Monday, November 1, 2010

The Experience of Pregnancy

How many of you out there have ever been pregnant? The number of you answering "yes" is going to be limited by certain factors, such as being female, being of a certain age, etc.

Okay, then, how many of you have ever considered writing about a pregnant person in a story? Probably far more - the limiting factors aren't so limiting in fiction!

So many times when I see pregnancy in a fictional context, it tends to fall into the tired old throwing up - food cravings - fat tummy combination. But there's so much more to pregnancy than that! So for those who might want to know for their research, I thought I'd start this entry. I encourage any of you who have experienced pregnancy and would like to contribute any of your own experiences to comment at the end of this post. I'm trying not to be gross here, so please keep the comments informative and not too detailed.

Let me start with some refuting/refinement of the traditional basics, and then I'll add some different kinds of pregnancy stuff.

1. Throwing up.
Not everyone does this - I felt nauseated at times, but never actually threw up in either of my pregnancies. Morning sickness can hit people in the morning, but sometimes people feel it more strongly in the afternoon (I did). For some, it can last all day. My own experience was that I would feel nausea if my stomach was ever totally empty. Therefore, I had to make sure not ever to let my stomach be empty. I took food with me everywhere (more on this below). Morning sickness for most people lasts through the first trimester (12 weeks); for me it lasted 15 weeks. I have known people for whom it lasted through the entire pregnancy, but this is more rare. So if you have a character experiencing morning sickness in their 8th month of pregnancy, this is a really unusual thing (and in addition, they've probably had it all along until then).

2. Food cravings.
Yes, these happen. But pickles and ice cream would be something I'd expect to hear about from one woman in a hundred (or maybe more). My experience was more that I wanted to eat in a particular pattern. This pattern was different for different pregnancies. With my son, I wanted to eat meat. Lots of meat, in lots of forms (though I remember feeling revulsion for tangerine beef; go figure). With my daughter, it was vegetables and fruit. Meat didn't gross me out, but neither was I excited about it. I definitely did want to keep supplies of my favorite foods available. Note for the curious: this is not a boy/girl thing. It's all about the individual pregnancy and the individual child. I have heard lots of stories about indicators that you're carrying a boy or a girl, but none that actually have consistent patterns across groups of people. The thing I experienced the most was hunger, and hunger like I'd never known it. A moment would come, and I would need to eat. NOW. Even once the nausea effect was gone, the hunger effect would remain, and I'd get so ravenous that I'd feel dizzy and angry. This again was why I carried food with me all the time. I wasn't able to wait five minutes for a table.

3. Fat tummy.
The weight that a woman gains in pregnancy is significantly more than the weight of the baby, but she may or may not put on fat. This weight comes from amniotic fluid, placenta, and other things - not the least of which would be the extra blood the woman needs during a pregnancy (up to 50% more than usual). Early in the pregnancy you'll see the tummy bulge but it will feel soft because the uterus will still be too small and too far down in the pelvis to feel. The hard round tummy of later pregnancy is the feel of the uterus which has pushed other things (intestines, etc.) out of the way. In a second or subsequent pregnancy, the abdomen will expand more quickly than in the first pregnancy, because the body has already "learned" how to stretch out to accommodate a growing baby. In addition, the tummy does not expand gradually and consistently, but will remain at one size for a period of time, and then expand rapidly over a day or two before staying at that size for another longer period.

