What I Didn't Expect About Expecting
When the CEO of Hill House Home became pregnant, she went from feeling she could have it all to feeling like she was being judged by all.
Sitting in the plastic chair of my SAT exam room with all my traditional femininity on display — glitter on my eyelids and impractical pink patent leather shoes — I laughed at the idea that any of my male classmates could outperform me. I loved the juxtaposition between my girly appearance and my traditionally masculine drive to achieve. When I went to work on the rates sales desk at Deutsche Bank in New York, the glass ceiling seemed like a barrier for an older generation — a generation whose hard work and struggle had gotten me and my peers here. It felt like there was no reason on earth we wouldn’t survive and thrive in business, family, social life, tackling it all.
Four years after my first day on Wall Street, I felt capable of anything. My time in the corporate world made me feel invincible. With the financial and emotional support of my family, I took a big risk: I started my company, Hill House Home, focused on manufacturing high-quality, customizable essentials for the home. On the morning I launched my company, sitting on a folding chair in an office on Canal Street with my hair in two long braids and my feet in my favorite pair of platform heels, being a woman felt powerful. The world was my oyster.
And then, one month later, throwing up into my computer case while on a conference call in the back of a taxi in midtown, I thought, “Oh. This may be different. Maybe the possibilities aren’t quite so endless.”
I was 27 and pregnant, and woefully unprepared. Up until this unplanned milestone, there had been room for so many different ways to be a woman. Even in the midst of all of the masculine energy of the Wall Street trading floor, I’d found pockets of space to be myself, and acceptance from even the most old-school of bosses. I had friends on all ends of the gender spectrum, all of whom allowed me to be me — even when that meant I wore a cat eye to read a book on the elliptical at Equinox on Greenwich Avenue. And then suddenly, when I was pregnant, it felt like there was just one way to be a woman. It felt like I’d been exposed to a world that allowed only one very narrow definition of how to be. It took pregnancy to show me for the first time in my life the weight of the work we had left to do.
"And then suddenly, when I was pregnant, it felt like there was just one way to be a woman."
I had to fight for my pride at work, two months after launching Hill House Home, when a strange man with chia seeds in his teeth crossed his arms and said of my fledgling company, “Yeah, it’s a cute idea, but, you know, you’re pregnant so … how committed are you to this business?”
I had to fight for my pride in my social life, pregnant at my fifth college reunion, when a frat bro covered in beer laughed, “Wow! I wasn’t sure if that was Nell or just Bloated Nell! Never thought you’d go the housewife route so fast.”
I had to fight for my pride on social media, where every other pregnant person in the universe seemed eternally #blessed, posting weekly #bumpday updates and captioning photos of ice cream cones and fries “#pregnancyperks.” Sometimes, brushing my teeth made me faint with motion sickness. These women on my iPhone screen had slim ankles and all the time in the world for pregnancy yoga. They hosted gender reveals and held up chalkboards with their baby’s size perfectly rendered as an exotic fruit. They seemed like perfectly rendered drawings of womanhood as a vessel to procreation. There was never a suggestion that their experience was anything other than all-good, all-grateful, all-the-time.
Meanwhile, I cried at everything: when I thought too long and hard about the Revolutionary War, when a TSA agent asked me to remove my light jacket, when my bagel wasn’t toasted, when I spelled something wrong.
Everywhere I turned, the focus was so very much the binary of right and wrong: the right way to look (“all bump”), the right things to eat (“absolutely no sliced turkey”), the right way to celebrate (“Where’s your baby moon?”), and immediately after birth, the right way to feel ("exhausted!"), the right way to feed ("breast is best!"), the right way to speak about motherhood and mothers ("a gift," "goddesses").
The wrong, it seemed, was reserved exclusively for my version of pregnancy. In the grocery store, on the subway platform and on pregnancy-app message boards, I was scolded.
"My pregnant body was a magnet for other peoples’ opinions. … Never in my life had I felt like I had so little room to be me."
“Oh! You’re … uh … going to eat that, huh?” a stranger nodded toward me as I picked up a container of tuna salad at Citarella on 6th Avenue.
“You’re really having an epidural? You don’t want to just feel it?” a friend asked over dinner.
My pregnant body was a magnet for other peoples’ opinions. What if I was some of these things sometimes, and others never, and very much my own thing always? What if I was nauseous and foggy and confused and scared and my arms and legs and face were just as big as my bump and I had a Diet Coke and some Cheetos? Never in my life had I felt like I had so little room to be me.
When it came to birth itself, I felt woefully misled by pop culture. On Friends, I watched both Phoebe and Rachel give birth with so little agency that they seemed barely human. Labor was a thing that happened to these characters. With swift, mechanical, explosive water breaks and near-identical huffing-and-puffing on a delivery bed, both of these women were stripped of humanity in perhaps the most human process they could ever undergo. In real life, my own broken water was so subtle that I told my husband, “I peed the bed just a little last night, sorry,” as I shuffled out the front door for work as usual with nothing to report. Most women I spoke to hadn’t experienced a water break at all; their labors were often long, boring, tedious until, of course, they weren’t. My own labor was 48 hours of vomit followed by only 10 minutes of pushing that made me feel like I had just won the Nobel Prize.
After a life of control — orderly plans and careful consideration — pregnancy put me at the mercy of forces too strong for even my determined will. Pregnancy made me feel a million feelings at once: It stripped me down and humbled me, and in the same second, built me up so high I felt like I had just been elected President.
What got me through this journey were the small glimpses of humanity that I found in others. I know now more than ever that there is work to be done; there are stories to be told. I want to listen to stories about good births, bad births, births that were funny and weird and magical and after that I want to hear the same types of stories about motherhood, womanhood and childhood.
I know now that I want to stand up to a society that tells us we can be absolutely anything we want to be and then forces us to prescribe to a life that is very much only exactly one thing at a time, thank you, and never two of those things at once. I know now that the baby I was carrying — my baby, Henry — was worth all the beer-soaked insults in the world. I know now that I want to exist in a world where there is no right way to be any of these things, only the being.
Nell Diamond is the founder and CEO of Hill House Home, a very chic bed, bath and accessories company headquartered in New York City. Follow her @nelliediamond.