Courage and the Vegan Pregnacy
by Kerrie Saunders, PhD
For new vegans, now pregnant, feelings of anxiety, fear, or doubt may be understandably present. After all, we are having vegan pregnancies in a non-vegan culture. By sharing my story, I hope to inspire your wisdom, courage, and hunger for reliable parenting resources.
I married when I was 32, and then became the first Vegan on both sides of the family at age 33. At age 34, I became pregnant for the first time, with twins. I was elated at the prospect of getting a ‘2 for 1’ pregnancy, and quickly obtained an ob-gyn whom specialized in ‘high-risk’ (multiple fetus) pregnancies.
Of course, various family members, friends, co-workers, and acquaintances found all sorts of creative ways to ask if I planned to eat a Vegan diet throughout the pregnancy. I would calmly affirm their suspicions, being surprised at the range of reactionary facial expressions that followed. Surprise, fear, anxiety, anger, disgust, admiration, support, and it seemed every emotion in between. Was I disappointing these people? Were they worried about me? Maybe they were worried about the babies. Don’t they know that I would do anything for my babies? Don’t they know that I am doing what I feel is that absolute best for my babies, by eating a Vegan diet? How can they not understand that the Vegan diet is full of necessary nutrients, and far superior to diets with animal products? Don’t they know my breastmilk will be lower in pesticide residues because of this diet?
The anxiety of others pushed me to study the literature more than ever. I continued forward with my commitment, confident in the nutritional recommendations for pregnancy of physicians like Michael Klaper, Neal Barnard, and John McDougall, and dietitians like Brenda Davis, Reed Mangels, and Suzanne Havala. So far, so good.
At 6 weeks into the pregnancy, I developed hyperemesis. This is not your typical morning sickness, where the mom-to-be wakes up a little woozy, giggles with her husband, eats a cracker, and then shares her experience with coworkers an hour later. No, hyperemesis knocks you off your feet, as you vomit almost continuously, and often violently. I would vomit every time I stood up, no matter what I ate, around the clock, and up to 15-20 times a day. After a visit to the doctor, I learned that the condition is somehow related to hormones and genetics, and that my Mom, one aunt, and both grandmas had experienced hyperemesis with pregnancy. The good news was that babies seem unaffected, the bad news was that I was pretty much stuck throwing up continuously — not a trait that goes will with a career in public speaking, so I had to quit my public speaking contract at the Health Department. You can probably imagine the hints from public health personnel that perhaps eating animal flesh or fluids would be all that I would need to do to stop the hyperemesis. Not a chance. I had decided long before that I was going to have a Vegan pregnancy. I saw this as an opportunity to do what was best for my babies, and to help make headway for the veg*n cause, all at once.
At about 4-4 1/2 months, I began to worry that I wasn’t keeping enough food down for one, let alone three. My stomach muscles were constantly sore from all of the vomiting, and I had lost my normal joy in eating. I knew my stomach would be rejecting the food any minute. I think I would have eaten manure or dirt at that point, if I thought it would stop the vomiting. Being a relatively new vegan, intensely focused on pregnancy nutrient needs, I hadn’t yet learned much about the other reasons for being Vegan. So one night, I even tried to eat a couple bites of barbecued ‘ribs’ to see if maybe its fat or animal protein would help calm my stomach. No luck, of course, and please do not judge me. Remember I had been vomiting now for 4 months, and so desperately wanted something to reach my babies. To this day, I wonder how the twins continued to grow with so little food intake.
At 6 1/2 months, we miscarried the twins. We were able to hold each baby girl. They seemed so beautiful, so small, so perfectly formed, yet they were not meant to stay with us. The regular physical examinations revealed no abnormalities at all. In fact, the twins had been developing just fine. I had 22 inches of baby in me at the time of the miscarriage, so perhaps my body thought it was just time to deliver. We declined the hospital offer of autopsies, feeling that the babies had been through enough already. I questioned the doctors about their best guess as to what had happened. “We put this in the category of an act of God”, they said. There were simply no indicators as to what had happened, and what might have prevented this unexpected outcome. As a new Vegan, and responsible for other lives, I felt it was my duty to ask if somehow I had missed a nutrient in my studies. Again, no. In fact, my doctor’s partner had worked with several Veg*n pregnancies, and he seemed quite confident that I had been a very responsible parent, not worried at all that I planned to have another Vegan pregnancy.
I lost so much blood during the miscarriage that I had almost died. The next day, I was told that I needed a blood transfusion. What?! Not after a year of preparing my body for a healthy pregnancy – no caffeine, no medications, no aspirin, no animal flesh and fluids. I could not imagine someone else’s blood being put into my body, especially when I knew I wanted to be pregnant again. I felt I owed my child more than that, and was willing to fight for my beliefs. I refused the transfusion, and signed the hospital ‘s legal release form. I guess I was leaving the hospital ‘against medical advice’, although one doctor whom shall remain nameless said he would have probably done the same thing.
My Mom came home with me to help out while I was still weak and anemic. She fed me brown rice, beets, spinach, beans, and other iron-rich foods. The doctors were pleased and amazed when my iron labs came back healthy in half the time it normally takes to bounce back from such blood loss.
Three months later, I was pregnant. You can imagine the ‘public reaction’ toward my veganism now. For many people, the loss of the twins was solely and directly due to the lack of cow milk, or beef, or chicken in my diet. Their question of another Vegan pregnancy came cloaked in many ways, but I had decided to not dwell on their innocence or ignorance. Instead, I needed my energy and conviction for the job ahead. Not as a vegetarian, or as a woman. As important as those labels may be, I had begun to see myself as a parent. A parent to two children who could not stay with me, and to one that was on her way.
My moment-to-moment decisions are now based very clearly on my instincts to protect this child with my life, and on recommendations and research from sources like the ones I mentioned above. It’s as if the loss of the twins has left me with a focus which has no room for arbitrary and unfounded external opinions. I find it much easier to be objective with their concerns, and to not misuse energy in unwanted debate. The only person I really owe an explanation to is my child.