This column originally appeared in Michigan Advance on February 28, 2020
In about one month, I will give birth for the first time. I’m at the stage of pregnancy when getting in and out of my car feels celebratory. Sometimes I have heartburn. Occasionally, my feet and ankles swell. Mostly though, I feel excited to meet my baby, someone who for months has felt real only through the rolls, twirls and jabs in my abdomen.
I’m a curious person, so once I learned that I was going to become a mom, I wanted to learn as much as I could about the process of pregnancy, childbirth and postpartum recovery.
In all honesty, I did have a bit of a head start given that I spend most of my days in the weeds on a variety of health topics, including maternal and child health. In fact, I recently spent a few months writing the Michigan League for Public Policy’s Right Start policy report about ways Michigan should invest in women who are (literally) growing their families and how doing so benefits all of us.
To help myself with my own pregnancy, I borrowed so many library books. My goal in doing this was to prepare myself to have a positive mindset while growing and having my baby. I didn’t want to be dragged down by the negative depictions of these experiences I’ve absorbed over the years. Seriously, if you stop and think about it — which many of us likely do not unless we or someone close to us finds themselves on the threshold of parenthood — there are truly so many images and messages about birth being painful and dangerous.
For myself and for this future someone I’m carrying, I wanted to trade these assumptions for appreciation, trade fear and anxiety for calm confidence. People sometimes talk about the power of “reclaiming the narrative,” and I guess that’s what I mean. The pervasive narrative about pregnancy and childbirth, at least within the context of the United States, is that both are difficult and make women wildly emotional and incapable. Simply put: You will suffer some, but the sacrifice will be worth it.
Now I don’t judge myself or others for experiencing fear. Fear is a perfectly natural reaction when facing the unknown. But my pregnancy journey has not been nearly as negative as our most common storylines would suggest. Throughout the past eight months, I’ve exercised, traveled and slept well. I’ve eaten leafy greens and bone broth soups and pizza and donuts, too. I’ve felt like myself, albeit myself on the precipice of change.
Please do not misconstrue this as a boast. I am not suggesting that every expectant person will have a seamless pregnancy or birthing experience. I’ve researched enough (and had conversations with postpartum and other pregnant women) to know that’s certainly not true. Rather, my point is that suffering is not inherently a part of the process. Negative outcomes are not inevitable — not for me, for other women of color, for older women, young women, women without a college degree, not for any of us.
The Right Start report reveals some dire statistics. But it also reveals why the health of expectant women is of value to every family and every community. It shows us that moms in our state are seeking ways to make their families stronger and to feel empowered and supported. It shows us that the right policies can go a long way in improving outcomes for moms and babies in Michigan.
And so while statistics are a useful tool for researchers, analysts and policymakers and they do provide incredible insight into patterns across populations, they do not need to be the guide for our individual experiences. We do not have to start with fear to advance maternal and infant health. Instead, we can start with hopefulness and practice being open to what may contradict our expectations. The narrative about what it can be like to enter into parenthood is ours for the taking.