The First Trimester: Why the big secret?

Some believe it’s bad luck, some say it’s simply tradition, but whatever the reasoning, until a woman passes the twelve week milestone of her pregnancy, convention dictates that she is not to reveal it to anyone but her doctor, and her partner. The superstitious amongst us believe that until twelve weeks, it is tempting fate to mention your pregnancy, because so much can go wrong and your pregnant status is somewhat ‘insecure’ until you’ve passed that all-important turning-point. Granted, the first trimester is when the risk of miscarriage is at its highest, but as someone who has experienced an early miscarriage myself, I would say that having people around you who know what has happened and can support you in your hour of need is exactly what you need at such a devastating time. In my case, most of my friends and family had no idea that I was pregnant, but when I started to bleed at six weeks, I just knew that it had come to an end. Even though we hadn’t told anyone that I was pregnant, once I knew I was miscarrying, I felt the desperate need to reach out and let people know, partly for support, but mostly because I felt an unbearable weight of sadness for this little life that had existed for six weeks and was now going to leave the world without anyone knowing that it had been there at all. It felt like I was doing that little soul a disservice to let it vanish without trace, so I ended up telling everyone I knew that it had been there, but that now it was gone, and it was the only thing I could do to honour the importance of the little life that had been with us for such a short time.

With my second pregnancy, which thankfully gave us our healthy son Odhrán (now eighteen months old), we didn’t tell anyone until after our twelve week scan. I don’t know why we felt the need to wait to tell people, particularly seeing as I would probably have told them anyway if it hadn’t gone our way and we’d ended up losing that baby too. I suspect it was superstition that prevented us telling too many people; the fear of tempting fate or getting too excited, too soon. It’s almost as if you’re supposed to reserve your happiness until the world deems your pregnancy to be ‘real’, even though to you, with all the changes that are assaulting your body so dramatically and with the sense of protection and love that you feel for your tiny mini-me from the word go, it is more than real already. There were benefits to keeping it a secret I suppose, namely the surprise that our family got when we sent them our first scan pictures, as they’d had no idea that we had conceived again so quickly after our miscarriage, and were delighted to see such a clear ultrasound scan of an already well-developed baby. I called my dad on FaceTime to show him in person, and admittedly, it was a special moment, made all the more precious because we’d waited to tell him. It’s also kind of fun keeping a secret and figuring out ways to throw people off the scent, and finding out, when you do tell them, whether or not they had suspected something all along. However, the downside of waiting is having to plough through three months of morning sickness and covering it up to all and sundry with a web of elaborate —and increasingly ridiculous— white lies.

With my second pregnancy, we decided to wait until the 12 week scan before telling people.

The first trimester, although largely ‘invisible’ insofar as any external physical signs are concerned, is actually, for many women, the most difficult part of the whole pregnancy. Those two little lines on the pregnancy test can mean that you’re about to spend the next twelve to sixteen weeks feeling increasingly tired and ill, while not being able to tell anyone why. If you’re lucky enough never to have experienced the dreaded morning sickness then I’ll happily enlighten you as to how it feels. Remember the worst hangover you ever had? Take that feeling and think back to the last time you were bed-bound with a really nasty bout of flu and add that to it, then chuck in a good measure of sea-sickness, some food poisoning, and a dash of vertigo. Make things a little bit harder for yourself with some insomnia, regular nightmares and frequent nighttime urination, plus the head-rush-inducing, stomach-knowing, desperate need for a midnight meal —every night. Maintain all of this for twenty four hours a day and then try and keep the whole thing to yourself, pretending everything is absolutely, gloriously, fine. And that’s not even the worst version; some women find themselves vomitting up to ten or twenty times a day and even end up being hospitalised due to dehydration and exhaustion. The clandestine world of the first trimester means feeling like absolute cr*p but having to put on a brave face and show up to the world; the smiling life and soul or the consummate professional, feigning normality, only to return home at the end of it all and collapse in an exhausted, tearful heap.

Those two pink lines are the start of three months of morning sickness for many women.

With my current pregnancy, which we found out about at the end of July, I didn’t necessarily want to wait until the official twelve week scan, but I had at least wanted to see a heartbeat on an early private scan before making an announcement. However, useless with secrets, my partner Rob told his sister at the first opportunity he had, when I was still only about five weeks pregnant. That led to his parents and other siblings being told, and before long I had also caved, telling my brother and sister-in-law about a week later. I hadn’t planned to say anything, but they had come over to visit at a time when I was already starting to feel nauseous and tired, I wanted them to know why I was sitting down every five minutes and leaving Rob to run around after our toddler instead of helping. As a wave of nausea washed over me, I announced that we had ‘news’ and then explained that I just wanted to get it out there: I felt like sh*t! Had they not been visiting precisely when the morning sickness was kicking in, I may well have put off telling them until we had subsequently had our first scan at just over nine weeks, which is when we did in fact tell the rest of our friends and family.

