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Guest Post: Putting My Own Oxygen Mask On First

By Janine Kovac


In August 2009 I discovered that I was pregnant with twins—a rare, 1-in-25,000 kind of pregnancy in which the twins shared both a placenta and an amniotic sac. The protocol for this kind of pregnancy is to monitor the mother and babies twice a month. If the mother is still pregnant at 28 weeks, she is admitted into the hospital until the babies are born.

A normal pregnancy is 40 weeks, but for a monoamniotic/monochorionic pregnancy such as mine, the best-case scenario is that the babies are delivered around 32 weeks’ gestation—the point at which the risk of the twins dying from prematurity is less than the risk of dying from umbilical cord entanglement in the womb. Babies born eight weeks early may still need help to breathe and eat. Although many do quite well, they are still at risk for learning and behavioral problems later in their development.

You don’t have to be a cognitive scientist (as I am) to know that in the face of scary and uncertain circumstances humans often act irrationally. I knew I was asking for trouble by Googling search terms such as “mortality rates for preemies.” But I did it anyway. I learned about horrendous fetal birth defects that I never knew existed and found entire forums of scared mothers.

The truth of the matter was that I had stumbled upon tragic circumstances that were actually quite rare and none of them had anything to do with monoamniotic pregnancies. But the more I read about these worst-case scenarios, the more probable it seemed that they would happen to me.

Cognitive scientists call this the salient exemplar effect—a memorable or tragic event makes such a great impact we assume that it happens more frequently than it actually does. For example, (statistically speaking) terrorist attacks and plane crashes are quite rare when compared to other accidents or acts of violence. And the likelihood that a terrorist attack will cause a plane crash is even less likely. Yet the tragic events of 9/11 frightened many people into thinking that air travel was riskier than actually is.

For the first few months of my pregnancy, I scoured the web for information about preemies, trying to guess what would happen if our babies were born five weeks before their due date—or eight weeks or 10 weeks. Sometimes I’d try to distract myself with my regular “mom duties,” such as taking care of my then-two-year-old daughter. But as soon as I’d tuck her into bed, I’d sneak back to my computer to ask questions of preemie moms on parenting forums and look at images of very tiny wrinkled babies hooked up to tubes and sensors in plastic boxes.

The more I researched, the more pessimistic I grew regarding our chances of having healthy, normal babies. I knew that my illogical conclusions were the result of salient exemplars but Internet research made me feel informed. Regardless of how irrational it was, I was afraid that if I didn’t read about worst-case scenarios then I wouldn’t be prepared for one.

However, the Internet also has the power to connect us. I reached out to everyone I knew who had twins: friends, friends of friends, colleagues of friends. One of my friends emailed me back recommending a book specifically for pregnant mothers of twins. The author was doctor who specialized in twin pregnancies and maternal-fetal nutrition.

The book was a manual for how to put my own oxygen mask on first, something I later learned from Christine Carter’s book and online class Foundations I that is crucial for raising healthy children. There were tips for healthy light exercise, tips for resting throughout the day (and night), tips for talking to your employer about maternity leave, and of course, tips for eating. In fact, one-third of the book was recipes for nutritious meals for pregnant moms.

My friend ended her email with this question:

“Janine, Can you eat 4000 calories a day?”

She explained: “If you can gain 20 pounds in the first half of the pregnancy, you’ll increase your chances of having healthy-weight babies.”

For the first time in the pregnancy I had a goal and guide. I went from mentally preparing for a horrible outcome to physically preparing for the healthiest pregnancy possible for my situation.

There was so much that was beyond my control, but I could do this: I could eat big healthy meals. I could rest when I was tired and I could spend time with my husband and my young daughter. My new plan of action didn’t make my anxiety go away completely. It didn’t always keep me away from Google. But it did make me feel proactive.

And without realizing it, by reaching out to my friend not only had I put on my own oxygen mask first, but I’d already started on Raising Happiness’s Step Two: Build A Village.