First published on MyDomaine.com HERE, this account of my pregnancy experience addresses the little-discussed challenge of pre-natal anxiety and the impact it can have on your happiness, mental health and pre-birth preparation.
When you’re unsuccessfully trying to get pregnant, your evening dreams and daytime reveries are often occupied with imagining exactly what it would feel like to have your stomach thickening, growing day by day into a little basketball bump. Every bit of pregnancy paraphernalia, from the ovulation strips you’re peeing on to the folic acid tablets you’re gulping down diligently every morning, takes on a symbolic significance. No matter how disheartening it might be along the journey, the goal remains fixed on the same burgeoning point: the contours of that tummy. But what happens when, finally, you make it to what you thought was the finish line and instead of a time of glowy excitement and that dream you were so fixated on, you find something else entirely? Something which you’re ashamed to even name?
I started trying to conceive nearly two years ago, and after finding a hugely supportive fertility specialist, I fell pregnant with the help of hormonal treatment. Like many women, I found the process stressful and after the negative tests started to pile up, almost immediately turned in on myself. My fertility issue was based on a problem with my cycle related to, among other things, low body weight, yo-yo dieting, and high levels of adrenaline and cortisol. So it was easy to hand myself the blame and point fingers at my relentless lifestyle, workout regimen, or diet plan for the monthly sense of failure. Looking back, this was really where the problems with my emotional well-being during my pregnancy started.
“The perfection of other people’s lives—and, conversely, the shortcomings of yours—are just sometimes far too seductive, and for me, unfortunately, it formed some unhealthy expectations for the months ahead.”
Pre-conception, I’d started to feel a huge lack of confidence in my body and its abilities to do “what it was supposed to do,” as well as a sense of unspoken anxiety about my chances of ever meeting a baby that I carried. The more I realized that I wanted it, the louder the doubts came. During this time, I found myself constantly comparing myself to everyone else around me. It can be so hard when you’re greeted with endless images of other women with their bumps and babies, both IRL and on social media. While we’re all thankfully much more likely to share our trials these days, it’s scarily easy to persuade yourself that there must be something wrong with you; because clearly, for everyone else, it’s just like falling off a log. The perfection of other people’s lives—and, conversely, the shortcomings of yours—are just sometimes far too seductive, and for me, unfortunately, it formed some unhealthy expectations for the months ahead.
The day I saw the first positive stripe (I ended up taking about 45 pregnancy tests, you know, just to be sure) should have been a moment of sheer elation. But instead of feeling like I was on cloud nine, I almost immediately fell into a haze of fear. The sense of disbelief that my body had actually “done it” was replaced with a dread-heart and abject terror that the very worst was about to happen morning, noon, and night. Because I’d struggled to fall pregnant, for some reason I felt certain I’d struggle to stay pregnant, too. In this situation, Google is nobody’s friend. Before every single scan and genetic test result, I obsessively researched all the outcomes and steeled myself and my family for terrible news. Those waking-time worries were mirrored by hideously tangible nightmares of stillbirth and miscarriages. For someone who was so desperate to get pregnant, I know it sounds so strange that I would focus so completely on the negatives, and I knew I should just feel lucky. But honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever felt lower or more out of control of my feelings.
For me, pregnancy wasn’t just a physical struggle. Sure, I averaged around 15 vomiting sessions a day up to 20 weeks, and during the last month, I didn’t leave the house as my pelvis gave way, and that did make me feel a bit isolated and lonely. But those issues, while hardly joyous, were nothing in comparison to the impact of pregnancy hormonal cocktails on my moods, mind, and personality. Things reached a breaking point at my 32-week midwife appointment. Having kept most of these thoughts to myself (because of shame, embarrassment, and concern that people would think I was going to be a bad mother), I broke and it all came out. The worries just flowed into each other: I was going to have a haemorrhage; my baby was going to get stuck in my pelvis and get brain damage; I was going to become incontinent; my body was clearly too weak to cope; I needed a C-section… I had convinced myself that I was going to experience the very worst of every birth story all at once, and I was desperate for a solution.
“Yes, there are a lot of desperately sad things that are possible in pregnancy, but that doesn’t mean that they are probable.”
Incredibly, fortunately, I had a group of amazing women—midwives, friends, family, and counsellors—around me who managed to finally stop my endless spiral downward and make me really address what I was doing to myself. Personally, pregnancy went so much deeper than “trusting your body” or “going with nature.” Actually, the more I heard these bromides, the less I believed in myself. What I needed was for someone to admit the cold, hard truth: When it comes to pregnancy and childbirth, there is always going to be a risk because it’s a lottery that no one can prepare for. This is the nub of prenatal anxiety: It is entirely rational, and if you feel it, you are not mad or unhinged. It’s just a logical response to a situation which we are all, to an extent, out of control of.
The hardest thing for me was that all my usual ways of dealing with anxiety were rendered useless because, quite simply, you cannot revise or Excel-spreadsheet your way to the perfect birth or nine months of gestation. However, what you can do is start to treat probabilities as possibilities. Yes, there are a lot of desperately sad things that are possible in pregnancy, but that doesn’t mean that they are probable. By adding my sense of guilt about my lifestyle to my struggles with my cycle and problems conceiving, I’d paved the way to believe that there was something defective about my body—something I bolstered by trawling through the academic research on Google binges that went on for weeks. But looking back now, I realize I’m no different than many of the 4.4% of other women pregnant across the globe right now—I was just scared of the unknown and hated being out of control.
This story does have a happy ending. I gave birth to a beautiful nine-pound baby boy on March 1 and have almost unbelievably forgotten both the pain of the labor and the emotional and physical struggles already. I will say that that I am overjoyed to not be pregnant anymore, something which can be hard to say out loud, especially when you know what a privilege it is conceive, carry, and deliver a healthy baby. But if I’ve learned anything, it’s this: When it comes to pregnancy there is so much judgment that we heap upon ourselves and use to appraise others too. Everyone’s journey is, however, entirely different. We all have different bodies and brains, different hormones and thought processes. We have different ways of coping with life’s stresses and challenges. While childbearing may seem like a leveler, in many ways we are all strangers to each other’s experiences. I am lucky that I found support and turned the shame in my feelings into something manageable. But more than anything I want to say to anyone else out there who feels scared, anxious, stressed, or like a different, lesser version of themselves while they are pregnant that they really are not alone. We may not always advertise these sides of our nine months, but that doesn’t make them any less worthy of our attention, support, and empathy. There is not one single pregnancy experience—there is only your own unique, special, and even maybe slightly flawed one.
All images by Daniela Cadore