Pregnancy, like any major life event, has a steep learning curve. You can’t really prepare, because you don’t know how things are going to be for you, but at the same time, you can learn about the range of things you can expect and know what resources are available once you run into trouble.
Personally, I expected no difficulties in my pregnancy, because my mom had none in her four. And for the first month and a half, that was the case. But my mom never had twins, and twins are a whole other story. What I learned isn’t just about how to deal with twins – it’s a larger philosophy to approaching pregnancy, and maybe even to approaching any kind of major life change (with some specific material items thrown in because why not).
State of mind: asking for time to decide how you feel
I couldn’t put this into words until recently, when I took a birthing class at my hospital and talked with a few people after who had recently given birth for the first time. In the medical world, practitioners will often use some variation on the acronym BRAIN. The idea behind BRAIN is it reminds you of the series of steps that you can take when deciding what action to take – it’s a method for assessing the information you’ve been given and figuring out whether there is more you need to know. It goes like this:
Benefits – why would I do this? How will it help me?
Risks – what could go wrong? What might I not be able to do as a result?
Alternatives – can I do something else instead?
Intuition – all reasoning aside, does this feel right to me? Is my body telling me that I am reluctant to do this for some reason I haven’t been able to articulate yet?
Nothing – there is always the option to simply wait. Do I need more time to figure this out? Are the benefits and risks equal in a way that requires more thought? Are the alternatives something I should put serious consideration into? Have I figured out what my intuition is telling me? Or do I need to do anything about this right now? Can I just wait for the time being?
What I like about the BRAIN method is that it gives voice to the intangibles – I can’t tell you why I don’t want to do this, but I don’t feel comfortable yet. It gives you space – incentive even – to assess your reactions to what is happening around you, rather than trying to logic out a decision in the moment. This builds on a few key life mottos that I’ve used for a long time. For instance, back when I starting interviewing for school (which was when I was 11 years old because I started prep school at that time), my dad told me that if I didn’t immediately know the answer to a question, it was better to take a breath and think about it than to just immediately respond and be committed to a worse answer. I’ve expanded this into a life philosophy of taking a breath in the midst of things, which has served me really well. But in recent years, I’ve had a lot of stressful experiences that elicited strong emotions. And because I’m a fundamentally logic-driven person, I push that emotional response away until I feel safe enough to have it. This has resulted in extended, delayed, and often snowballing emotional reactions that can get out of control and make me panic once the moment of decision is past. BRAIN says that it’s ok to take time in the moment of decision to reflect on my emotional reaction to what’s going on, that I don’t need to choose between logic and emotion, and that the best decision for me will come from taking both into account.
I started to come to this realization before I became pregnant, when I had my IUD removed. I had suffered through the IUD for 6 years – I was told the painful cramping would go away after 6 months, but there I was, 6 years later, being woken up in the middle of the night because I felt like I was being stabbed in the stomach. It took me 6 years to realize that I was not being a bother or not toughing it out when I couldn’t handle the pain – I had already gotten an ultrasound at 2 years to confirm that the thing hadn’t punctured my uterus. I justified keeping it by saying that it wasn’t that bad because it was only at most a week out of every month, and it was so effective at preventing pregnancy, and there were no hormones in it (because my mom had convinced me that extra hormones were the devil and would give me cancer). I didn’t need this long to make the decision to remove the IUD – if I had listened to my intuition, I would have known many years before that keeping it made me unhappy. No, the moment that I listened to my intuition was during its removal. I went to my university’s clinic, because that was my primary healthcare provider, and rather than the prolonged, delicate process that had been involved in placing it in my uterus 6 years before at a doctor’s office, the NP simply grabbed the end with a pair of medical pliers and told me to cough as she yanked it out. The second I entered the room, I didn’t feel right. I felt tense, uncomfortable in a way I don’t normally in a doctor’s office. I should have told her to wait. I should have asked about the process for removing the thing. I should have left and gone to a private practitioner. Because I knew I felt extremely uncomfortable. And because I did (and because this is almost certainly not the proper method to remove this thing) I spent the next 30 days straight bleeding profusely. Some of that was hormonal, but at least the first few days was simply from a large cut near my cervix.
