Monday, January 2, 2012

TTYU Retro: 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. Please do also see the comments on the first version of this post, here.

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. Good one.

    I only ever experienced morning sicknes in my second trimester (also extremely rare), and did not throw up unless I ate a piece of fruit (sonn learned not to do that, didn't I?)

    Another cliche is the very fast birth. The supermarket birth happens, but rarely. I'm writing a fantasy right now where a character is a midwife in a rather primitive society. She has a patient young girl who is in labour for most of the book.

  2. Thanks, Patty. I'll tell you right now, I didn't experience any fast births! Thanks for mentioning that one... they happen, but in fiction they happen too often. Thanks for your comment!

  3. Fast birth may run in families. In my mother's family, births tends to be fast. I remember my aunt telling us that when she got my cousin, she was helping repairing the roof (no, she wasn't actually up there) at 4pm and she had given birth by 9, if I remember correctly.

  4. This actually made me think of the different practices/medicines for childbirth. I've had two kids -- one at a hospital, and one at a birthing center with midwives. The midwives emphasized things like exercises to help with births, something I researched & did by myself with the first child. I'm sure my genetic make-up played a large role, but I was in labor for four hours with each kiddo. Epidurals also tend to slow maybe fast(er) labors would make sense in some societies with a certain level of medicine and a good knowledge of how to prepare for birth. (Also, first children tend to have longer labors than later children, though that wasn't the case for me). I wish I was regularly available on Wednesdays; this would be a really cool topic for a world building hangout.

    With the balance thing you mentioned, joints are loosened during pregnancy to aide with the birth as well as being off-balance; I actually twisted my ankle. Thankfully, folks were very helpful when confronted with a pregnant woman fallen on the stairs, but I was terribly embarrassed when the campus paramedics showed up. I couldn't get a hold of family, so they had a police officer drive me home.

    On the more social side of things, the two other things that really stand out about being pregnant is random people wanting to touch your belly and everyone wanting to tell you their pregnancy/childbirth horror stories (ack!).

  5. I found, during my extended not-just-morning sickness, that I could eat raisins in spite of the nausea. They also provided easy, portable, nonperishable energy. Several years into menopause, I still carry raisins in my purse :-).

    Re the sleepiness, the only times in my life when I could nap when healthy were during my pregnancies.

  6. Khajidu, sometimes people do have very short labors - and you may be right about the tendency to run in families. Sometimes they have very long ones, too. There's a huge range. Thanks for the comment!

    MK, thanks for sharing your experience! I do so remember the feeling of invasion, where everyone wants to touch you and considers your "condition" their business. People have never been so full of advice for me. I even had Japanese people telling me I should clean the floors more because it would be good for me. Thanks for your comment.

    Karen, I was nauseated whenever I was hungry, and hunger came on like a wolf-bite, so I had to have food with me at all times. I'm glad you found the magic bullet for that! Thanks for sharing your experience.

  7. I think a really great resource for writing about birth and pregnancy is "Ina May's Guide to Childbirth." It has a lot of different first-hand accounts, unique and true experiences. Also, if you're writing any fiction earlier than the invention of an epidural, you're going to want to listen to accounts of natural births, which this book has a lot of. It also talks about natural birthing positions, which is one of my media pet peeves. Women birthing on their backs is a Victorian notion, and is very specific to modern culture. Traditional positions include squatting, kneeling on all fours, using a stool, and even hanging from a branch or rope to let gravity help out. Squatting is the easiest, and fastest, method. Unfortunately, because of modern toilets, many woman don't have the ability to squat.

    Had my first baby in June, haha, and I'm going to stop rambling now.

  8. Christine, thanks a lot for that recommendation! The book sounds fascinating. I agree about the birth posture part. You weren't rambling. And congratulations!

  9. This is interesting to read right now. There's a pregnant character in my WIP, a first for me.
    She doesn't have a lot of page time, so I won't ever need as many details as you've outlined here. But it's funny because even though I thought I knew quite a bit about pregnancy, I'm finding myself consulting the lady in my life at least once per scene about the smallest details.

    The other day, I needed to reference the character's breakfast because she had to abandon it. It's one thing to know that eggs are bad news for most pregnant women. That's a pretty easy one, in fact. But what ISN'T bad news? There are only a few hundred different other foods that could go either way. After a quick consultation, I ended up going with oatmeal, since if she were having issues with slow digestion (as you referenced) she might have opted for something with lots of fiber.

    Just goes to show that in writing a good characters, what one does and doesn't know can be equally important.

  10. Ezra, pregnancies are very individual, and so I don't think there's anything that can be infallibly pinpointed as a safe breakfast. Crackers? (lol) I know that my appetite was totally different from one of my pregnancies to the other. With my son, I wanted protein and more protein. Beef, preferably - but tangerine beef made me sick just to smell it. With my daughter, I was all fruits and vegetables. I know from friends' experience that it doesn't necessarily align in any way with the gender of the baby either. But oatmeal does sound quite safe and healthy on the face of it!