Postpartum oppression (or, how not to freak out a pregnant woman!)

Why is it that some people seem to enjoy scaring or putting down a pregnant woman?

At eight months pregnant I was entering the ‘anxious, this isn’t funny anymore stage’ – one minute looking at the pram with excitement, the next feeling terrified of how my son was going to arrive into this world. I was thinking of the birth and soaking up things to fret about, I didn’t want to but I couldn’t help it, and this was my fourth time! It should be like shelling peas!

A passing comment from a virtual stranger would stick in my mind and somehow managed to hit my (pregnancy) sensitive nerve.

During my last pregnancy, I had said to me:
“After that long since your last birth, it’s supposed to be like your first time again, or worse.”
“Oo, that’ll be a big one to push out… be ready for the stitches.”
“It should fall out after having three already.”
“Home birth, you’re brave; what if something goes wrong?”
“You’re huge!”
“I’m sure you can lose all that weight quickly after.”
“You’re quite a bit older now aren’t you, that’ll be tough.”
“Waddle over here, fatty!”
“Oh when I gave birth to my son/daughter, it was so traumatic … and the pain!”

Some were said in jest but some were looking for the drama, trying to draw me into the trap of ‘let’s out-traumatise each other’. I usually brushed it off without a second thought. I’m really not easily offended (when not hormonal that is!) and can joke about stuff like this with people who know me; if we can’t laugh about this kind of thing, we’d surely cry! But it’s those who barely knew me and the quite often downright mean things they said that bothered me. I mean, if someone told me they were going into hospital for an operation, I wouldn’t start commenting about MRSA and the dangers of anaesthesia, and say I hoped they pulled through as my friend’s friend died of the exact same thing… I’d be asking if there was anything I could do, and wishing them well and a speedy recovery.

As I brooded over a particularly unhelpful remark about my size, it struck me that while these kinds of comments are never intended to offend or upset, it’s rather unkind when you (over)think about it… I was clinging onto my sense of humour by a thread – I knew I’d be elated when it was all over, but during the last few weeks it was important I focused on not driving myself crazy with worry.

When I was heavily pregnant with Abi, in 2000, I was at a party and I will never forget a mother literally talking me into a corner recounting her ‘I’m the only woman who’s ever given birth’ trauma. She didn’t spare the gory details and I was almost faint by the time someone rescued me. I went straight home and added ‘epidural’ to my extensive birth plan (which wasn’t a great idea as it turned out). I was utterly convinced I wouldn’t be able to cope and that it would be a nightmare.

Are you having twins?! Nope just a massive cream bun!

Are you having twins?! No, actually it’s just a massive cream bun!

What is it about being pregnant that makes it OK to be told about a traumatic birth by a complete stranger? I’m now wise to this. Sharing birth stories is a natural way for women to support one another, but there’s sharing and there’s revealing too much. I don’t believe I’ve ever been one to bore anybody with my birth experiences (though funnily enough, I was so impressed by my natural hypnobirth with my third child that I have recommended it to others, but that’s really as far as I went. I’ll offer help, not horror stories).

As I ‘waddled’ along, I met a new mum, her baby a few weeks old; she’d clearly had a hard time as she’d not left the house since the birth and she looked drained, but she simply said, ‘It was horrendous. I won’t tell you about it, but we’re all OK now.’ I could have hugged her (if I didn’t have a ‘huge’ baby bump in the way). And, being wiser, I didn’t ask her to tell me more, though I could see she was itching to reveal what was so horrendous, but I said with a smile, ‘Thank you, I don’t really want to know the details. I’m so glad you’re all OK, that’s all that matters.’ Maybe when I was safely out the other side, we could share stories, but by then I expected we’d both be happier talking about our little ones.

But at eight months gone, all I had was a nagging doubt, despite, as far as I was concerned, being amazingly brave with my last pregnancy and successfully having my son at home. This time, the fear was different. I was living with the grief of witnessing the sudden death of my eldest child. I was worrying about my ability to cope with the pain  and I feared for my baby. I was struggling to see how this could turn out well. I was even worried I’d need to go to the same hospital where my daughter was rushed to before she died, and what my other children and my husband would think about this. I was fighting so many fears.

I knew these are natural and understandable wobbles for any pregnant woman, I’d been there before each time. I knew it was a phase. I was trying hard to find that part of me that was strong and confident (I recall she made a reappearance dressed as a tribal warrior around week 37 when Grubbalo decided to come early). I had to remind myself that giving birth was natural. That I’d done it three times before. That I can cope with the pain and discomfort. That the chances are my baby would be fine. That there’s no reason why I couldn’t have another positive home birth like last time.

I listened to my hypnobirthing affirmations and it was all so positive – they talked of having a healthy baby, a smooth birth, pain wasn’t mentioned, contractions were called ‘surges’, and we breathed, not pushed, our babies out. I was comforted by these words – just as I was scared by the negative stuff. I could be boosted by the CD and then go to an appointment and hear negative things which made me doubt myself. I was the one who was giving birth. I knew my babies are on the larger side… it was normal for me. I’d just met someone, yet they were telling me I’d find it hard!

Just as it’s never easy to judge the shifting emotions of a neurotic, pregnant woman, it’s even harder to understand a grieving, neurotic pregnant woman! So, if you meet a pregnant woman (especially a first-time mum), if you can’t think of something positive or encouraging to say, it’s usually better not to mention it at all and talk about the weather instead.


That was such a heavy load… but I didn’t need telling!

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7 thoughts on “Postpartum oppression (or, how not to freak out a pregnant woman!)

  1. There is nothing more awful than the ‘I had a worse birth than you’ competitiveness. It makes a mockery of those who suffered a real birth trauma, and does nothing to help first time mums who need to be reassured that the majority of the time, our bodies can do it….and if they need help, then that’s what hospitals are for. Great post #brilliantblogposts

  2. Great post. I must say these things people say never bothered me that much, but they didn’t know that, did they? These things aren’t acceptable to say to strangers or virtual strangers in any other situation, yet somehow it seems acceptable in pregnancy. I was lucky that nobody had ever told me how horrendous birth was before I had my eldest, so I was blissfully ignorant! I’ve never gone into too much detail with pregnant women, because what’s the point in scaring them?
    Glad your warrior woman appeared at just the right time!

  3. It is so odd how people think it’s fine to share their horror stories and comment on how tough it’s going to be. Seems all part of being pregnant, getting hit by things like this, and as you say, usually from people that you barely know!

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