Some other elements of pregnancy that aren't usually accurate in fiction include:
  • a pregnant woman may experience slower digestion (even constipation), but she'll have to go to the bathroom more often because she'll be eliminating the baby's wastes as well as her own, and the uterus often presses down on the bladder.
  • a pregnant woman will have changes in balance, and may stumble or fall, or have difficulty navigating stairs or narrow aisleways (such as passing people in a theater or stadium). The irregular expansions of the belly have a lot to do with this, as they change your center of gravity constantly.
  • a pregnant woman will very often experience an increase in the sense of smell. I could smell cigarette smoke practically half a mile away; a friend of mine was able to smell pizza before it even came out of the kitchen. My brother referred to this as "Spidey-senses." Perhaps included in this is an increased awareness of surroundings, and increased anxiety about dangers.
  • starting around the third trimester the woman will probably start to feel Braxton-Hicks contractions, which are uterine contractions not associated with actual labor. (It feels for a few moments like you're holding a basketball inside your stomach!) For most women I know, it has been difficult to distinguish between strong Braxton-Hicks contractions and the early onset of actual labor. Cries of "The baby's coming!" and "It's time!" occur often in fiction, but seldom in real life.
  • one very common symptom of pregnancy is extreme fatigue. My own experience with this was having sudden waves of fatigue hit and knowing I had about ten seconds to lie down (bed, couch, wherever) before I'd fall asleep, whether I wanted to or not. During my first pregnancy, I'd sleep for two hours each time. During my second, the baby would wake me up after a much shorter time. On one of those occasions, I discovered he had learned to use the CD player while I was sleeping! I'm very lucky he wasn't a destructive baby.
  • the "water" doesn't always break. Some women experience their water breaking at home, and some in public places. It's not always dramatic, though our pregnancy counselor joked that if it happened at the grocery store you should just break a pickle jar on the floor and shout "clean-up on aisle 3!" However, once the water breaks the baby needs to come out within 48 hours or be at risk of infection.
A few last thoughts - I include these because they stand out to me, though childbirth and its aftermath aren't really official topics of this post:
  • women don't always scream in childbirth.
  • women experience continued contractions after the birth (even when everything is out), because these serve to bring the uterus back down to its normal size and to stop the bleeding.
  • breastfeeding is both instinctive and learned, and it isn't easy at first; it's also very individual. There's no one way to do it.
I hope this post expands your thinking about pregnancy if you haven't experienced it. It's worth doing research about it if you want to include it in a story. The web has lots of sites where you can find medical information about pregnancy and its physiological changes, including this one. You can also interview friends or try to find personal accounts of pregnancy experiences. It's worth doing, so that your story doesn't fall into a pregnancy cliché by accident.


  1. Odd that this is going to be the post I comment on, but you forgot one aspect:

    1) "Gestational retardation" -- the losing of the mental faculties during pregnancy

    This is one that I'd never heard of before my wife became pregnant, but it seems to be pretty common. We had one neighbor who couldn't leave her house because she couldn't find her car keys -- they were on the normal "car key" rack in her kitchen. Another couldn't go to work due to again loss of car keys -- they were in her refrigerator. A third (a very bright engineer) tried to hand in a report to her boss, and ended up having to redo it because it was just a big mess. I can't recall any specifics from my wife, but I know that she had some days where the upstairs just wasn't working properly.

    I don't know what it is, but something about either the hormones, or the fatigue, or whatever the cause, but this has happened to too many women I know to just be a coincidence...

  2. Brad, I'll have to take issue with your terminology, as the only results for "gestational retardation" have to do with slow growth of the fetus and have nothing to do with pregnant women's mental faculties. As for the occurrences you mention, I'm assuming they were not constant but single occasions? As far as an actual physiological basis for such incidents, I don't think they could be "caused" by pregnancy. However, there are a lot of physical distractions involved in being pregnant (fatigue just being one), and these distractions may have contributed to other existing factors in the situations you describe. Fatigue alone could have caused any of these incidents, as I see it, in a male or a female.

  3. It's not my term -- it was a non-medical humorous term my neighbor and her husband used to describe it. And it's intended to be humorous, no disrespect intended for actual slow development/etc.

    Nor were these just isolated incidents; there were numerous and these were just some of the more memorable. There were a couple of months of general absent-mindedness. As to a physiological cause, it could be as simple as fatigue. Anyone who has their sleep patterns disrupted (and whose body/fetus are demanding huge extra amounts of energy to grow a human being from a single cell) is going to be thrown off-kilter. Whether there's a secondary hormonal impact is unclear. I know all hormones raging can definitely affect mood, but I don't know if they'd affect brain function in other ways.

    My point is that it occurs. If someone is trying to write a believable pregnant character, throwing in some absent-mindedness or just general "out-of-character" behavior wouldn't be incorrect.

  4. Sure, Brad. I'm just trying to be careful and not make it appear scientific when it's anecdotal. It's also important, to my mind, to make sure incidents of the absent-minded variety are put in the proper context of fatigue and high physical distraction. I appreciate your contribution.

  5. I haven't been pregnant myself (for the obvious reason), but my wife's pregnancy was not so long ago that I don't think I wouldn't be reasonably accurate in describing the experience, were I to do so. (Our daughter is two years old now.)

    I could make a long comment regarding pregnancy, but I'll spare everyone that torture. ;) Instead, I thought I'd comment on one statement:

    Cries of "The baby's coming!" and "It's time!" occur often in fiction, but seldom in real life.

