I write mpreg, which means I do a fair amount of research into biology and reproduction. And I also end up looking at the intersection of human rights, gender issues, and so on.
Let me tell you something. There’s a reason that many people think of pregnancy not as “natural” or even normal. There’s a reason it’s a staple of body horror narratives (think of the chestburster in Alien).
One of the things I wanted to explore with Glitterati Omega was how awful pregnancy can be—even for someone who wants the child.
Pregnancy Takes a Toll
Did you know it takes the average person approximately two years to fully recover from pregnancy and childbirth? The drastic physiological chances, not to mention mental/emotional changes, take their toll. And that’s leaving aside childbirth itself.
Even when pregnancy is relatively uncomplicated, it has a cost associated with it. The enormous fluctuations in hormones can lead to prenatal depression in pregnant individuals. The recovery afterwards can lead to postpartum depression or even psychosis.
Even people who don’t have these side effects might notice mental effects of pregnancy and birth. People joke all the time about “mommy brain,” which seems to lead to increasing forgetfulness. This usually happens after birth, but cognitive changes occur during pregnancy too.
Temporary or Non-disabling Conditions
People may also develop relatively benign conditions, like gestational diabetes or even carpal tunnel. These conditions usually resolve upon the end of pregnancy. Increased fluid and swelling, associated with pregnancy, presses on the nerves in the wrists, leading to carpal tunnel syndrome. The placenta can affect insulin levels, leading to gestational diabetes. The condition usually resolves after birth. Yet people who had gestational diabetes are at higher risk of developing diabetes later in life.
Loss of mobility is another common issue; pelvic girdle pain is common. So are complaints like shortness of breath, round ligament pain (caused by stretching), and even swollen hands and feet.
Pregnancy Comes with Many Risk Factors
That all leaves aside any sort of risk or complication, such as preeclampsia, which involves sudden high blood pressure that puts both pregnant individual and their fetus at risk. Preeclampsia can lead to premature delivery or even stillbirth.
We often don’t hear about risks like kidney failure. Pregnancy puts additional strain on all the organs of the pregnant individual.
HELLP syndrome is another risk, which can lead to pregnancy loss and stillbirth. Earlier in pregnancy, individuals must manage threats like hyperemesis and ectopic pregnancy. There are also molar pregnancies, miscarriages, and more. A missed miscarriage can cause infection, leading the pregnant person to go sceptic and die.
In short: pregnancy is dangerous stuff.
And that’s before we even get to the discussion of fetal abnormality or childbirth.
Thus: pregnancy itself can kill. When it doesn’t kill, it can cause lasting damage—both physical and psychological.
Childbirth Remains Dangerous
Childbirth has a bad rap as being particularly painful or scary. At the same time, our culture mostly mocks the idea that it’s painful. Think of how many sitcoms show us the pregnant individual screaming, and calling the father of the child an asshole.
Then they successfully deliver the baby and all is right as rain. They coo over their child and everybody is happy.
This scenario ignores other childbirth outcomes, such as where the pregnant individual hemorrhages to death.
At the other end of the spectrum, we have those who present childbirth as perfectly natural and normal. They encourage pregnant individuals not to take drugs or even to give birth at home, unassisted.
This ignores how dangerous childbirth can be. Maternal mortality rates remain high in many places, including various US states. In short, as much as pregnancy itself carries an increased risk of death, childbirth itself kills many more.
Not All Pain Is Physical
Childbirth comes with a good deal of physical pain. Even those who survive it may not be the same after. Many people experience tears, which can lead to infections or hemorrhaging. Internal bleeding is another risk factor. The placenta and other products of conception must be fully removed. If not, there’s a risk of infection and—you guessed it—sepsis and death.
Childbirth that goes well comes with its own risks, many of them psychological. One of my friends stated she wasn’t ready to talk about her birth experience; while both she and baby were hale and healthy, the experience took a toll on her mentally. The last we spoke of it, she said she was still processing.
I’ve heard from others that the experience of childbirth traumatized them, even though the births were relatively uncomplicated. They’ve opted not to have more children because the experience was that bad for them.
The Case of Twilight Sleep
We can look to history to see more extreme examples of the mental toll of childbirth. The case of twilight sleep is something else. Pregnant individuals received twilight sleep in the early part of the twentieth century. It basically knocked them out so they didn’t feel the pain of childbirth.
Upon waking, these individuals would often experience disorientation, amnesia, and other mental disturbances. In many cases, they would reject their babies, suggesting that the children couldn’t possibly be theirs. They sometimes believed the infants were “switched,” or, in some cases, even “changelings.”
While the twilight sleep cases involve the use of drugs and poor medical practice, I think they demonstrate the extreme psychological fragility of the birthing person. This is a liminal moment, a moment when a person can easily break. This is not an experience for the faint of heart.