I kept this experience in mind, and although it took me nearly 4 months into my pregnancy to act on it, I finally began to learn how to act on my intuition. When my daily vomiting hadn’t gone away after 3 1/2 months, and I was constantly missing meetings and classes because it took me a full two hours to get out of bed in the morning, I finally drowned out all the voices around me telling me to just bear through the discomfort. This was not normal, and it didn’t matter that I wasn’t so dehydrated that I needed to be hospitalized – I needed something more than crackers and ice chips and ginger tea to handle the nausea. I asked my doctor if I could take heartburn medication, she agreed, and the vomiting stopped.
I don’t complain a lot. I’m fairly pain tolerant. I can make myself handle just about anything if I convince myself that complaining would make me a nuisance or the problem will go away on its own. But if people are telling me something is normal that just doesn’t feel normal, it’s important to listen to my own body, to recognize that I think that explanation is bullshit, and to find a different way.
The goods: things that have helped me through my pregnancy and things that didn’t
There’s a million lists of little (or big) purchases you can make, and ultimately you should only get what works for you. But here’s what I’ve found helpful.
Transitional stretchy-waist pants (and curated clothing subscription boxes)
Before my belly was big enough that I actually needed maternity panels in my pants, but once I’d already outgrown my normal clothes. A lot of people advocate for a belly band to slip over the waistband of normal pants unbuttoned and unzipped, but I just didn’t see how that was going to work – stretchy bands like that always ride up on me and I didn’t really want to worry about my pants falling down. But I also didn’t really know what was available. I had occasionally used stitchfix in the past to help me find somewhat more trendy items that would work for my specific body and budget – I ended up with the perfect leather jacket and a ridiculously flattering sweater dress – so I told them I was looking for stretchy pants that didn’t look maternity and they sent me two pairs of Liverpool jeans that got me through ’til the end of month 3. I ultimately decided that the service was too expensive to supply all my maternity clothes, but it was an excellent start and I can still wear those pants after I give birth. Which brings me to the second thing…
Old Navy maternity and side-panel maternity pants
There is no reason to spend as much on maternity clothes as I would on regular clothes. And I say this as someone who puts a lot of time and effort into curating a wardrobe I really love – I find exactly the perfect piece with the right look made out of durable materials that fits me perfectly, and then I wear it forever. Maternity clothes are for maybe 5 months, and if I’m lucky they’ll last to my next pregnancy (if there is a next one, and who knows when that will be anyway). Old Navy has the benefit of being cheap (and constantly running sales) but still making really cute clothes that perked me up when I felt horrible in my body – a bright yellow shirt that complemented my growing belly when it was snowing in April was just what I needed. I didn’t need a lot of maternity clothes – I definitely couldn’t keep wearing any of my pants or most of my shirts after 16 weeks, but some things still fit and I didn’t really need more than one week’s worth of clothing plus a couple of occasion-ish dresses anyway. It also helps that Old Navy sells nursing tops that are loose at the bottom, so they’re great for pregnancy and after. But the key was the side-panel pants. Maybe it’s because I have a long torso, or maybe I just don’t like things covering my belly, but whenever I wear full-panel pants, the panel ends up around my hips by the end of the day. It doesn’t provide support, it just makes me itchy and eventually it falls down on its own. Side-panel pants just sit low but are still snug and comfy.
Bralettes and cheap regular bras that are the right size
Early pregnancy comes with extremely tender breasts, so much more so than during a period. Underwires were the most painful things, and my breasts kept growing anyway. I had already started wearing the fantastic bralettes from thirdlove (which I generally think makes the best bras anyway) and they were fantastically supportive but gentle until about month 4, when my breasts grew for the third time or so. At that point, I thought “they can’t possibly get any bigger”, jumped the gun and got some nursing bras in what I thought was my size. By the time they arrived, they were already too small. I sized up, and outgrew those almost immediately. I was starting to size out of most nursing bras I could find, and I was getting frustrated with the price – as with maternity clothes, I don’t think there’s much point in buying expensive bras during your pregnancy since you grow out of them so quickly. The caveat to this is that if you are a non-standard size (any band size other than 34, 36, or 38, or any cup size above a D) you basically have to buy more expensive bras because cheaper brands don’t make anything in your size. So at that point, my breasts no longer sore but very much in pain from wearing too-small bras, I caved and got 2 normal bras in my actual size, with the expectation that I’ll probably grow again before it’s time for a nursing bra, and (on the advice of the saleswoman) I won’t get a nursing bra until around week 36 (38 for a singleton pregnancy) because my size won’t stabilize until then. If I did not have a small ribcage, I would just wear bralettes the entire pregnancy – and plenty of women don’t grow that much, it’s all dependent on your response to hormones. But when I do switch to nursing bras, I’ll say this – they need to be stretchy in the cup, they don’t need an underwire, and the ones designed for sleep are just silly. I’ve heard great things about the bravado seamless nursing bra, and it seems just about perfect. (But I’m holding off on getting it for now because who knows where I’ll be in 3 months?)
