By Olivia Humphreys for Earshot
There is a certain image of pregnancy visible in the advertisements around us that depicts soon-to-be mothers as clean, pastel-coloured and happy.
It all seems very far from what I imagine, which is a bit more along the lines of the famous scene from Aliens with John Hurt, where an alien comes ripping out of his stomach.
I’ve always thought it’s interesting how pregnancy is usually portrayed as a happy, content time of painting nurseries and humming lullabies to yourself, when there’s such scary, extreme and bizarre physical stuff happening to you.
All the changes make your body unrecognisable and no longer really your own — you’re now a “host” to another being.
And of course there’s the birth looming over you.
Poet Hollie McNish, whose book Nobody Told Me is about her experiences of childbirth, describes this as “like knowing you’re going to be in a car crash in a few months’ time”.
Pregnant women have more nightmares
So I was intrigued to come across an academic study by the Sleep and Nightmare Laboratory at the University of Montreal, which suggested that pregnant women experience more nightmares than non-pregnant women.
Unsurprisingly, the nightmares were often directly related to pregnancy, and there were recurring themes.
For instance, many women dreamt about eating their baby, misplacing it or harming it in some way, of giving birth to an insect or a ball of wool, or even a Damien-style Satanic child.
I was fascinated, because it seemed so completely at odds with how pregnant women are often portrayed — not just as beatifically happy but almost holy, sanctified, and often infantilised.
Unlike most other adults, pregnant women often find themselves being scolded and told what they can and can’t do.
Fear, disgust, anxiety seem to me completely rational responses to what is happening to them.
But it’s striking how little we hear about these more complicated feelings during pregnancy — it’s taboo, which means many women who need help don’t end up getting it.
Pregnancy kept hidden from view
It’s estimated that one in five women suffers from tokophobia, a pathological fear of childbirth and pregnancy, but many feel too ashamed to verbalise these feelings.
All of this is nothing new. Society has always found pregnancy disturbing on some level.
As Randi Hutter Epstein writes in her book Get Me Out: A History of Childbirth from the Garden of Eden to the Sperm Bank: “We’ve always had trouble seeing pregnancy as something natural; it’s always been seen as this weird state.”
It’s only fairly recently that Western societies have felt comfortable allowing pregnant women to be visible.
For centuries, wealthier women went into “confinement” in the final months of pregnancy, supposedly for health reasons, although it was probably just as much to do with a vague feeling of distaste about women who were evidently sexually active being seen out in public.
There were superstitious reasons too: for a while there was a belief in France that looking at the moon while pregnant could mean you gave birth to a “lunatic”, leading to French women looking down or not going out while pregnant.
Male doctors not allowed near
Until fairly recently, childbirth was kept at arm’s length by the medical profession as well.
For centuries, it was illegal for men to enter the delivery room, leading to male doctors taking extraordinary measures.
In 1522, a German doctor was sentenced to death for having dressed as a woman in order to witness a birth first-hand.
Once those rules were relaxed, there was still a sense of discomfort — for one thing, many men weren’t happy with the idea of a male doctor seeing their wife naked.
This squeamishness led to the invention of elaborate contraptions such as the “tractions soutenues” (sustained tractions), which allowed doctors to control forceps through a series of pulleys, thus avoiding any actual physical contact with the labouring woman.
Others simply draped a sheet over the mother-to-be and delivered the baby “practically blindfolded”, Hutter Epstein says.
Society remains uncomfortable
Of course, none of this prudishness was very helpful to the mother-to-be or the baby.
Although things have no doubt improved, it still feels as though we’re not quite comfortable with the complex reality of pregnancy yet.
Chitra Ramaswamy, author of Expecting: the Inner Life of Pregnancy, notes that her book was relegated to the pregnancy section of bookstores, as though childbirth were a slightly odd special interest topic, rather than the most universal experience there is — the only one (apart from death) that we all hold in common.
I hope, with the publication of books like Chitra’s, Hollie’s and Randi’s, that this is slowly changing, and that pregnancy and childbirth may finally be moving into the mainstream.
Hear Olivia Humphreys’s full documentary on the taboos of pregnancy, or subscribe to the Earshot podcast on iTunes, the ABC Radio app or your favourite podcasting app.
This post originally appeared on ABC News.
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