The message many women receive upon sharing the news of their pregnancies can sound a little like, “Congratulations! You are now a sacred vessel of life”, as if a pregnancy somehow legitimizes their existence.
I believe the intention behind the “sacred vessel” type comment is well meaning, but the message can exert pressure upon women to match this “beatific” state with beatific responses towards the hurdles on the journey.
Many women enjoy their pregnancies, feeling beautiful and powerful. Sure, most experience some of the uncomfortable effects, but are ultimately happy. Others for one reason or another simply can’t stand being pregnant. And that is OK!
I have been in the birth support business for a long time. I have had many mothers-to-be, truly suffering with their pregnancies (physically and/or emotionally), cry on my shoulder about comments they’ve received like, “Others have been trying to get pregnant for years and can’t. You should be happy,” or “Your negative feelings are bad for your baby.” Essentially the suffering woman hears, “You aren’t grateful enough. Stop crying. Get over it.”
Though for the most part my pregnancies were fantastic, the nausea in the early months for me were intolerable. I had unmedicated births no problem, but had there been some kind of early-pregnancy anti-sickness epidural, I’d have been the first in line for it. Many of my friends responded to my nauseated whimpers with patient comments like, “The nausea is a good sign. It will pass,” Though I knew they meant to be helpful, I didn’t feel heard. Instead I felt isolated and annoying.
As a birth doula, I was keenly aware others had it worse than I.
The “Lucky you, your pregnancy is healthy!” message served to deepen my feelings of shame around having a hard time coping with simple nausea. We need to realize that when a pregnant woman expresses displeasure, it doesn’t means she would trade in an uncomfortable symptom for a less healthy baby. The “Stop whining, you’re a sacred vessel” message fails to honour this fact: not only outcomes, but experiences are deeply important to mothers. Experiences are woven into the tapestries of our motherhood, shaping who we are.
Voicing something that hurts isn’t a cry of “I’m ungrateful!” It is often a cry to be heard. Not fixed. Not judged. Just heard. Within this listening space lies an opportunity for knots in the tapestry to be unravelled and examined, helping us to reweave our patterns of experience with more richness and beauty.
Most childbirth books don’t contain a chapter called “When Pregnancy Sucks Just Because”. Someone doesn’t have to be crippled by pain or wrapped around a bowl of upchucked Diclectin pills for nine months to experience suffering (though bless you if you are). Some women are inexplicably miserable while pregnant. Is this the mark of an unworthy “sacred vessel”? Absolutely not.
Litanies of woe can get tiresome for listeners, it’s true. But what if we were to give someone the benefit of the doubt? What if they really are having a hard time and not just whining? What if we stopped letting the complaints we hear go in one ear and out the other and we tuned in with a commitment to empathy?
One day many years ago I was supporting a birth with one of my apprentices. I was pregnant with my fourth child and green with nausea. I wanted to crawl under a rock. My apprentice touched my shoulder, looked deeply into my eyes with concern and asked, “Are you okay?” My eyes filled with tears at her tenderness. Our client’s labour was still in its early phase, so without a word she took me by the hand and sat me in the comfiest chair in the waiting room. She wrapped me up gently and securely with her shawl, which smelled of lavender. She rubbed my feet and spoon fed me some mashed potatoes. I felt nurtured to my very core. She said, “I’ve got this birth. Don’t worry. Rest.” Not once did she remind me that the labouring woman we were caring for was likely far more uncomfortable.
After a good cry, a nap, and more mashed potatoes, I got up and we saw a lovely baby into the world together. My student taught me much that day. Receiving love and compassion with no questions asked or expectations demanded was a great healing. Without words being exchanged, I knew I had been absolutely heard. Something shifted in my pregnancy that day. What she gave me remains a beautiful thread that shines brilliantly from the tapestry of my pregnancy experience.
Pregnancy can suck sometimes. Receiving loving kindness won’t necessarily make it not suck, but when we feel heard and understood, a battle of tension within dissolves, and we can relax into the truth of the experience with more strength.