Elaine Welteroth On Her Journey To Motherhood: ‘You Feel Appointed To This Most Important Position’
No motherhood journey is the same. Best-selling author, journalist and television host Elaine Welteroth had her fair share of journeys, but her first pregnancy has been unlike anything she has ever experienced. Below, she gets candid about the process: the good, the difficult and everything in between.
Finding out that I was pregnant was the most surreal moment of my life. I didn’t believe it. It’s almost odd to say, but my brain immediately computed the positive test results to mean I had Covid, because I had been taking Covid tests so frequently. I’d also never taken a pregnancy test in my life. You don’t expect the first time you take a pregnancy test for it to be positive, so I had this disassociation with what I was finding out. Then it was just this calm, surreal feeling. Just quiet acceptance that came over me. Then I took another test, just to be sure, and sure enough, it was not Covid—it was a baby. We definitely were surprised. It’s not something that was in our immediate plans, but babies come on their own divine timing.
“It’s a surreal blessing where you feel chosen, you feel appointed to this most important position, one that you feel woefully underprepared for.”
It’s been an emotional roller coaster ever since. I definitely felt this expectation to feel only excitement, and that was stifling because you feel a range of emotions when you find out your life is about to change unexpectedly in a forever kind of way. I really wasn’t prepared to take on anyone else’s reactions or emotions about it. I kind of kept it really private with just the two of us (my husband and I) and then my group chain with my best friends. Hold on—the baby is like pushing through—it’s like an alien shape right now. My friend is taking a picture. Anywho, we kept it really private. Almost immediately, I got so sick. The physical aspect of it immediately took hold and took me down. Pregnancy is a very humbling experience on every level. It was the first time I experienced having such a limited capacity, having my bandwidth shrink almost overnight. I’m so used to having a big life, with a busy schedule and squeezing the most out of every minute and multitasking. That’s just my MO—it always has been since childhood. So to be stopped in my tracks because of actual physical limitations placed on my body was really hard for me mentally and emotionally. I felt like I was losing my lifeforce. You have this thing inside of you that’s pulling from you in every way. I just didn’t have anything left over. I could not get out of bed. I felt sick all the time. I also couldn’t eat anything. People tell you “Oh, it’s only the first 12 weeks” and even that’s a really long time. It was just sort of miserable 24/7 and it feels like there’s no end in sight; you just don’t know when it’s going to end. Not everybody has that experience but that was my experience.
At the same time, it’s a surreal blessing where you feel chosen, you feel appointed to this most important position, one that you feel woefully underprepared for. Even as a 34-year-old woman with a husband and a house and a career, I still felt woefully unprepared. I felt like, “how am I going to do this? They’re gonna let me have a baby?” Your circumstances don’t prevent you from feeling all the range of vulnerable feelings that come with finding out you’re pregnant.
Something that really altered my experience of pregnancy was being diagnosed with what’s called SPD—symphysis pubis dysfunction. One in five pregnant women develop this condition that is a result of your body basically overreacting to the release of relaxin, which is a hormone that loosens the ligaments in your pelvis, and helps prepare your body for childbirth. The relaxin hormone is totally normal in pregnancy, but some bodies react differently to it. In people with SPD, the pubic bone or the pubic symphysis, which is the ligament basically right in your crotch that connects your pelvis, loosens up to the point where your pelvis is completely unstable. It feels like your legs are slowly unhinging from your body; it feels like they’re going to fall off. At first I thought I had a fractured hip. That’s really what it feels like. When you have an unstable pelvis, your legs are unstable, you can’t really walk. Rolling over in bed, getting out of bed, walking to the bathroom, sitting down or getting up from the toilet, getting in and out of the car—all of these very basic movements that you take for granted become excruciatingly painful. And there’s nothing you can do about it. There’s no cure for it, there’s no medicine that you can take for pain relief. There’s just resting, there’s wearing the bands that kind of help stabilize the area. There’s exercises you can do to strengthen the little muscles. But with anything you’re doing, it’s not going to stop your body’s reaction to the relaxin. My chiropractor told me that she’s seen patients have to be carried in by their husbands and then carried out.
