3rd August 2018
When I started trying to conceive, I was working in a refugee camp in Ethiopia, running a program providing psychosocial services for survivors of torture, trauma and war. It was my job to bring community members together and share their stories to facilitate the process of healing themselves, their families, and their communities.
Right before that, I’d been working for the same organisation in the Congo running a similar programme. It was a really remote village, we had to drive for three whole days to get there. Not so long before, it had been a war zone, invaded three different times.
My work in Ethiopia and the Congo was life-changing. I heard about the most horrible atrocities imaginable. There was so much life, but also so much death. I’d never seen so many babies, but I also went to more funerals than I’d ever been to in my entire life. I’ll never forget one woman talking about how she had to abandon her baby when she was fleeing because she just couldn’t take care of her. Another girl told me about how her father had fled during the war and left them, and now he’d returned how they were having difficulties in their relationship.
It made me realise how precious life is, how fleeting it is, how important the child and parent bond is. It made me realise on a deeper level the value of being a parent.
I had a miscarriage before I even knew I was pregnant. I’m a research person, so I went online and started researching and was so shocked to find out how common miscarriage is. A few months later, I conceived again. I couldn’t tell anyone at first. It was so hard. The social norm of not telling anyone until after the first trimester is such a disservice to women. The first trimester is when you are most likely to miscarry, you are the most tired, you are going through all these physical changes – and yet you can’t explain why you might need additional time or rest.
Being pregnant while working in the refugee camp certainly made me think about things in a different way. I was sitting there listening to the worst things people could do to one another while having a child in my stomach who could potentially hear these stories. It really changed the way I understood what I was doing. I was so committed to my work but I now realise that having a child was the only reason I would ever leave.
I had to leave my job in the field when I told them I was pregnant, because of the malaria risk. They gave me a little bit of work in the capital – which is where my partner lived, but then after a month and a half they made me redundant. I’d moved to Ethiopia for my job – and suddenly I didn’t have that part of my identity. Who was I without that? I was in a city where I didn’t know anyone apart from my partner, pregnant and unemployed.
I was really lucky – I found a brilliant community of women, and I had a really positive experience with my midwife. It’s interesting because In Ethiopia, culturally, people are much more child friendly. But they also have a certain understanding of what you should be doing. When you are pregnant – everyone feels like they can give you advice, touch your body, or tell you what to do – but they have very specific practices. In the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian religion, for the first 40 days for boys and the first 80 days for girls, until their baptisms, mothers are kept in the dark with the baby and bring them food. And I was like that just isn’t going to work for me. So culturally there were some clashes. In terms of my identity – it was just really hard to suddenly need to the primary caretaker of this fragile, dependent baby, it’s such a big change.
When I first went back to work, I worked in Ethiopia leading hikes through animal refuge centres. It was amazing because I could just strap Zak on me, and take him with me. So for the first year of his life, he was just attached to my body. He was a very happy baby, so I was lucky.
I returned back to the US, when Zak was almost one. And all of a sudden I had to put Zak in child care, I was a single mom, working full-time for eight hours a day and commuting for two hours a day. It was a system I’d been out of for a long time, and I had to figure out how do I fit in now? And that was really challenging for me. It was really hard.
My advice for other women
I hope that sharing my story, the challenges I faced and how my identity changed is helpful. In terms of advice to other women who are about to embark on their journey:
- Self care is really important. It’s always important, but especially if you want to get pregnant. Stress affects our physical and emotional health. So do things that make you feel good. I know that I need to be the example of the person I want my child to be, and that starts with self care.
- People are going to give you a lot of advice and get all up in your business. You need to trust that you can figure it out and do what feels right for you. It’s ok to just do the best you can. Making mistake and messing things up isn’t the end of the world. You can repair things. If you make mistake, and you repair a mistake, it often makes you stronger.
- Understanding our own narratives about ourselves and our experiences helps us to be better parents.
- If you are a single parent, make sure you give yourself the credit for the small things. Being a parent is a massive job, and we need to remember that more.