The first trimester of my pregnancy with Odhrán was by far the most difficult part of the whole pregnancy. The nausea was one thing, but the debilitating exhaustion that accompanied it was something I found very hard to hide. I was working in an office at the time, and the tiredness would get so bad that I’d have to book meeting rooms in secret and slink off when my colleagues weren’t looking, in order to go and lie down when it all got too much. I worked in a shared office space where all the meeting rooms had glass walls, making it pretty hard to carry out my covert activity with stealth, so I would use the ‘prayer room’ instead, as it had a proper door and no windows, allowing me to curl up on the kneeling cushion they provided for the floor and die in peace for half an hour. There was no way round telling the girl at reception why I wanted to book that room, and even though it was ‘breaking the twelve week rule’ to tell anyone at all, it felt like a huge relief to share my secret even with a stranger, and I basked in the sympathy of her knowing smile as she handed me the key, revelling in the rebellious pact I had created with my new-found confidante.

Now, with my current pregnancy, I am at home full-time with an eighteen month old toddler, which although taxing in its own way, at least means that I am not having to commute to work or put on a brave face in front of other adults for most of the day. Usually a very active person (I can normally run 10k without batting an eyelid, and would ordinarily do an intensive gym class at least four times a week), I have spent the last sixteen weeks almost permanently horizontal. It’s only because I have a toddler to entertain that I have even been making it out at all; just about managing the half mile walk to the park and back before resuming my position on the couch. The first trimester of this pregnancy has been every bit as bad, if not worse, than the last one. So exhausted by eleven in the morning, I would have to make joining my son for his two hour naps a daily routine, and my life has consisted of moving from bed to couch to floor and back again. It’s only in the last couple of weeks that the regular dizzy spells, low-blood-pressure-induced black-outs and debilitating tiredness has eased off a bit, but I’m still enjoying the last bit of nausea that doesn’t yet want to budge and which, unlike the term ‘morning sickness’ suggests, does in fact last all day…and night. 

Daytime naps with my toddler became a daily occurrence throughout the first trimester of my current pregnancy.

Because of the pandemic, we’ve been doing a lot less socialising than normal, which in many ways has been a blessing in disguise, not least because I haven’t had to make constant excuses for why I’m acting with less enthusiasm than a mushroom that’s been left to wilt at the bottom of the fridge, or why I can’t manage sitting upright for more than an hour without my face turning a thunderous grey. During the first trimester of my pregnancy with Odhrán, I’d have to regularly turn down invitations, and because we were keeping it a secret, my useless reasons only served to baffle and confuse their recipients. One that sticks in my memory was having to explain that I was too tired to meet a friend to visit a church because I’d been to a 70th birthday party the day before. I mean a church and a 70th birthday party. Yeah, I mean, don’t burn the candle at both ends, Freya. To this day that particular friend likes to remind me how so bizarrely out of character my excuse was, given that I would normally have the energy to go mountain biking, go-karting and kayaking with her, and a church visit wasn’t going to be anywhere near as exhausting as any of the high octane pastimes we would normally enjoy. 

Despite the social restrictions we’ve had this year, there have been some opportunities to meet with friends, and depending on how severe your pregnancy symptoms are, even a picnic in the park can seem like a mammoth task when you feel like death warmed up. It was for this reason, not having to make pathetic excuses to my friends as to why I couldn’t join them or why, if I did, I’d be lying down on a cushion for most of the duration, that I decided that in this pregnancy, I would give the twelve week rule its marching orders once and for all. Before Rob had even opened his gob and let the cat out of the bag by telling his sister, I had in fact told one member of a group of friends of mine, with whom I’d planned to meet up on Hampstead Heath a week or so earlier. We had been discussing the logistics of how I’d get there and whether or not I would stay over at hers, me being a south Londoner and she living in Kentish Town. Because I was already starting to feel queasy and weak, the thought of travelling across London on public transport with a toddler in tow was starting to give me the heeby-jeebies. I was dithering about with the plans as I was holding out for a lift from another friend who would be driving up from south of the river, but given that only a few weeks earlier, a non-pregnant me had walked the entire eight miles from Deptford to Primrose Hill in thirty-five degree heat to meet the same group of friends, with my son, the picnic stuff and both our overnight stuff piled high on his buggy, I could sense that my new apparent aversion to any form of physical exertion was drawing a bit of baffled attention. I decided to text my friend to tell her the reason why I was acting so flaky; I was four weeks pregnant! It was such a relief just to know that she knew, even if none of the others did, as somehow it felt like someone had my back.