Some days are better than others. I just think that’s pregnancy. Everyone doesn’t have this condition, but I think everybody has good days and bad days in pregnancy, and they can be really hard. It can be taxing on your mental and emotional state. Especially if you’re feeling alone in it. No one around me had ever heard of SPD, no one knew that I was in that kind of pain, because it’s Covid and they don’t see you. It felt isolating.
I did eventually share my SPD diagnosis online. I just didn’t want to be a part of the culture that perpetuates this image of perfection around pregnancy. It’s so easy to, on a good day, take a great picture of your beautiful belly and post it on the internet. What I didn’t want is to have people comparing themselves to some perfect picture of my pregnancy, because it was so far from that. And yet, I didn’t want to come across as this oversharing pregnant lady either. But I am somebody that has always been a truth teller, so if I was going to share the good days, I had to share the bad days, too.
“The reality is two things can be true at once. You can be deeply grateful for an experience you’re having and also be struggling within that experience.”
I found a Reddit thread and I was reading about these women’s experiences with SPD. There weren’t that many entries but what I read really moved me to tears, every single entry was exactly what I was feeling. It was so incredibly validating and I felt like that’s what I needed. But it wasn’t enough. I thought, “Where can I connect with people who understand what this is like and how can I talk about it in a way that doesn’t negate my appreciation for the life that’s growing inside of me?
There’s that element of judgment that I think birthing folks feel and there’s this cultural expectation that it’s going to be a one-dimensional emotional experience where you’re only going to feel excitement and joy. And if you feel anything other than that, there’s immediate guilt or shame associated with it, because how dare you feel anything other than over the moon when you’ve been given this experience of carrying a life inside you? But the reality is two things can be true at once. You can be deeply grateful for an experience you’re having and also be struggling within that experience. And so I just thought, “I’m going to break my silence and then see what happens.” Sure enough, I heard from so many women who have experienced the same condition, and could completely relate to my experience. Then I had other women who had had other types of challenges that you probably don’t hear about very often or have never heard of. Immediately, it just felt like I had a community, like I was a part of something bigger. There’s something really, really validating about that.
That inspired me to lean into these conversations and to initiate them—the lesser discussed things around maternity as a whole. I felt like the only way I could healthily process this whole experience was to put on my journalist hat and start investigating it. I decided to start this series called MaterniTea, and it really has become this really nourishing outlet. My intention with it is, I don’t want it to just reach people who are pregnant. I want it to speak to people who one day maybe want to pursue this motherhood journey. And also friends, allies and lovers of women who are going through it, because I just think there’s so much more to know about how to support someone through this journey and to support yourself.
I feel like by being honest about all the range of things, I’ve also gotten to tap into deeper truths of the women around me. When I started MaterniTea, my mom texted me after one of the episodes and said, “I’m loving these talks, and I want you to know that I wish we talked about some of this stuff sooner because I definitely understand feelings of ambiguity around your pregnancy.” I immediately choked up. I just didn’t think she would get it. And then she called me and we had a conversation. I thought we’ve talked about everything, like five times. I thought we’d run out of new things to discover about each other, but sure enough, my mom and I are getting closer and talking about things we never talked about before. She told me that she didn’t know if she could create more space in her heart to love another human being as much as a mother needs to love a child because her heart was already full of love. She had a child already, she had a husband, she had a job, she had a house to maintain. Her plate was full, so to get pregnant and then have to make more space in her heart and in her life for another human was an overwhelming thought for her. I think parents don’t want to say these things to their kids, because they don’t want them to feel unloved. But it was actually the opposite. It made my mom feel human; it made my mom feel accessible; it made her feel like someone who could relate to me. And that was really transformative.
When it comes to having my own child, I am truly just taking it one step at a time. I have to trust the process and trust that there are answers that will reveal themselves in time. I have to believe that if I’m a good friend and a good daughter and a good wife, that I will find a way to translate that into being a good mom. The thing I do know about the kind of mom I’m going to be is that I’m just going to pay a lot of attention to them. I’m going to do my best every single day to study them, and to try to understand who they are, and let them reveal themself to me, and not try to shape them into who I want them to be. That’s something that I do feel deeply about and my partner feels the same way. We’re on the same page about the most fundamental aspect of parenting: which is to discover what it means to see and to love a human as their whole self.
—By Elaine Welteroth as told to Brianne Garrett
This interview was conducted in March 2022 and has been edited and condensed for clarity.