    I agree that there are the occasional false alarm in real life, but the other possibility is that of the premature labor/delivery of a child. In my wife's case, she did have strong Braxton-Hicks contractions one day around the five-month mark. She rushed down to the hospital, and we spent a few nervous hours worrying that we might lose the baby. Thank God that that did not happen, but a fair number of pregnancies are termed high-risk (as our daughter's pregnancy was). That will certainly add drama and authenticity to a story!

  6. JDsg, good point. I had a false alarm of that nature, but fortunately it was only three weeks early - not at a time when it would really have been dangerous to the baby. High-risk pregnancies can be very difficult. Spikes in maternal blood pressure can lead to a premature Caesarean in some cases. We also know a woman who had to spend four months of her pregnancy lying down (with lots of anti-labor drugs). This was extremely difficult for her, as you can imagine.

  7. Nice post, Juliette...

    Not having been pregnant, I own several books on pregnancy for research purposes. While I realize that's not the same as experience....but getting pregnant for research purposes would just be going too far ;o)

  8. Thanks, J. Kathleen! You have a good point - I really don't suggest getting pregnant for the purposes of research!:)

  9. I was popping TUMS and trying to sleep sitting up during my third trimester(s). Acid. :P

    I hear you on the hunger thing. I'd be chugging along fine and then the hunger monster would sink its claws into me. I'd have to eat RIGHT THEN or else I'd be gnawing my own hand off or retching. Weird.

    The taste of toothpaste made me throw up.

    It's really not hard to find out what the experience of pregnancy and childbirth is like. Most moms I know are only too eager to detail their woes---or maybe we're all just trading war stories. *grin*

    Thank you thank you for pointing out the women don't *have* to scream during labor. Or turn into raving lunatics. Some of us get very very quiet when dealing with pain. And can we also get past the stereotypes of women lying flat on their backs to give birth? That position is not. helpful.

    Yes, I'm delurking to comment on this as it addresses some pet peeves of mine. :D

  10. Thanks for de-lurking, Rabia! You've brought up something I missed - the effect of a growing baby on the rest of the internal systems. SQUISHING. I didn't have problems with acid reflux, which many women have, but I did get shortness of breath from the lack of extra room inside my torso. Those could be other useful things to include in a portrayal of pregnancy.

  11. The details of pregnancy vary from person to person, so even getting an "eye-witness" account from someone you know doesn't necessarily make it completely accurate. If you simply portray what that particular character is experiencing, however, and not generalize anything, then it won't be wrong.

    It definitely annoys me when you see pregnancy portrayed the same way over and over again. There's always a dramatic breaking of water and a rush to the hospital at the last minute. *grumble* There are so many missed opportunities to portray something unique.

    I went in for a routine check-up about two weeks before my due date, was admitted that night, induced the next morning (which included having my water broken manually by the doctor), and gave birth early afternoon. Within 24 hours I'd gone from "still got plenty of time" to changing diapers. (Oh yeah, I didn't scream either. I just cried and puked until I was far enough along to get my epidural. Drugs are awesome.) Why don't we ever hear those stories? Or the ones about women who are in labor for 36 hours and then have an emergency C-section? And the list goes on...

    And that's just labor and delivery. There are so many differences during the months that precede it, I'm surprised that fiction and film often resort to such overused details.

  12. Thanks for your contribution, Lydia. Indeed, it's the sameness that is the real problem - pregnancy is very individual. I was one of the ones who won the "24 hours of labor and then emergency C" prize, with my first. I don't need that much trauma in every baby instance in a story, but that's just the point - there's no variety.

  13. I was one of the lucky ones. Mild nausea throughout the pregnancy, and a constant need for food, even up to and including the ... I think ... 16th of 20 hours of labor. That buttered toast with just a little jam never tasted so good :).

    Lemme think.

    1) The forgetfulness is chemical, as I understand it, and is designed to make women forget the difficulty of labor. It's fascinating to talk to a woman within a couple weeks of giving birth and then as little as two months later. The edges of the tale starts getting smoothed out.

    2) While I did not experience the sudden tummy growth with either of mine, I did have walking issues related to the release of another chemical designed to loosen the ligaments so the hips move out of the way of the baby's head. I have naturally loose ligaments so this was endlessly amusing :p.

