I did not like being pregnant. I did not like the morning sickness that lasted all day and felt like a perpetual hangover. I did not like having a puffy, blotchy, ugly face. I did not like that my feet were forever hot and swollen.
I did not like having to take my blood pressure every morning and every night in case I was developing pre-eclampsia.
(Spoiler: I did).
I did not like that my hands itched so much they hurt from me scratching them (see: pre-eclampsia).
Before my son had even turned one, everyone asked me if I was ready for baby number two. I joked and said I still had PTSD from my first pregnancy.
They laughed. I laughed. It was a joke, after all.
PTSD is a serious condition; it is nothing like being pregnant. Yet, on some days, I do feel like I survived something. Something massive, life-changing, and utterly terrifying.
I realise the part I hated most about being pregnant was not having control. Not having the power to help the fragile human being inside me gain more weight, or obtain nourishment from my malfunctioning placenta. I was like most young women I know: convinced pregnancy was a natural process any woman could pass through, that it was straightforward and easy—this is, after all, what my body was made for.
When I found out I was pregnant, I did not consider the possibility that I might not carry my child to full term. I was blissfully naive.
The first red flag was that my son’s head was too big.
Our doctor was so calm when he told us that only later I realised I should have been afraid.
I do not remember what exactly it was the doctor told me that made me realise things were not going as planned. What I do remember is breaking down in tears in my cousin’s garden over cups of tea, afraid that my magical birth was to be replaced by a newborn covered in tubes, lit up by harsh lights in a neonatal ICU, serenaded by beeps and hushed voices.
I wanted to reach inside my womb and hold the little human fighting to live tightly.
Why couldn’t I have an easy pregnancy? Like what we have been taught to expect by countless movies and shows: a pregnant woman is big and round and uncomfortable and happy. The only tension is whether they’ll make it to the hospital in time or whether the baby will be born in the back of the taxi.
In my cousin’s garden, I grappled with my new reality. With the possibilities of what could go wrong. The reality that I wasn’t a fertility goddess but a limping horse led to field. Nature, in its wisdom, had allowed me to procreate, and now things were going wrong. If this had been the 1800s, my baby and I might not have survived.
Before every doctor’s appointment, I would be hopeful that my son would have grown enough. After every doctor’s appointment, I would tell my husband I was fine, then I would sit alone in my car and cry.
The biggest risk to my unborn baby was a surge of blood flow to the brain, a natural compensation for the malnourishment from the placenta that could cause brain damage. We had to keep an eye on it.
How do you keep an eye on something you cannot see?
Back then, already, I learned the hardest truth about being a parent: you cannot always help your child.
You can do your best. You can read all the books, stock up on the best food, heck, even do the bloody physical therapy exercises for pregnant women that have you walking up and down a swimming pool with your bump like a floaty balloon.
And. It. Does. Not. Help.
Sometimes, as a parent, you cannot do anything.
I tried to stay calm.
Our family went to the coast for the Namibian summer holidays, to a little settlement north of Henties Bay and made an effort to relax. I hoped to distract myself from my burgeoning fear. We stayed with my mom next door to my uncle. We had large family dinners and sat talking around the fire late into the night. Every morning when I took my blood pressure—as per the doctor’s orders—I would lie flat on my back and take a few deep breaths hoping to decrease my blood pressure. I must have thought that if I could overpower my blood pressure—if I could just manage it—everything else would not be so bad. I could regain some control of the situation; I could allay my anxiety.
I didn’t allow myself to give into the worst-case scenario. I knew, in my heart of hearts, that I couldn’t give in to the fear. I couldn’t live as if the possibility of heartache was reality. For my son’s sake, I had to be calm, relaxed, and chilled out.
That holiday, I tried to be at peace.
Every day I walked along the beach barefoot. Twice a day, I lay on my bed with my feet up against the wall, attempting to bring down the swelling in my feet.
My husband and I drove out into the desert and walked along the rocky ridges of the ancient Namibian landscape. We set up our camping chairs with our family on a flat expanse in the middle of nowhere.
That evening, we looked up at the sky, looking for Jupiter and Saturn; the last time the two planets had been so close to each other was in the 16th century. Some said the stars above us were the exact constellations that hung in the sky at the birth of Jesus.
As the sun set, my husband put his arms around me and I lay my head against his shoulder. We could pretend we had nothing to worry about.
One day that summer, on the beach, a friend’s boyfriend told me that pregnancy is so special, that pregnant women have some sort of magical power. I listened politely and thought: what the hell does he know?
I got up from my towel and walked to the lapping water. It was ice-cold but I swam every day, awestruck. As I floated in that freezing water my son swam inside me too. As I crested a wave, I let myself romanticise the thought. For a moment at least, I let myself believe that I was somehow special.
