real life

'When my baby was diagnosed with Intrauterine Growth Restriction, I blamed myself.'

I was arrested for shoplifting when I was six months pregnant, and I often wonder if this was the reason my baby failed to thrive in utero.

Well, I’ve thought it seriously at least twice before quickly reminding myself not to be ridiculous.

I was eight months into a new job. Away at a business conference, I wandered over to a fancy department store during my lunch break, where I happily floated through the handbag section, dabbled a little in the jewelry, settled cosily in among the books and stationery. Shopping here is a favored pastime; a kind-of Holly Golightly-Breakfast-at-Tiffany’s-equivalent for me, a sparkling haven of clean, pretty and calm. You can’t feel anxious at here. Or so I thought.

As I exited the store, a security guard I subconsciously recognised as the man eyeballing me in handbag section pulled me aside.”If you could just step aside Madam, I have a few questions about your top.”

Fuck. I clutched for the tag straight away. It was hanging out the back of my shirt.

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He escorted me down the escalators, back through the books and stationary to a stuffy corridor tucked away on the ground floor. He opened his office door and asked me to take a seat.

“Do you have a receipt for that top?” the twenty-something asks me, not unkindly.

“I bought it yesterday,” I said, rasping, feeling I was about to be sick. “Look it up on your system. I bought it with a pair of slacks and another top.”

He called the manager. She arrived quickly and, not looking at me once, marched straight to the computer, tapping away to find my alleged purchase. They couldn’t find it.

I was told the police were on their way.

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What followed was a dramatic call to my new colleague Judy to explain I was under citizens-arrest. I had been calm until that point. As soon as I heard Judy’s voice, a tough but kind country woman, a union organiser in her 60s, I completely broke down, as one would to the comforting and familiar tones of one’s Mummy.

My colleague was then tasked with the (slightly-hilarious-in-retrospect) job of convincing our hotel manager to let her in to my room to rummage through my belongings to find a receipt. But before she did this she told me to put the security guard on the phone.

“Are you aware of the condition of that woman sitting in your office? She is six months pregnant. If you so much as make her an inch more upset than she already is, to the detriment of her health or the health of that child, we will sue the absolute pants off you! She is innocent. And we taking note of your every action from here.”

Penelope, at three months pregnant. Image supplied.

She found the receipt. I fled as soon as the purchase appeared on the computer screen. I kind of remember that dated clunky shit-box of a computer screen. I anxiously anticipated the sight of that purchase record like I was waiting for the handing down of a life-sentence. But there it was on the flickering screen, I regained my freedom, and I RAN!

The security guard chased me down the corridor, rambling an apology; I didn't realise you were pregnant, take care of yourself, go and have a big drink of water, he told me.

After my brush with department store security procedures, I was an anxious wreck for the rest of my pregnancy. When I got out of the shop, I was shaking. I needed a bottle of wine. A cigarette. And here marks the start of a reuniting with old friends fear and anxiety. I was pregnant and petrified… wondering how on earth I could take care of a child when I couldn't even remember to cut the tag off a new top, without wearing the motherfucker straight back in to the store the following day.

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At 37 weeks my doctor informed me my child was small for his gestational age and we'd have to induce my labour. The condition was called Intrauterine Growth Restriction. He speculated that my placenta had failed to mature in the third-trimester, and consequently was not providing adequate nutrition for the baby to thrive. Althought there is often no known cause for IUGR, it is a common condition among women with drug dependency issues, diabetes and high blood pressure. And, as it turns out, among the depressed and/or anxious.

A control study appearing in the US National Library of Medicine, examined the prevalence of major depression and generalized anxiety disorder in pregnant women with and without a diagnosis of intrauterine growth restriction. The study found that both major depression and generalized anxiety disorder are associated with IUGR in pregnant women.

"At 37 weeks my doctor informed me my child was small for his gestational age and we'd have to induce my labour." Image via istock.

I look back on the fuss made by Judy about my pregnancy during the Shoplifting Scandal of 2013, her angry threats to the security guard. I think about the way in which communities protect pregnant women, offering them seats on the bus and prohibiting the lifting of heavy groceries and boat anchors and so on. I thought it was all fuss and hype. I felt young and strong - I could easily grow a healthy baby. But no. All that annoying fluster was for a fairly essential reason.

I will never really know if anxiety caused my son's growth to slow. It probably didn't. But the guilt was real. I learned that as pregnant women, the growers and supporters of life, we must pay close attention to our mental and physical health and take time to relax, and be gentle with ourselves.

