anything you’re feeling, and you are not alone” to spread the word to any other pregnant folks in my acquaintanceship. It’s just such an important message, and I truly appreciate you reaching out to share it here!

      PS I also just want to say to you as another 2021-survivor that I really really hope for your that your 2022 is much better! I was so excited for you when I read that your husband will be taking a sabbatical, and I really hope this will allow you the time you need to recover from last year and focus on your own health and happiness, too!

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