Then I got over it.
I ate as much good food as I could. I even drank homemade bone broth. Pregnancy shakes at least once a day, expensive tins of powdered milk with a serene mother cradling her bump pictured on the label. On the back: a long list of ingredients supposedly beneficial to me and my unborn son. I do not trust products with so many ingredients. I usually question everything but the stakes were too high at the time; I entrusted myself to my doctor and did as he instructed, no questions asked: “Drink the pregnancy shakes.”
So I did.
Back home I was excited. My first checkup of the year was scheduled for the day after we returned and I was looking forward to seeing the porridge-like blob scan of my little baby. The drive back was uneventful. Rain clouds banked on the horizon, the promise of rain was high as we drove into town. We parked the car and unpacked; the house was hot and stuffy.
The next morning, at the doctor, the regular tests were conducted: a urine sample to check for proteins and then the scan. We sat in the doctor’s office afterwards.
It happened: I had pre-eclampsia.
It was time to take the baby out. I was eight months pregnant at the time.
I was booked into the hospital that same day and scheduled for a C-section the day after. I was not scared. I cut myself off from thoughts about what could go wrong. I remained calm. I was not letting myself be anything but excited to meet my child.
You have to, eventually, go with whatever is happening. Adapt.
I did not have a choice about how my baby was brought into the world. At the beginning of my pregnancy, when I would list the pros and cons of natural birth versus caesarean, I was unaware of what could go wrong. How I might not have a choice in the matter
They took my boy out and stitched me back up. Did all the checks.
He was strong, healthy, but tiny. 2.2 kilograms.
In a haze, I held him for the first time and thought he looked nothing like what I had expected. What had I expected? Somehow, that he would look familiar. Not like the little Benjamin Button that had come out.
Back in my hospital room, I went into shock. My entire body shivered like it was freezing. I did not care about my child, alone somewhere in an incubator for his first hours of life. My husband lay on my bed next to me, holding me. I shivered so hard I had to bite and clench my teeth. I could not speak.
They say you forget the worst parts about pregnancy and giving birth. I remember everything.
I met my son, again, after my body had stabilised, or perhaps after the pain medication kicked in. I held this little human and felt like I could conquer the world. I stayed up most of the first night with him.
As soon as my milk came in, on the third or fourth day, so did my uncontrollable emotions. I cried every afternoon at seven on schedule. At first, I thought it was because I was so overwhelmed. Then I realised it was just a part of this rite of passage.
I gulped Rescue Remedy every night before bed.
On my first night out of the hospital, I could not sleep. Every single film I had ever seen that had a dead child came back to haunt me in a never-ending loop of horror-filled what-ifs.
Pregnancy had been bad. Being a new parent was somehow much worse.
Fear and anxiety came at me in ways I had never experienced before. I felt alone and abandoned when my husband wanted to go for a beer with his mates.
How dare he leave me? How dare he have fun?
I was sleep-deprived. Sometimes I was bored out of my mind. Caring for a newborn is not exciting.
I had something to prove, though. So many of my cousins had warned me about how hard it could be, how I had to watch out for signs of postpartum depression. I thought, not me. I would be stronger.
And I was.
I was strong.
I had so much to prove to everyone, to show how well I was managing, that eventually I was not coping. Yes, my hair was washed. I was showered and dressed. But, damn, I should have just stayed in bed. I was obsessed with doing things perfectly. Because if I did then I would not get postpartum. Or my son would sleep through the night.
The one thing everyone jokes about during pregnancy. You’ll never sleep again.
What they do not say is the truth: sleep deprivation is a form of torture.
Trying to figure out how to get my baby to sleep through the night was an obsession and an impossible-to-solve calculation I worked on every day. I read all the books. Joined the mommy groups and read the forums. When he should go to bed, when he should feed—how little or how much of each. All in the hope that if I could get it right, he would sleep.
I could not trust anyone else with this mission. I sat burping him when I should have been sleeping because the book said to do it in this specific way and I was sure my nanny would not do it right.
Pregnancy had been tough but it was just a precursor to motherhood.
The toughest part was letting go: taking a deep breath, stretching out on the little single bed in my son’s room, with the door closed and the lights off, while he was safe and napping in his bassinet—it took a few tries, a few minutes’ worth of concentrating on my breath before I could feel the tension leave me. In those first months, I felt like all I was doing I was just surviving.
But I made it.
My son is a year old and I am throwing him a big birthday party. I ordered a cake made of doughnuts. Really, it is a party to celebrate how far my husband and I have come. How I have survived a year of motherhood. How I have made it through, and how I am beginning to contemplate doing it all over again.
Not right now.
By Nina van Zyl as published in Doek! Literary magazine May 2022.