    3) There actually was a woman giving birth at the same time as I did who did the whole poltergiest "You're never touching me again" scream loud enough to be heard down the hall in a separate birthing room.

    4) Seconding you on the water. Both times the doc had to break it.

    5) However, not seconding you on the "Baby's Coming" because the nurse didn't believe my hubby when he said I had to push until she heard my voice. Doc barely got there in time to catch.

    6) Oh, and most importantly? That whole 7 minutes apart at the beginning and 1-3 minutes means birth is imminent? Complete lie :p. At least 17 of the 20 hours were 1-3 minutes apart.

    7) I'm one of the ones who did no pain meds. Pain wasn't an issue, but it sure was intense.

    8) And it doesn't run in the family because my mom almost had TWO of the three of us in the back of (would you believe it) the same taxi cab only 6 years apart. Crazy.

    9) And speaking of which, 20 hours for the first, maybe 6 for the second? Almost didn't go to the hospital because I didn't want to get sent home again.

    Yes, pregancies are very different and have to do with the unique genetic combination of the two parents, the disposition of both mother and father, timing, even the reading of the ultrasound. My first was about 2 weeks late. He should have been induced, but the 6 week (I think) ultrasound made it look like he wasn't due for another month.

    I've replicated my pregnancy in fiction before only to have critters to tell me it wasn't possible, especially on the pain meds and being intense rather than painful.

  14. At a certain point in her pregnancy, my wife couldn't sleep...because our son was lulled to sleep when she was walking, but he woke up the second she lay down to sleep. And when he woke up, he wanted to "dance".

    The night he didn't wake up and dance, she was sure something was wrong. Nighttime dash to the hospital. Tests. Sent home. Returned the next day. Ran into the midwife running our prenatal classes. Told her it was okay, we were just here for tests. Famous last words.

    My wife's blood pressure had been up for most of her pregnancy. The tests found protein in her urine. She had preeclampsia, a condition where the umbilical cord shuts down. You can probably appreciate that this is very bad for the unborn child.

    Fortunately, he was only 9 -10 days early (we knew the exact date we had, um, performed without a safety net). One emergency c-section, and mother and son were doing well. Dad was perhaps not so well, having accidently glanced over the little curtain thingy, and seen parts of my wife that were never designed to see daylight.

  15. Thanks so much for your comment, Margaret. You bring up a lot of good points. Interesting, what you bring up about forgetfulness. It's true that the chemicals released during labor cause women to forget what the pain was like - I'm not sure whether those same chemicals are released at other times, so as to be certain whether they bear any relation to Brad's comment. Definitely something worth knowing about, however. When I talked about "the baby's coming" I was referring to the onset of labor, not to the moment when the baby is about to emerge! Interesting too about the ligament loosening. Thanks so much for your contributions. I wonder if we've seen pregnancy portrayed as uniform so many times that some folks are convinced that's the only way it happens. That would be a shame.

  16. David, thanks for commenting! I'd forgotten about the night-time dancing also. I must say I'm sorry about the emergency C-section, but
    I'm happy that there were no terrible complications from the pre-eclampsia.

    Baby movements can vary quite a lot. At first they're hardly noticeable (you'll notice them earlier the second time). By the end you'll often get dramatic movements that distort the belly. My son used to stick his little foot out so you could see the bulge made by his heel. If I pushed on it, he'd move it somewhere else and push again. Some women I know have had terrible difficulties with moving babies kicking them in the kidneys or diaphragm or bladder.

  17. Yr welcome. It's a good question. I actually "knew" when I was in labor as opposed to false labor, but I couldn't tell you why, just that I did. Funny story...

    My husband and I were out at a movie (Sneakers) when I went into labor. It took me a little to recognize because theater seats are hard on my joints so I'm not that comfortable to start out with, but it was a great movie so I stuck it out. So good that we walked out to the parking lot talking about it, got into the car, and started to drive home. Not until then did I think to mention to my husband, who was driving, that I was in labor...a fact he has never let me live down as we were lucky not to get into an accident :D.

  18. Margaret, yikes! I'm glad you didn't have an accident. I had false labor three weeks early and had no idea that wasn't the real thing... yet another aspect of pregnancy that is different for different people.

  19. Juliette,

    We called that whole-baby-turn belly-distortion the Shark Baby Effect. It's really weird (and kinda fun) to see the ripple effect as the baby moves in that last trimester. And yes, also having to gently push a hand or foot away from where it's poking out. *grin*