When I fell pregnant with my first child I thought I knew what I didn’t know. I knew I couldn’t adequately prepare myself for birth or the first delirious months (or years). But I felt satisfied, almost smug, about my awareness of that fact. I understood, to paraphrase Former US Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, that there were “known unknowns.”
Most of the pregnancy remains a blur of anxiety in my memory, although I don’t think I’ll ever forget the day I complained in the office of being tired (I was 9 months – you get it). Up popped a colleague from behind a partition, her meerkat readiness to impart information all too evident. “Oh, you’re tired now?” she smirked. “Just. You. Wait!”
I glared at her. I felt invalidated. Why would she tell me that? I get it. I’ll be tired. Can’t I feel tired now?
Flash-forward almost four years (and two kids) later, I might never explicitly say the words “Just you wait” to anyone, but almost every other skerrick of information I impart to any female in my radius who is even considering children is loaded with that sentiment.
Like the nurse who came to help me into the shower the day after my second kid was born. She told me she was getting pressure from relatives to have one of her own. She was 24!
“No!” I cried to her with all the fervency of a TV evangelist. “Get out there and slut it up. Your job right now is to chase boys and get drunk. You’ll want to have lived your life before you do this – because once you do, you’ll have no life – trust me.”
Trust me? I just told a stranger to “slut it up”.
What’s worse is that, if I happen to discern that a woman seems especially nervous about a particular decision, I tend to exaggerate the benefits of whatever path I took – you know, to ease the uncertainty. “Get a caesarean! They’re total bliss!” “Take the drugs! You’ll feel amazing!” “Get the nipple cream –it’s a balm straight from heaven!”
Am I helping though? I’m not sure. But I know that I’m in good company. Comedian and television writer Jessi Klein had no trouble devoting a chapter to such things in her book, You’ll Grow Out of It. The advice, to “Get the Epidural” was so compelling, the New York Times published it on their website in July. Similarly, Tina Fey told readers of her book, Bossypants, “Like most people who have had one baby, I am an expert on everything and will tell you, unsolicited, how to raise your kid!”
Why do we do this? Well, I think the old adage of not wanting to see anyone suffer the way we have suffered holds up. I saw a meme last week which read “Be who you needed when you were younger” and I think I’d tweak that slightly to read “Be who you needed when you were pregnant”.
But the grim truth of birth and post-birth is that, amid the wild celebrations and emotional vertigo, there is pain, no matter which road you take. It can be physical, emotional, psychological, or in my case, all three. It’s there and it’s bad. We swap war stories with other mothers. We yell “Nobody tells you!” but we know the truth – they told us. They said “Just you wait” and we glared at them for bringing us down, during this, the ripest, proudest season of our lives.
Or maybe we took in their words but we couldn’t know, because you don’t know, the full extent of what it means until you’re in it. And then we go forth, and tell other women to heed our warnings, listen to our cries for the correct birth plan, drink from our cups of suffering; learn from us!
Deep down though, I think the real reason we share and overshare, has more to do with our need to be heard. Among the many myths surrounding childbirth is the lie, not about the pain, but that because we’re women it’s somehow natural for us to endure it. I’m of the opinion that we give out advice, simply because we’ve been told we are strong enough to withstand the pain and the change and the general life upheaval of babies. Oh we know “it takes a village” but often, we have to seek out that village alone.
So we put on our silent smiles, but inside we long for validation, for someone to tell us outside of mothers group that what we did was formidable and brave and really f—ing hard. See, the very thing I thought was being taken away from me at that moment – my need to be heard – was exactly what my colleague was grasping for.