The Journeys of Motherhood
by Andrea Martinello
Six women around a table sipping on tea, sharing sacred parts of their lives. With every sentence and teardrop, the conversation of hope and loss is normalised.
To acknowledge our own experiences and those of the women around us, Botanica Bird hosted a Mother’s Day afternoon tea inviting woman who’ve experienced difficulties along their fertility journey.
This is part two of a Mother’s Day blog series. In this conversation, there will be no names and specifics. It’s a raw and candid discussion about the realities and shared experiences of infertility and miscarriage.
Mother’s Day can be an Instagram highlight reel, not showing the other side of motherhood. The exhausting side of infertility and loss that 16% of Australian couples experience. The side that’s rarely talked about.
At Botanica Bird, we want Mother’s Day to be more than flowers. We are representing and appreciating every maternal journey.
‘When are you having a baby?’
It’s an innocent question, right? For the women around this table, it’s a loaded one. Their true answer isn’t verbalised, but inside her head she screams, “You have no idea how hard I’m trying!”.
We will never know the extent of someone’s private struggles: “Before my miscarriage in September last year I would innocently ask people when they’re planning to start a family, without even thinking.”
“It’s not a question I should be asking. I should be asking ‘how are you going?’ or ‘how’s life?’.
“It’s taken going through these struggles myself to become more compassionate to what people are going through.”
The sound of the clock ticking becomes deafening when a woman reaches her 30s. The questions move from ‘when’ to ‘why haven’t you had a baby?’
Women today are choosing to travel and explore career pathways before having children because we now have the opportunity to do so. Why is society putting the same expectations on women today as they were to our mothers 30 years ago?
“I’m 32 and ever since I turned 30, I’ve felt the pressure. I pictured myself having a few babies and I feel quite sensitive to people querying about my life and fertility. People make a lot of assumptions because of your age,” one woman said.
“When I was 30, I didn’t know if I was going to get pregnant so when I turned 36, I decided to freeze my eggs, which took some pressure off. After turning 38 we started trying but it’s nice to know I have eggs frozen,” another replied.
In conjunction with self and societal pressures, it was brought to our attention that if a woman decides to have a child after the age of 36 it’s medically called a ‘geriatric pregnancy’: “It’s ridiculous that it’s considered geriatric, we’re at the start of our lives!”
Consuming and dominating
Fertility is an experience every woman around the table described as consuming and dominating for their mind and body.
Numerous doctor’s appointments, specialist check-ups, dietary changes, visits to naturopaths, endless Googling of symptoms and searching ‘what is wrong with me?’
“I was reading every book and seeing every doctor. I was even telling my partner that his undies were too tight, not have his laptop on his crotch or to eat more spinach. You start to almost lose your mind over it.”
For some progressing to the advanced stages of fertility, such as IVF or egg collection, their bodies are pumped with synthetic hormones to encourage ovulation. This all comes with its side effects that must to be masked to go about their daily routines.
Speaking of ovulation, living your life according to a period tracking app and obsessing over your ovulation schedule is an additional mental load to an already packed agenda.
“There is one window a month (if that!) for us to fall pregnant and men can ejaculate whenever they want. I know that it’s not that black and white, but it feels like all of the expectation falls on us.”
It’s also the simple daily things that can be the most triggering, like going to the toilet.
“Every time I go to the toilet, where it happened – my miscarriage, I am triggered. It might all be in my mind, but I can physically see it.”
Pregnancy after miscarriage
For many of the women in this chat who’ve fallen pregnant after a recent miscarriage, they describe a spectrum of emotions flooding their lives.
“After the first miscarriage, in the next cycle I fell pregnant. We were still processing the loss of the first pregnancy. My body hadn’t had a break yet and it was a lot to take in.”
The sentiment that ‘I’m not going to feel comfortable until I have a healthy baby in my arms’ was harmonised across the table.
One woman, through tears and an aching voice cracking with exhaustion, explained the consuming worry she felt every day for the nine months of her pregnancy.
“Every single day, even though I knew everything was okay and I was having symptoms of morning sickness that I’d never had before, I would panic.
