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Why are we (still) keeping the first trimester a secret?

Keeping pregnancies a secret for the first trimester is still considered the social norm, but perhaps it doesn't have to always be this way.

Content warning: Discussion of pregnancy loss

Pregnancy often starts as a secret. A big, little secret buried deep in your womb. But you know it’s there: the tender breasts, nausea and relentless exhaustion. 

When I found out I was pregnant with my second child, I felt instantly different. The idea of growing a life inside of me fuelled me, even made me feel empowered. I was high on how mind-blowing the female body is, and I quickly started daydreaming about what expanding our little family would be like. After one week in the ‘honeymoon phase’ with my newly acquired pregnancy, I started to feel… for want of a better word, really shit. 

Suddenly, I was so tired I had to nap on a park bench during my lunch break, find an empty-looking laneway to throw up in and then run to the corner store to get my next fix of the only drink that didn’t add to my nausea – peach iced tea. Things didn’t feel quite as empowering anymore. 

And then I remembered that these are the odds of early pregnancy for many women. For more or less 12 weeks you feel completely beside yourself – overpowered by the hormonal revolution that is taking place inside of you to make room for an additional person. All the while, so the social convention goes, you’re supposed to live a normal life and not tell anyone about your pregnancy.

When I fell pregnant for the first time I didn’t tell a soul (other than my husband as I figured I’d need a valid excuse for my sudden change in appetite and mood swings). To hide my pregnancy, I pretended I did ‘dry January’ (does anyone actually still do that?!), and I tried to act normal in conversations when friends asked, “How are you?”. I remember yearning to tell them how I really was feeling: out of sorts, not quite like myself — I was going through one of the biggest changes in my life, but felt like I shouldn’t share it with anyone. While I was grateful to be growing a life, I also felt lonely and scared. 

So when I found out I was pregnant again, I instantly knew I didn’t want to keep it a secret until the “12-week safety mark”. I needed this pregnancy to be a different experience. To not feel so alone. I wanted to feel what it felt like to receive the support I needed as I was going through another huge life change. I didn’t want to suffer in silence this time. 

As I told close friends and family the news, it started to feel very natural to share. I felt the relief of not living a double life for 12 weeks, and the support I got that wouldn’t otherwise have been there made me feel less isolated in the experience. It suddenly felt strange that I had ever tried to hide it, and it made me reflect: when do you ever keep a big change in your life a secret for three months?

When I moved to Australia from Denmark I told everyone on my contact list as soon as we had booked the plane tickets, and when I moved house last year I whinged to everyone willing to listen. When I lost my grandmother, who I was very close with, I told my friends too. I needed their support, love and comfort to help me through it. 

Of course, there are many personal reasons why most women choose not to share their pregnancies early on. The fear of miscarriage or discovering a nonviable pregnancy are two of them. Both experiences are deeply personal and traumatic, yet very common. In Australia, around 25% of pregnancies end in a miscarriage, and the majority of them happen in the first 12 weeks. 

“We end up making pregnancy an individual problem for each woman to navigate herself,” says Marianne Trinder, a Bereavement Support Manager at Pink Elephant, a support network for people experiencing miscarriage. In her experience, we, society, minimise what a big deal it is to be pregnant and especially the first trimester. 

“You don’t have an obligation to anyone to share your story,” she says. But “there are a lot of drawbacks of the silence too. You’re without support if it goes well, and without support if it doesn't.” 

A friend recently told me she was pregnant. She ordered the virgin margarita at the restaurant. “I’m not supposed to drink these days,” she said with a smile that lit up her whole face. I knew she and her partner had been trying for a while, so I was thrilled to hear the news. She was in week 8 when she told me and the close group of friends we were with. 

But three weeks later the text ticked in. There was no heartbeat at the scan, and with that, a beautiful dream had been lost. “There’s so much hope that goes into a pregnancy, and you don't realise how much until it falls apart,” she told me. 

Anita Guyett is a provisional psychologist and bereaved parent who leads the online peer support network at The Perinatal Loss Centre. She says that in her experience many women still feel the pressure not to share their pregnancy early on. 

“Pregnancy is hard, the symptoms can be sometimes debilitating and I think it’s a great shame in our society that a woman feels this societal pressure to follow the 12-week rule, because this is, in fact, a time when a mother needs the most support, whether a pregnancy results in a live baby, or if they unfortunately, become one of the 1 in 4 statistics of pregnancy loss," says Guyett.

It’s hard to know how to support a friend who's going through such a personal, devastating experience as pregnancy loss. But I was grateful that my friend had allowed us to be a part of it so early on, and in that way, allowed us to support her when it fell apart. It felt like this is the way it should be – that you can safely reach out to your friends and support network when you’re going through a traumatising experience. To rely on their comfort and support to help you through it. To not silence a huge life event, but celebrate it when it’s going well, and grieve together when it’s not. 

If you or anyone you know has experienced the loss of a child and needs support, you can reach out to The Pink Elephants Support Network or call the 24/7 Red Nose Grief and Loss hotline on 1300 308 307.