If I never came back to New York, if he did not wait for me when I was late to our first date, if he was not so funny, so charming, or if he did not keep in touch when I left again for my beloved Mediterranean, just like that, if he did not ask me to marry him, if he did not make me the happiest woman in the world, Blueberry would not have existed.
We gave the nickname “Blueberry” to the little human growing inside of me because it was the size of a blueberry when we found out about it. It was a surprise. A happy surprise. But I decided to write this post not to get into detail about how ecstatic we both have been since that happy day. I have been grateful every day- every single day- but what I want to share with this post is that it is not always an easy path. As a matter of fact, these last few months have the most alienating, foreign, and scary.
I wanted to write this for all pregnant women, especially those who have been having doubts about themselves, their diets, their choices; those who are feeling estranged from their own body, their own skin, their own emotions. I also wanted to write a few notes to everyone (especially men) who has a pregnant woman in their life. This woman might be a wife, a girlfriend, a friend, a sister, or a neighbour, and I want to share my experience so that you might have a better idea about what to say when, and when to stay silent.
It all started with exhaustion. That part is probably the most common. I have not had morning sickness- only that uneasiness- so I was fortunate (I once read that vegans do not tend to have morning sickness, but I think what causes it should be multi-faceted). There were other symptoms which should have made me get suspicious but all I thought was that it must have been allergies. Below, I am listing some of the symptoms that have put my life upside down. Now that we are in the second trimester, I hope that most of these will be balanced, or, that I will at least get used to living with them! So, here we go:
- Dry eye. One of the reasons why I thought my symptoms were due to seasonal allergies (and why the positive test was a surprise) was because every year, around April and May, I have that lovely combo of dry eye, exhaustion, and dry skin. But apparently dry eye syndrome is quite common in pregnancy. Hormonal changes are affecting the amount, and/or type, of tears the poor eyes produce, meaning, our eyes are not moist enough. I am also experiencing blurry vision, mostly when I read, and that light sensitivity which I have always had has worsened.
- Exhaustion. I CANNOT even describe the level of exhaustion I’m referring to here! All I have been wanting is sleep (and eat) all day, every day. And this is so unlike me: For perhaps 15 years, I have always been active- running, swimming, weight training, yoga…I always did something. Except for these past 3+ months. Gosh.
- Acne. I don’t even remember the last time I had an issue with my skin. I do have what I call my allergy skin, every spring, but usually, some tinted moisturizer helps. (Yes, believe me, works better than a regular moisturizer?!). But now, for the first time since perhaps college, I have had acne. Those painful ones, you know those? The ones deep under the skin? Geez. I had to use solutions to dry them out. I mean, actually, this is not too surprising, is it? What would I expect, with tons of hormonal changes in a short time? But, you see, my diet did not help either.
- Cravings. So yes, the diet issue. This is one thing that has made me a stranger to my own body, in my own skin, for the first few months. It is incredibly hard and alienating to have no control over your own body (or to feel like you have no control). I know some people who did not put on a pound or did not have any cravings, or any change whatsoever in their diet. I have been a mostly whole-foods-plant-based eater for almost 20 years! And, all of a sudden, from one day to another, I cannot even look at vegetables, for the last three months, unless they are deep fried in a gallon of oil and rolled in flour or cornstarch. For the first month or two, I wanted everything fried- crisps, chips, fried eggplants. Hummus was the healthiest thing I had, but it was only a snack, in between fried entrees. Then came the period of bread, rice cakes, pretzels…Nothing too yucky, and the relatively healthy versions one can find in those isles at a grocery store. But still, tons of these, and not much else. So I would be having a vegan cheese sandwich in the morning, and hummus-bagel at lunch, a piece of chocolate cake in the afternoon, lots of nuts pre-dinner, and another carb-loaded dinner. Then, if I cannot sleep (due to the other symptom I explain below), this would go on until the early hours of the day, when I finally fall asleep for a few hours. Recently, I have been having these powerful cravings for anything chocolatey: Chocolate donuts (first time in my life!!), chocolate cakes, biscottis…And lots of these, because I cannot stop after a piece of cake. That cake must be finished.