The text I sent my friend, at just 4 weeks pregnant, breaking the ‘rule’ of the ‘secret first trimester.’

I was dying to tell the others though, particularly as I sat in the back of my friend’s car on the bumpy journey across town, feeling increasingly car-sick as I stared at his smartphone, politely watching a family video he’d made and wanted me to watch, the motion of the car beneath me combining with the flickering screen to create a nauseating bog of doom in the pit of my stomach, as my friend excitedly babbled away in the driving seat, oblivious of my plight. Once at Primrose Hill, as I struggled up the slope holding my ten-tonne son and all our picnic things without asking for help, I was dying to explain that actually, I wasn’t really managing very well at all and that it felt like I had Arnold Schwarzenegger strapped to my body in the Baby Bjorn rather than a toddler, with my lungs feeling like they were going to explode at any given moment. Later, at the picnic, as one of my friends unwittingly took my only can of non-alcoholic sparkling grapefruit drink that I had specifically bought to alleviate my nausea (bubbles and tang help!) and gulped it down thirstily, not realising that it wasn’t just any old can of drink, but my refreshingly crisp, nausea-alleviating lifeline (ok, a bit dramatic, but you try keeping your cool when you feel like you’re on a rough boat crossing even though you’re on land, and you have newly arrived pregnancy hormones surging through your bloodstream ), I wanted to unleash my inner banshee and let out a long, guttural scream along with the words “I’m f*cking pregnant, you mother-f*ucking, sparkling drink-stealing bastard!!!”.

Putting on a brave face: I was already feeling nauseous and tired at a picnic with friends, but hid it under a smile because I was keeping my pregnancy a secret.

I didn’t of course, because I was keeping my pregnancy a secret, so instead I smiled politely as I watched the drink I’d been looking forward to for the last two hours disappear down his unenlightened gullet. A few weeks later, after I’d had my nine week scan, I met up with the same group of friends again, only this time, I had texted them in advance to announce that I was expecting. I did this less to induce a inpouring of congratulatory replies, and more to give them a heads up that it would be likely that I would be spending most of the picnic lying down, with my hands on my tummy and my eyes shut, and that they weren’t to think me rude if my pained expression gave the impression that I was secretly thinking that I’d be having more fun sat with a bunch of carrion birds, picking bits of rotten flesh of a carcass. It worked; everyone understood that it was the morning sickness, and not their company, that was the cause of my sad-sack demeanour, no-one expected me to be the life and soul of the picnic and… no one stole my drink. 

With this pregnancy, we decided to tell people at 9 weeks, which is when we saw the baby’s heartbeat on an early scan.

And this, for me, is an important part of why I believe couples should feel that it’s ok to tell people they’re expecting, even in the early days. The first twelve weeks are precisely when a woman should be wearing her “Baby on Board” badge and being given special dispensation and a seat on the tube. When you’re feeling like sh*t, you don’t want people having any expectations of you; rather you need a friendly face, some understanding, hell, sympathy even, a bit of assistance and regular access to food and drink, without looking like some sort of rabid snack-devouring, demanding diva-b*tch. Once people know you’re pregnant, all is forgiven. And if it doesn’t go your way, if you do lose your baby in those first twelve weeks, being able to tell people and hear about similar experiences from other couples who have gone through the same thing lightens the load immensely. Keeping the whole thing a secret, as if it never really happened, isn’t fair on you, and it doesn’t do justice to the people you know and love, because the truth is, people are generally kind; we can all relate to the pain of losing someone, and to share that pain with those around you, if not halving it, certainly makes it a lot easier to bear. It also invites other couples to talk about their own experiences of miscarriage, which they may previously have felt too embarrassed, ashamed or nervous to bring up for fear of judgement or stone-cold, awkward silence. 