And so I think about the cigarette I smoked after I was arrested. I think about how I drove a three-hour commute four days a week to work for all of my pregnancy. I think about a terrible virus I had in the early stages. I think about the time I jumped out from our ute onto the hard ground, in high-heeled boots, and felt very strange, like I just did something very very stupid.

I think about that time a super-duper arsehole of a man, living on a neighboring farm, tore down our driveway to scream that my dogs had chased his horse. He told me that if it happened again, he would shoot them. Heavily pregnant, I sat crying on the steps of our cottage until my husband got home.

I think about thrashing about in our bed in a fit of temper because my husband had been out drinking a little too long with his mates. He placed his hands on my belly, and softly said, 'Penny, stop; the baby'.

"He placed his hands on my belly, and softly said, 'Penny, stop; the baby'." Image via istock

I think about how I live with Generalised Anxiety Disorder. The hereditary legacy left by my Paternal Grandmother, who took her own life, shared also by a handful of my, particularly female, relatives.

I was terribly anxious during my pregnancy. However, so used to living with anxiety, I failed to recognise it. My pregnancy saw the beginning months of a new job, a cross-country move and actually, a wedding. A big one. Mine. Of course this stuff was stressful, but life is stressful. And to me that is normal.

My son was born at 38 weeks– 2.5kg, 45cm and healthy. Perfect APGAR scores. No time in the neo-natal nursery was necessary, as I had been told to expect.

I felt complete. I had waited for him my whole life. I was always meant to be a mother. And I adored him to distraction. I would watch him, and wait for him to do something – poo, wee, cry – just do something perfect perfect child, so I can mother you, care for you, love you.

My joy was tempered though, with my guilt. My worst fear had been realised – me and my anxiety, my wretched self, had finally managed to hurt someone and that person, to my wildest horror was my little baby son.

For his first year of life I attended every health appointment and agonised over every centimeter he grew. The only conversation I was interested in having with friends and family was about growth, genetics and development after an IUGR diagnosis. I desperately searched for stories of babies who were born small and “caught up”. I was looking for hope.

My son was born in the 3rd percentile, putting 97 per cent of babies his age ahead of him in weight. And he wasn’t yet on the growth chart for height, meaning more than 100 per cent of full-term babies were longer than him. My obstetrician assured me it wasn’t my fault. He told me that sometimes with IUGR there was no known cause for the growth restriction, and that it was more common among first time mothers.

"My son was born at 38 weeks– 2.5kg, 45cm and healthy. Perfect APGAR scores." Image via istock.

It didn’t matter what anyone said. My guilt was suffocating, and I was drowning.

Although I had never wasted a minute of thought on the topic before, I became obsessed with people’s heights – assessing how much height factored into a person’s chance at success and happiness. If he could just catch up to where he was naturally meant to have been, then the guilt might ease, I thought. Please please don’t let my failure become his burden too.

My obsession with my son’s growth and the idea that I had permanently damaged and stunted him in some way eventually became all too much for my husband.

On a rare night off, we sat on the beach after dinner. He listened as I agonized over how long it was taking our baby to grow, and did he think that our son would eventually catch up? You see he’s in the 10th percentile currently, I yabbered, but I am in the 25th and you are 6 foot! in the 75th, so he is still not within his genetic range, why is that?

“Penny I’ve had enough,” he said.

“This is so superficial. He might catch up, he might not. Who cares. He’s here now and he’s perfect. My son is perfect.”

Sometime after my second son was born, the worry suddenly eased. I was too freaking busy to expend the little energy I had on worrying about the height of a frankly confident, intelligent, healthy, charming and extremely active little boy.

We started swimming lessons this week. Waterlogged and red-eyed, we sit on the plastic Coca-Cola seats outside the pool canteen. Now two-and-a-half years-old, my little boy watches the Life-Saving lesson taking place in the children’s pool. He is highly entertained with a bunch of grown-ups splashing around with bright orange buoys, waving their arms about.

This is a rare occasion where his boundless energy has finally been expended.

“What they doin’ Mama?” he asks me quietly, without breaking his focus on the lesson. His big brown eyes, sun-tanned limbs, tomato sauce on his cheek. It suddenly dawns on me I haven’t checked his height in almost a year.

And that I’m not anxious anymore, these beautiful beautiful days.

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