“The stress is so real. For the whole nine months I was going to the toilet and checking if I was bleeding. I’d have to go the toilet with the lights on to make sure there is no blood on the toilet paper. It’s so messed up,” she said.
On the other side of the coin is experiencing pregnancy loss when trying for the consecutive children.
It’s not uncommon to think to yourself or hear from other people, “You should be grateful that you already have one.”
“I understand where they’re coming from, I get it. But it doesn’t mean that this isn’t difficult, and I’m not warranted my feelings,” she explained.
“Having to be present for my little human can be hard but they are also a shining light that helps me through those times,” she said.
Being ‘that friend’
“I don’t want to be a sad person all the time. I don’t want to lead a sad life.”
Protecting yourself against your friends is a strange concept. Finding their family life triggering, not knowing how to relate with them anymore. It’s sad.
An added complexity to the multi-layered world of fertility is being ‘that friend’ who’s struggling to get pregnant.
“I’ve got a lot of good friends and I love them all, and they all have their own struggles. But I find it hard to be present for them.”
For some these struggles can cause resentment and envy for other people’s lives. The experience was compared to buying a car: when you decide to buy a car, suddenly you start seeing that car driving around everywhere, and you begin to resent that car.
“When you’re trying to have a kid, and everyone around you is asking about it, or getting pregnant themselves, or already have a kid – it’s so triggering.”
For these women, and we are sure for so many more, it’s about self-preservation, knowing what you can handle in a situation and stepping away when needed. Our friends understand this and, in a way, want to protect us as well.
“Two of my friends fell pregnant, one by accident. She started crying because she felt bad having to tell me. People were finding it hard to tell me.”
The partner’s experience
Fertility can be a lonely path however, those walking it are never alone. Yes, the woman goes through the physicality of pregnancy, but their partner’s emotional experience can take a back seat in times of heartbreak.
Feeling useless and distant from the process was a common thread of the partner’s experience during this chat.
“It’s not spoken about enough on who supports the men through all this. I lean so much on him for everything, who does he lean on and help process his emotions?
“My husband and I had two back-to-back miscarriages in a year, and he said to me ‘I want to help you but there is nothing I can do’. He found it so hard to support me and his own mental health.”
It’s a sense of being left on your own, together. Sometimes supporting each other isn’t enough and more education on the entire matter, physical and mental health, is what’s truly needed.
The largest gap: Education
From the six women around the table, at least half of them had a story about their reproductive health. From Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) to Endometriosis, the information they received surrounding these conditions, and their reproductive health in general, was vague and symptoms were often masked with the pill.
“As a teenager I had horrific periods and when I went on the pill at 17, I thought it was absolute magic. When I stopped taking it 10 years ago to start trying to have a baby, all the symptoms returned.
“I was diagnosed with PCOS 18 months ago and I now know that the pill was just masking the symptoms that should have been noticed when I was 17.”
Growing up pop culture was showing people getting pregnant at the drop of a hat. Falling pregnant was something that happened when you were careless.
“This is the problem; we all grew up thinking it was so damn easy to fall pregnant and to stay on the pill until you want a baby.
“Now we are in our 30 and it’s not what the movies told us it would be like,” she joked.
Another woman also made a good point: “We are taught in school and throughout our lives how not to get pregnant but there isn’t nearly enough about education about women’s health and the pill.”
It was suggested that fertility conversations be incorporated into regular doctor check-ups and we need to learn earlier how to track our periods and read our bodies.
Normalise the negative
Having people understanding infertility in general and experiencing those feelings of longing and consuming emotions is connecting and empowering.
“I feel lucky that we’ve shared a part of ourselves that’s so special, sacred and very sensitive, not matter what variation our struggles are.
“Women work together so well. It needs to be a more normalised conversation.”
Conversations like this raise awareness, especially for the people around us to understand that assumptions and flippancy can be harmful. Helping them to understand our situation and displaying sensitivity and empathy.
“It’s a party no one wants to be invited to, albeit we are grateful that we turned up for each other.”