Giant Stapler-Shaped Body Pillow
People love to scare pregnant ladies with all the things that you can accidentally do to wound yourself or your fetus, and on that list is sleeping incorrectly. I originally got the Leachco Snoogle body pillow because I was told to only sleep on my left side – on your back your fetus will crush your vena cava, on your right side your fetus will crush your organs, and on your stomach you’ll crush your fetus. But I found that many nights I wake up on my back or on my stomach because it turns out you can’t stop yourself from turning over in your sleep and you’ll automatically do what’s comfortable because you’re unconscious. But that being said, this pillow made sleeping while pregnant so much more comfortable. The shape allows me to create a little cocoon nest for myself but still have some movement, and I can move parts of the pillow to support different parts of my body as they develop pain or stiffness – I’ll set an arm of the pillow under my hips or between my shoulder blades, or I’ll rest one of the arms between my knees to ease my joints. Sometimes I lean into the long side at a 45 degree angle so I can basically lie on my stomach without actually putting any weight there. It’s great.
Electrolyte Ice Pops, Cheez-its, and eating carbs and other forbidden foods
So file this under “listen to your body”. On the one hand, I was throwing up every day, and all I wanted to eat was cheese and bread (and initially spicy food and vinegar, and then later potatoes and sugary cereal). But on the other hand, I had pregnancy advice books and pinterest (damn you, pinterest!) telling me to eat only lean proteins and whole grains and green vegetables and to exercise at least twice a week. My normal inclination is to eat that way and walk 2-3 miles a day – it’s just what my body normally wants. But I was throwing up from basic things like drinking water, eating oatmeal, eating broccoli, smelling meat. I wasn’t gaining weight – in fact, after an initial bump of about 7 lbs, I actually lost a little weight. My fetuses were underweight. So I talked to my doctor, and a nutritionist, and my step-mom (who is also an OBGYN), and they told me to throw all of that advice out the window, take it easy, and eat literally anything that sounded good to me. So for about two weeks I ate a ton of sugar and cheese and milk. I couldn’t eat more than about 300 calories in any sitting, so I was eating constantly. The first full-sized meal I had was a bagel and lox – I thought “this is stupid, I’m not going to get listeria from lox, and all I want is this salty fatty smoked fish”. After that, I was able to tone down, incorporate some vegetables into my diet, and start eating my normal “healthy” foods as long as I avoided certain things – anything charred, red meat, and most grains in grain form (bread was fine, rice was not). I also learned my own rules for hydration and managing acid reflux – the first thing in my stomach in the morning needs to either soak up or neutralize the acid, so before I eat anything else, I either have a handful of cheez-its or I drink a small glass of milk (buttered toast is also ok). But occasionally in the middle of the day I really need water but don’t have enough in my stomach to handle it, and this is where Pedialyte Pops come in. Because they are ice, they are gentler on my stomach, and, like most electrolyte solutions, they hydrate better than just water. After I’ve had one of those, I’m ok to eat something normal and drink a few cups of water. What is normal? Well, sometimes it’s smoked fish or soft cheese or chopped liver, because I’m a New Yorker and these salty foods taste good to pregnant ladies. I ok’d them with my doctor – with most “forbidden” foods in pregnancy, the concern is listeria, so it’s important to get them from a reputable source and be smart about choosing foods that have been cut on surfaces that could be contaminated (it’s better if they haven’t been cut at all). With liver, which can overload the fetus with vitamin A, it’s just about not having too much (same thing with alcohol, but that’s a touchy subject). The point is, know the risks, consult your doctor, and use your judgement.
The reason I could eat terribly for an indefinite period of time is because I was taking a prenatal vitamin with folic acid, iron, and fish oil that ensured my fetuses were getting all the nutrients they need. I like the one from NatureMade. My doctor told me to start taking it before I started trying to get pregnant. Supposedly it’s smaller than other fish oil pills, although it’s still gigantic. I threw up from taking it a number of times, so I moved it to the middle of the day once my stomach had settled a bit.