‘Enjoy it while you can’. Is there a more gloomy phrase to hear while pregnant? | Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett

Strangers are so keen to tell me my life as I know it will be over soon – thank goodness for those who have told me it will be OK

“Enjoy it while you can”: how I’ve come to dislike these five little words, which have followed me everywhere since my pregnancy became obvious. Suddenly, they are applied to anything pleasurable – sleep, holidays, a meal in a restaurant. “Enjoy it while you can,” people say (because when the baby comes, your life as you know it will be over).

They mean well, I think, but I’ll confess that I’ve been shocked by the negativity surrounding parenthood. People seem to feel that they simply must tell you how hard it is, warts and all, maybe because no one told them, and they do it with the zeal of missionaries: they have seen the truth, and it is terrible to behold. Hollie McNish has a book of poetry about parenthood called Nobody Told Me. Mine would be called Everybody Told Me, All the Time, Until I Had to Ask Them to Stop.

Before I had the baby, it’s not that I thought parenthood was going to be a breeze – I just wanted to hear a tiny bit of positive feedback about it.

During pregnancy you realise pretty quickly that, for your own sanity, you will need to avoid certain subjects. In the early months, tales of miscarriage seemed to be everywhere (and this is after all the tales of fertility woe, which, in my case anyway, led to the belief that it would be near-impossible to get pregnant). If you get to 12 weeks, suddenly stories about foetal anomalies seem to spring up. And after that it’s stillbirths, traumatic labours, sepsis, death. I found myself desperate to read a story along the lines of: “Woman conceives child naturally, only to carry and give birth to said child without complications.”

This is not to be flippant about the very real suffering of many women, which for decades was cloaked in shameful silence. Pregnancy and birth can be dangerous and traumatising, particularly for women but also for men. Part of the reason that we are seeing these stories now is because the cult of motherhood positivity felt so suffocating. Among my friendship group are women and their partners who have suffered traumatic births, pregnancy loss and postnatal depression. Some people have become parents during the pandemic, with all of the unique challenges that poses. I have listened to their testimonies and, I hope, supported them. These conversations are often long and nuanced, and feature moments of joy as well as pain. They perhaps reflect better the experience of parenthood than many articles are able to.

No, it is the strangers who seem to present the most negativity. It is as though they think pregnant women are wandering blindly into parenthood and must be shown the light. The implication is that before embarking on this journey, we lived carefree existences without responsibility. But this is not the reality for everyone: for example, when I was a child I was a carer for my brother. Others will have nursed loved ones through illness and death, or supported them through periods of mental illness. It may not be an identical experience to that of being a parent, but there are many ways to care, and to express that care. Others who are childfree exercise their caring impulses through their family and community networks, through fostering, volunteering, political activism. Or perhaps, snotty as the pope has been about this, they care for animals. We are all a part of a collective of which caring is a crucial part.

At least, that’s how I see it. Some frame parenthood as a dividing line – on the one side those who embark upon it, on the other those who don’t. But I’ve never seen it that way: I prefer to choose solidarity.

People often say that when you are pregnant, you become public property. In Making Babies, Anne Enright writes of how, during her pregnancy, she felt she became a sort of vessel for other people’s projections. “Everyone’s unconscious was very close to their mouth,” she writes. “Whatever my pregnant body triggered was not political, or social, it was animal and ancient and quite helpless.”

Perhaps, in all the parenting negativity, we are seeing an overcorrection. An attempt to be more honest about the challenges that has spilled over into a tide that, at times, can feel overwhelming, especially to those who are prone to anxiety or have suffered from mental illness. I found myself clinging to the stories of those few strangers who smiled at my news and told me of their parenting joys: the cabby who picked me up from my first midwife appointment and told me how much he loves being a dad; the woman on holiday who vividly described nursing her son, how his little dark eyes would lock with hers so that they felt like the only two people in the world. Whenever I heard another “Enjoy it while you can”, I held on to these snippets and tried not to panic.

What is working: I read in Philippa Perry’s excellent The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read about some studies showing the benefits of eating chocolate in pregnancy. Not only does it apparently reduce the likelihood of pre-eclampsia, but women who ate chocolate daily during pregnancy had babies that smiled and laughed more than those who hadn’t. This makes me feel even better about my near-daily trip to the nearby brownie stall.

What isn’t: Packed off to triage with high blood pressure that turned out to be caused by white coat syndrome, I see a woman’s waters break in the waiting room. “Oh shit,” she says, “my trackies.” She’s put in the bay next to mine. “This is the most pain I have ever been in,” she yells, ensuring my blood pressure remains as high as ever. “They do say that labour is painful,” her partner says, as we each contemplate ways in which we would kill him. “I mean, that shouldn’t come as a surprise. They do tell you that, babe.” Birth partners: just because you’re thinking it doesn’t mean you should say it.

  • Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a Guardian columnist


Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett

The GuardianTramp

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