I am not a natural actress. When I’m in front of an audience I seize up and sweat freely; I can feel my own heartbeat in weird places, like my eyeballs and ankles. This is why I was rubbish at being in a band, and why my husband had trouble sliding the ring onto my freely-perspiring fingers on our wedding day.
So why are women automatically expected to perform with Meryl Streep levels of thespian prowess in the character role of “definitely-not-pregnant-woman” for the first 12 weeks of pregnancy?
Concealing an early pregnancy is an accepted societal rule (if an unspoken one – just the way we all accept that Humpty Dumpty is an egg despite that being specified nowhere in the nursery rhyme), mainly because miscarriages are common in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. And I take issue with that.
That’s not to say I think you have to tell everyone the minute you become pregnant – when you decide to tell people is up to you, as an individual. I just don’t think having to wait should be a rule, however unspoken.
For a start, although some women sail through their pregnancies, often the first 12 weeks is a festival of aching boobs, backs and bellies; overwhelming nausea and fatigue; and weird emotions and aversions. It can be a bit like having the flu, except when you have the flu you’re not expected to grit your teeth, channel Meryl and keep going – to work, to parties, to see family – until you can breathe easy in week 13.
And then we come to miscarriages – the root of why we stay silent in early pregnancy. Which is odd, because a miscarriage is probably the least concealable aspect of early pregnancy.
Often, a miscarriage isn’t like a discreet vomit or dizzy spell we can mask as something else. A lot of them are long, drawn-out affairs. Some happen in public. Some you just have to wait out on the loo. A lot of them are painful, in lots of ways – and some happen again and again, and take forever to recover from.
When I had a miscarriage I didn’t want to talk about it; to explain ‘I am having a miscarriage’. But what would have been nice is if, on top of dealing with my mess, pain, anxiety and sadness, I hadn’t had the added stress of concealing it all. To think of a lie so I could go home early from work; and then more lies so I could stay home the next couple of days; more lies to deal with subsequent trips to the hospital and doctor – and then yet more: the lie of “I’m fine!” when I then returned to work.
I also concealed this particular pregnancy from my friends and loved ones, and it took me forever to tell them about my miscarriage. When they asked why, I told them I knew you’re not supposed to tell people before 12 weeks – and besides, I hadn’t wanted to get their hopes up only to disappoint them with the news of the miscarriage.
Which is when my loved ones said, “Why would you worry about how people will take the news of a miscarriage when it means you’d have to deal with the reality of a miscarriage on your own?”
For me, this encapsulates everything that’s wrong with the notion of keeping quiet about an early pregnancy “for fear of miscarriage”. I think this rule exists because people don’t want to talk about miscarriages (again, if you don’t want to talk about your miscarriage, I fully support that), because there’s still a sense of shame associated with “women’s bits”.
Just as it’s generally acceptable to complain loudly about your “really snotty cold” in the office – but probably less so to share news of your unusually heavy period flow (even if it was causing you pain and affecting your productivity) – so keeping quiet about pregnancy protects people from dealing with the uncomfortable topic of miscarriage.
If it were about the woman herself, the priority might be making her life as easy as possible, rather than concealing the perfectly natural thing her body was doing. There is nothing shameful about the bodily process of pregnancy or miscarriage, but both can be stressful and painful.
So, if you’re up for it, I vote that we talk more – not less about our early pregnancies, and even about our miscarriages. Because if more people know, more people can offer support – and each time that happens, miscarriages lose some of the outdated weight of misplaced shame.
It should be up to you when you tell people about your pregnancy; how awkward they may feel about it is up to them.