Countering Predominate Narratives in Glitterati Omega
The literature around pregnancy and childbirth is rife with these examples; once you wade in, it’s easy to draw the conclusion that undergoing pregnancy and childbirth is among the most dangerous things a person can do.
Yet Western cultural narratives, by and large, ignore this reality. I think back to the sitcoms: yes, birth is painful, but that’s funny. And once the pain is over, everybody experiences joyous bliss as they cradle their newborn.
Except not everyone does.
The Myth of Prenatal Bliss
Pregnancy is largely depicted as being a “blissful” experience for the pregnant person. In sitcoms, we might see this character being somewhat uncomfortable. But they don’t seem to be in danger. Their feet swell, their back hurts—those are the sort of “ailments” they describe.
Yet, as demonstrated above, pregnancy can be and is dangerous for many people. It’s an uncomfortable experience for many others. It pushes some people to the edge of a mental breakdown, whether through body dysmorphia, anxiety, hormonal changes, or just the plain weirdness of having another living creature inside you.
Some people absolutely do have “blissful” pregnancies. Some people, even if they want the pregnancy, do not have that experience.
What If You Hate It?
That was what I wanted to explore in Glitterati Omega. Rupert, our titular omega, very much wants to have a baby. He and Winston have to pursue fertility treatments in order to conceive.
Rupert very much wants the pregnancy and a baby. Yet he struggles immensely with the state of being pregnant once he’s actually there.
Some of my favorite lines come toward the end of the book, when Rupert confesses to Winston that being pregnant is much harder than he anticipated. He speaks to the cultural myths: “I always thought it was some blissful thing, but now that I’m here … I hate it.”
He questions whether or not he’s allowed to have those feelings—after all, he asked for the pregnancy. He’s the one who pursued IVF. Is he really allowed to complain about the situation he’s put himself in?
Winston gives him leave: “You’re allowed to say anything.”
In short, even though Rupert bought into the myths around pregnancy and wants both the pregnancy and the child, he does not have an easy time being pregnant.
A High-Risk Pregnancy
Rupert’s experience may not resonate with everyone, because his pregnancy is incredibly high risk. First, he’s had many miscarriages, which increase his risk. IVF increases some risks, and Rupert ends up carrying multiples. His history of cancer further complicates the picture, leading to a situation that is incredibly stressful and risky for him.
He notes that he and the children are lucky to have gotten out with their lives.
Some people who have high-risk pregnancies know that they’re in the high-risk category going in. Others do not; they get placed in that category due to a number of factors, such as developing conditions or the fact they’re carrying multiples. Higher-risk pregnancies come with more intervention and monitoring, which usually increases stress on the pregnant individual.
Rupert also has body dysmorphia, along with anxiety and depression, which factors in to the mental stresses he experiences. He mentions having adjusted his medications prior to getting pregnant. It’s suggested he might need to make more adjustments, as he seems to be having more anxiety.
As Winston astutely notes, Rupert is at a higher risk of developing mental health issues associated with pregnancy, such as pre- or postpartum depression or even psychosis. This can happen to anyone, regardless of whether they have preexisting mental health issues or a high-risk, stressful pregnancy.
Why Challenge the Narrative?
The idea that pregnancy is blissful and childbirth is momentary pain that is obliterated by the joy of a child is a dangerous one. It’s sold to us, in hopes of keeping (white) women reproducing. It is a narrative peddled by patriarchal capitalist society.
The idea that pregnancy is just what “women are made for” is intimately connected to the far-right Christian evangelical doctrines. People who want reproductive rights must simply be sluts who want to have lots of sex without ever reproducing.
This narrative leads to the idea that there can’t ever be a “reason” for abortion. It ignores the medical realities. Pregnancy can be and often is dangerous. It can be and often is a harrowing experience, even when we leave aside childbirth itself.
Showing difficulty pregnancies, high-risk situations, and a character who desperately wants the child and then hates almost every minute of being pregnant is important then, particularly in mpreg. Many mpreg narratives favor the “it was a great time for everyone” type narrative.
Giving Voice to the Breadth of Experience
I think, then, that showing a character who says, “Whoa, hey, this is not all it was cracked up to be” is important.
When all our characters simply have blissful pregnancies, we’re not just buying into that cultural narrative. We’re selling it back to our readers.
By creating variations in the narrative, we allow room for variation in real life experience. We validate people who have had miserable experiences being pregnant. And we push back on the idea that this is natural, normal, and oh-so-blissful.
By complicating that narrative, we draw a fuller picture of why reproductive rights—access to abortion, access to birth control, and access to reproductive technologies—are necessary, even vital.
The idea that anyone who gets pregnant should simply see it through to the end is ludicrous. The idea that every pregnancy has a “happy ending” is nothing short of propaganda.
When that’s the case, we need to push back against the narrative in any way we can. Writing diverse experiences is just one of doing that.