Pregnancy Announcements & Theater Fires

Unexpectedly triggered by her close friend's pregnancy announcement, one mother gets candid about her own feelings towards motherhood.

The year is 2020 and my husband and I are sitting on our very old futon in our very tiny apartment. It is April and reality is a bit of a joke because the pandemic has the world inside-out and upside-down. 

We’re on Facetime with two of my long-time friends, a married couple, even though they live just up the highway—it’s his birthday and parties are out because the six-foot rule is in, but we still wanted a chance to sing off-key and catch up. My phone is propped up on the futon armrest, Nick and I both trying to get our side-by-side faces into the vertical screen simultaneously.

A few minutes into the virtual festivities, they say, “Guess what?” A sonogram photo is raised in front of the camera. It slowly goes from fuzzy to clear as the camera focuses: a little white lima bean, set against the hazy black background that is its whole universe. My friend’s name in the top right corner confirms that this is reality, even if nothing else is.

I am floored! We didn’t know they’d been trying. Adrenaline rushes through my system—a result of the surprise. I am immersed in unbridled, overwhelming joy…but I feel other things too, and my body can’t tell what they are yet. So, my body, being the protective thing she is, launches Freeze-Flight-Fight mode, listed specifically in that order because that is specifically how I have always experienced them.

I think I say “wow!” or “oh my god!” or something along those lines? Mostly I think I sit there with my mouth open. Nick expresses his congratulations and starts making conversation, asking questions, doing the Normal Things while I sit there, emotionally flooding with joy and other things. He gets increasingly uncomfortable because I’m not contributing and I should be because this is good news and these are my friends.

But the inside of my head is a theater fire, and no one is keeping their cool; Joy is tripping over Shock who is being talked down by Curiosity, and next to them Excitement is tussling with something I am dismayed to recognize as Jealousy, the whole scene smoky and clouded by an amorphous form I will realize much later is Grief; all of them frantically running in circles, clogging up the aisles and clamoring to find the exit because I need to express something.

I can’t though, so I go to the bathroom and take a few deep breaths, very thrown off by the epic vice of this particular freeze. I attempt to get a grip, to put out the fire, but I can’t find the extinguisher and Nick has to come get me after a few minutes. I am so wildly happy for my friends it’s not quantifiable, and thus I am confused by myself; by the freeze and the fire, by the flight to the bathroom. 

I come back to the couch and compare it to the episode of Parks & Rec where Leslie is overjoyed and overwhelmed by Ron’s sudden announcement of marriage, where she “has so many feelings [she’s] paralyzed,” and we all laugh because it’s accurate.

Now, four years after my first close friend announced her first pregnancy, I am the last of my friends to (maybe) have kids. Which is ironic, because I was also the first of my friends to have kids—a rare and unusual dichotomy I am familiar with now, but one that, quite clearly, threw me off at first.


It feels oddly shameful to admit all of this. The jealousy, especially (more on that in another post). Though perhaps it’s not so odd to feel ashamed—we are taught that jealousy is a Very Bad Thing, to be happy with what we have, to not covet, to banish our desires for whatever does not “belong” to us.

Grief is not so much viewed as a Very Bad Thing as it is a Very Scary Thing. Unfortunately, our society tends to have trouble separating “bad” from “scary” (they are different, I promise), so they prefer to play it safe and toss both of these feelings together under Things You Should Avoid At All Costs or perhaps Things We Don’t Have Time For. Or my least favorite, Things That Should Be Silenced.

This is not something I agree with, naturally. I think jealousy can be quite informative when viewed with a little objectivity, and I think grief is one of the most important life experiences to explore, when you’re ready.

When I think of grief, I imagine it like a cave or cavern: deep, dark, and unfathomable when you first enter; you’re not sure how far back it goes, how much of it there really is, what all may be hiding in there. You wonder if you’ll ever see the light again if you decide to explore. That’s what makes it so intimidating, I think. But if you can handle the initial darkness—take deep breaths, let your eyes adjust, find a touchstone—it can be as enlightening as it is mysterious. Caverns may be home to monsters, but they hold treasure too. Mostly grief, in some form or another, is just an unavoidable side effect of being human. We might as well practice spelunking.

Regardless of whether or not we see grief as scary, I think it certainly can feel heavy. Boxes too dense to lift properly, too awkward to carry, especially by ourselves. But from there, we’re taught it’s better to heave them (grunting and sweaty and with all our might) across the floor and shutter them away under the stairs in the hopes we forget about them and no one looks inside.

I have a lot of compassion for this response; it’s the only real guidance Western, patriarchal cultures tend to provide when it comes to difficult or deeply emotional experiences: Avoid. Silence. Don’t venture into the cave, it’s too vulnerable in there; you might uncover something you wish you hadn’t, you might never find your way out, the journey might be too hard and make you too soft. Best to leave well enough alone. We don’t really know better at first.