- Rapid changes in my body. Because of exhaustion (meaning, no or little exercise) and cravings for processed carbs and sugar, I have already put on 8 pounds in 3 months. But when I complain, or ask advice, about my bodily changes, I do not only mean the weight issue. The thing is (I cannot emphasize enough) I could not care less about the weight gain. Anything for Blueberry! But it is again a matter of trying to gain back the control, and not knowing what is happening, trying to adjust to the rapid changes in one’s body. It’s not only the weight, but the bigger waistline, not being able to fit in any of my clothes already in the first few weeks, reading about many other women who experienced no change whatsoever until the second trimester, feeling lonely, and guilty, as if I am doing something (everything?) wrong.
- Swollen nasal passages and congestion. Friends with kids keep telling me to sleep now, as much as I can, because when the baby comes, I will not have the chance. Let me tell you something. I cannot sleep. Because I cannot breathe. Because I am always congested. This has two main reasons, as far as I understand. First of all, yep, the hormones again. A higher level of estrogen during pregnancy can cause the lining of the nasal passages to swell. Second of all, pregnant women have more blood circulating during pregnancy. I read that as much as 50 percent more blood can be flowing through a pregnant woman! Fifty percent?!! This brings swelling (swollen ankles and legs, ladies?), dizziness, exhaustion, and two of the main factors which keep me up at night: Increase in body heat (read: you wake up sweating, in the middle of the night. There were times I had to have shower and go back to bed to wake up again in an hour) AND swollen blood vessels inside your nose which leads to nasal congestion. Add headaches to these, and basically, I’m talking about that terrible allergy you experience in spring, every day, all day, for months. What is more, you cannot take most medications which would otherwise help.
Give yourself time
Now, again, please don’t get me wrong. I am the happiest person in the world! You know how many times I prayed out loud out of pure gratefulness? So if you too are having problems adjusting to these tens and tens of changes, the mood swings, cravings, lack of sleep and lack of energy and so on, please please do not feel guilty for complaining! You can be terrified and grateful simultaneously! Give yourself some time. You have developed a lifestyle, good habits, a personality, and all this took some time. None of these happened in a day. So give yourself some time and trust the process! We might take a few wrong steps during this process (I am writing these after another chocolate cake binge!) but as long as our consistent behaviours are on the right track, we will be fine. The body is much more powerful than we give it credit for. It is designed to be able to grow an embryo into a fetus and give birth. Yes, it is miraculous, but millions of women do this every year. We are not alone.
So the pregnant woman is trusting the process, but what about the family and friends? What should they do or say? Below is my humble advice to those around us!
How to be supportive of pregnant loved ones
First of all, please do not give unsolicited advice. When you find out that someone is pregnant, it might be enough to just say “congratulations! I’m so happy for you!”. So you might reconsider before advising to “rest and do not stress because it might affect the baby”. If we tell you about our cravings, do not tell us something that we already have thought of (and worried about): “But you should not gain too much weight”. Every body is different. Some women have it the hardest in the first trimester, and things calm down with the start of the second trimester. Some gain more weight towards the end of their pregnancy, and some women do not need to gain as much. Stop making us feel guilty about how much we eat or do not eat. Worse is when we tell you that we are worried about the pregnancy- the miscarriage probability, for instance. We already know that we should not be stressed, so please do not tell us to not stress. When you remind us that “the stress negatively affects the baby”, we get even more stressed and feel guilty, on top of worrying about the pregnancy.
Now, of course, I am generalizing, so some women might not find any of this problematic. But it does not hurt to wait for us to ask for your advice.
Oh, another point, and this is especially important if the pregnant loved one is vegan: PLEASE do not worry about our diet because we are vegan. I might eat meat, and eat junk food every day, and you would not be suggesting I reconsider my diet. I have read tens of books, articles, conference papers on nutrition. I have received certificates on this subject. And your loved one might know much better than you do about nutrition- so please, again, do not give unsolicited advice. It sounds patronizing and is definitely not helpful.
Just be there for us. Try to be understanding when we might get moody, or feel lonely, or unlike ourselves. When we gain weight, lose weight, change in size, shape, whatever, focus on who we are. The person you have always known. And be there through the process.
I have been extremely fortunate because my husband is most likely the best husband in the entire universe. I wish everyone a partner as understanding, helpful, and compassionate as my husband is. Once he said to me: “Nobody knew your body more than you did, all these years. And all of a sudden you don’t know what is going on”. He knew. And one of these days I should take a video of him, talking to Blueberry. It is hilarious.