In my case, when another another couple replied to my message in which I’d told them I’d had a miscarriage, to reveal that they too had gone through the same thing just eighteen months earlier (and had subsequently gone on to have a healthy baby, who by that point was four months old) I was so relieved. It wasn’t that I was glad to hear that they had suffered, but it was a relief to know that I wasn’t alone, that I wasn’t abnormal and that I hadn’t done anything wrong. To hear them speak of the devastation they had felt, which sounded so much like that which I was drowning in there and then, and to hear that they had got through it, recovered and gone on to have a healthy baby, gave me a life buoy to hold onto. More and more people opened up to me about their own experiences as a result of me telling them about our loss; not just about miscarriages, but pregnancy complications, problems conceiving and all manner of fertility anxiety, all echoing the same desperate agony that I was feeling, and all making me realise that this feeling was not unique to me. 

The Baby on Board badge, which many women wait until the 2nd trimester to wear.

Silence only serves to make something which is very common feel like it’s some horrendously abnormal thing that is only happening to you, and shrouds the whole horrible experience in unnecessary taboo. According to Tommy’s, the charity that funds research into miscarriage, stillbirth and premature birth, an estimated one in four pregnancies ends in miscarriage. Most of them will be a “one-off”, caused by chromosomal or genetic abnormalities in the embryo, and will have no bearing on a couple’s chances of having a healthy baby in the future. But the tradition of keeping the first trimester —and any negative events that happen during it— a secret, somehow makes it seem like it isn’t real or valid, and that your pain isn’t deserving of any sympathy or relief. But the opposite is true. Just because your baby was only around for six, ten, or twelve weeks doesn’t take away the fact that she existed. She was alive, she was real and for that short time she was loved. Her birth was looked forward to and her future and a life of her own was imagined with perfect clarity. It’s a pretty cruel tradition that turns this painful loss into what feels like a shameful secret, and to cause a couple to fear tempting fate if they dare tell anyone their news, and to leave them to mourn the loss of that baby alone if they’re unlucky enough to have a miscarriage, seems like some sort of gruesome, outdated joke. 

Anyone who has experienced miscarriage will know, that as well as the acute sense of loss, our pesky human minds also heap on a whole load of other unhelpful emotions when left to swirl around in their own lonely cosmos; sadness; guilt, regret and anger, and it’s normal for women —and their partners— to agonise over what they did ‘wrong’ or to fret about how the miscarriage could have been prevented. The loneliness you feel at such a time of loss, especially one shrouded in secrecy, leads to the mind scampering down a rabbit hole of over-analysis, causing more pain than the actual miscarriage itself. I found that being able to talk about what had happened, including the actual physical events of miscarriage, the way I had felt when I was pregnant and when I lost the baby, normalised the experience and helped me make sense of it in the context of the real world, not an anxiety-ridden parallel universe where there were a million things that I could have done differently to prevent my baby from having died. For people to hear about my baby and how she or he had made me feel, also felt like I was giving him or her the send-off they deserved, a eulogy if you like, for the future child we never met. 

And thats the thing, despite the secrecy and the lack of official ‘validation’ of your pregnancy in those first twelve weeks, the first trimester is a time when it all feels overwhelmingly real for the mother –and often the father— of the baby-to-be. The excitement of discovering you’re pregnant, which can be the culmination of months or even years of trying to conceive, the realisation of your hopes and dreams of having a baby, the excitement of wondering whether its a boy or girl and the sudden awareness that your world is going to change beyond recognition make it, emotionally speaking, the most real experience you’ve probably ever had. Couple that with having to adapt to the rapid onset of nausea and exhaustion, and the whole things makes for the ride of a lifetime, one whose highs and lows, I believe, should be shared with those who can support you and share in your happiness, trepidation and excitement.

Of course, keeping it a secret isn’t all doom and gloom. It can be quite fun exchanging glances with your other half as he surreptitiously sips your drink as well as his own so that your not drinking alcohol doesn’t raise suspicion, and it can also be a time when you and your partner enjoy the knowledge that you have a little person on the way in the privacy of your relationship, before the world starts interfering. However, my wish for those parents-to-be who are keeping mum because of the fear that something will go wrong that they will have to ‘explain’ to those they’ve told, is that they feel supported and encouraged enough to tell whoever they wish about their pregnancy, at whatever stage they want. The more we talk about our experiences of the first trimester, both good and bad, the more we can give it the recognition it deserves, support new pregnant mums in what can be the most physically demanding stage of their pregnancy, and lend a life-line of understanding to those struggling with the agony of an early miscarriage, instead of their pain, which is every bit as real and acute as any other loss of a loved one, being shrouded in silence.

Freya is one half of The Amateur Parents, along with her partner Rob. Follow Freya on Instagram @the_amateur_mama for more parenting articles and photos.