And yet I myself have always been the type to unpack (to quote David Mills, I need to know what’s in the box). I blame the side effects of a curious nature and penchant for self-exploration that simply won’t stand for stones unturned. So in April of 2020, and every time since, when a friend announces a pregnancy, this is what I do.

When the theater fire in my head was finally extinguished that April (there were no casualties, only overturned furniture and a slightly charred interior), I knew two things for certain: I had no desire to have a baby at that point in my life, and yet I felt a yearning. I was happy not to be pregnant myself, and yet I felt a sense of loss.

So I called my mom, both because she is my go-to when I need a sounding board and also because she is very gracious and skilled at letting me talk at her (a *ahem* fun quirk of mine where I must talk out loud to figure out anything about anything). She is also one of those people who is very quiet for a very long time, and then she’ll deliver a piece of insight to you so perfect that, even though it never occurred to you, it suddenly feels obvious.

And when I tell her I am confused by the freeze and flight and fire and the flood during such a happy announcement for people I love, she says:

“Honey, it’s not that confusing. Her pregnancy will be exciting and celebrated. Yours was not.”

And she’s right.

I am reminded: I did, in fact, keep box of grief stowed away under the stairs. Not in order to hide it or avoid it though, but simply because I figured I was done with it.

My son’s adoption has unfolded so beautifully in every way—his adoptive family has always been kind and inclusive, our relationship has always been steady and solid. It’s the kind of open adoption you dream about, where you feel more like relatives than you do “birth family” and “adoptive family.” We’re all just family.

His adoption has felt so truly natural for the last several years that I forgot that it also demolished me at first. I forgot that putting myself back together wasn’t something I “accomplished,” but rather something I will be doing continually, for eternity. Because during pregnancy, in those early months after birth, the pain and complexity of it all crumbled me like dry clay while everyone around me told me I was blessed. In the process, I forgot it could be both beautiful and heartbreaking, so I just called it happy.

I struggled and mourned, yet I also persevered and created magic (and a family) from the rubble of my grief, and thus the box must have been emptied. I was done. Wasn’t I done?

It turns out my grief was less of a box and more of a Mary Poppins bag: generative, bottomless, materializing strange new things just when you think you’ve seen it all.

After this revelation, I quietly pulled the bag from it’s dark, cavernous home out into the light. I gently overturned it and shook out what I could. Then I sat there on the floor surrounded by the grieving pieces of myself and my life given to me by motherhood as I have experienced it. Pieces that had yet to be heard, but needed to be known.

The inherent judgement of a teenage pregnancy. The classic announcement I never got to make, with a letter board and a onesie and a due date. The bump pictures I never shared because I was too depressed during my pregnancy to take them. The baby shower I never had because I wasn’t going to need a crib or a stroller and it made everyone sad. The ritual of going to bed every night saying thank you to the little boy in my belly for spending one more night with me, because as soon as he was out, he would be gone. The English professor who, after reading an essay I wrote about my decision, bought me a rubber duck that changed colors if the bath water got too hot, in case I decided to keep the baby.

I was so lucky to have the support of my friends and the love of my family, and my parents did their damnedest to make sure there was no shame…but there was no celebration either. At any point of any kind. Not until after he was born, until the party at the adoption agency where everything was finalized. The agency brought cake and balloons and an “it’s a boy” banner; I brought a camera to take pictures that I never developed and took deep, steadying breaths alone in the office bathroom. Nobody celebrated until I was officially, decidedly, not a parent.

Renee and her son                                    

I turn these pieces of grief over in my hands, gazing at them from every angle. Reflected in them is 19-year-old me: she’s so impressively tough and tender and tired, making complex decisions way beyond her pay grade. She’s doing her best with her limited life experience and the biggest heart, and I love her so damn much. She doesn’t understand both/and yet and she’s trying so hard to make everything only positive, only happy, only blessed.

What she made instead was this bag: this safe place to keep all the sad things until some older version of me was ready to hold them again. I’m 29 in the April of 2020, and I’m finally there: ready now, handling them with care. I look at them, these pieces of grief, and I notice…they’re really quite pretty, when the light hits just right.

I slowly went through the rest of the bag—I threw out a few things, but ultimately I kept the rest. I hung some on the walls, placed others on shelves and windowsills where the sun could catch them. I brought most of them with me to therapy: to show them off, to understand them better. I even used a few pieces to start this newsletter.

But first, before any of that, I built a cozy corner where I can curl up if I need to spend time with them again; not a cave so much as a shelter. A sanctuary, out in the open where we can breathe. I’m almost 33 as I write this and I’m comfortable spending time there. The fire is out and the closet under the stairs is empty.

We’re all home safe now.

This is an excerpt from Renee’s substack Renee on the Road.  If you enjoyed this post, click here to subscribe. 


  • Renee Hartwick

    Renee Hartwick is a Squarespace designer and educator, collaborating with heart-centered businesses on soulful website designs that help them to feel empowered and authentic online. She is also the writer of the Substack Renee on the Road. If you enjoyed this post, click here to subscribe.

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