If it’s true that you don’t know what you don’t know, then I certainly didn’t know that mental health in pregnancy would be a topic I would have to tackle all on its own. And that it would be a Brand. New. Subject.
On an average day, someone like me, whose job and training revolve around achieving and maintaining good mental health, will travel somewhere north of a 6, and all the way up to a 10. I’d like to think I manage my stress, my mindfulness practices and my physical condition in a pretty good manner. So, when I found out I was pregnant, I though cool, this shouldn’t be any different… right?
Here is a little background: My partner and I are in a loving, committed, financially stable relationship and we want children . And, although one can never be fully prepared, I thought I was – if not prepared, then ready to become prepared.
Also, a note: as I write this list, I am are of how many of my thoughts feel taboo, questionable or ungrateful. This isn’t my aim. I am beyond thrilled to be having a child, and acutely aware of my good fortune. My aim is to share a take on wellness and mental health during pregnancy that hopefully speaks to other women who are feeling confused or triggered by the experience, so they may know they are not alone. And they are doing a good job.
1. You lose the fantasy of a baby
Here’s something I learned really fast: the theory of a chubby, giggly baby is wildly different to the theory of your chubby, giggly baby.
In reality, maternity is often romanticised, and the edges of what YOU truly want, and what you have been conditioned to desire, are blurred. People don’t often stopped to think whether they want a child of their own, or whether they find children adorable conceptually. And the truth is, we wouldn’t know how to separate the two things.
My partner and I ‘weren’t not’ trying – which is what thirty-something year olds say about their noncommittal approach to starting a family. But finding out I was pregnant took away the romantic fantasy of a baby, and gave me the actual baby. And the actual baby comes with a host of new worries: the crippling anxiety of bringing a human into an imperfect world; the fear of losing one-on-one time with my partner; a misshapen body that’s not the one I know; the endless financial commitment; the list in quite literally endless.
The Fantasy VS Reality Conundrum
This led me to thinking: is fantasy better than reality, and if so… why don’t we stop at that?
Harvard professor Dan Gilbert has a theory. It turns out that the human brain can play out future scenarios and imagine outcomes, which is how we are both able to dream, and also presuppose that our dreams will make us happy, and are better than our current reality. However, what our brains can’t do is it can’t simulate ALL of the details of our fantasies. And that’s why, when the dream becomes reality, it’s different to what we had imagined. So back to my point we go: losing a fantasy can be… tough.
Realising a fantasy means you no longer have that as a dream to achieve. Yes, having a baby will be amazing, but you only get to have the fantasy of your first child once, of becoming a first parent once, of telling your partner once; then reality takes over. And it will be great, but also bittersweet, because now you no longer have the dream.
What I’ve learned:
- A fantasy is perfect and untouchable, by virtue of being a dream. A technique I’m finding useful is to pivot and expand the dream into other dreams. What else could my fantasy work on, so I don’t mourn the loss of this one? What other plans, vacations, lessons can I fantasise about?
- However, widespread Theory of Mind on parenting suggests that, although hard, having a child is far better than any dream about it might be. Although we might not know personally, the consensus is that it’s an unprecedented and inexplicable emotion.
- Equally, this is the best time to practice mindfulness: how can I stay in this very moment, and appreciate the reality of what I’m going through?
2. Your body is out of your immediate and complete control
I wish there were hard, scientific stats on how many women suck in their stomach. It’s a specific request, I know, but hear me out: of all the self-soothing tricks women have learned to implement throughout the years to abide by beauty standards, this seems to me one of the more widespread ones. We do it unconsciously when looking in the mirror, trying clothes on, when others wrap their hands around us. Heck, I can’t think of many times during the day when we (I, too) don’t feel the need to suck it in.
Now get pregnant… and try sucking your stomach in. Spoiler: you can’t.
It seems small, but if you’ve spent your entire life utilising this as a coping mechanism to combat feeling inferior/ fat/ out of control/ guilty for having overeaten, and then suddenly it’s taken away from you… it’s a big deal. Not to mention, you don’t look the same. You might have spent your entire adult life seeing a specific reflection in the mirror, and now an entirely different person stares back at you. And it’s one with a tummy. Yes, it contains a growing life – but if your brain has been conditioned for decades to associate a flat stomach with worth, it couldn’t care less that there’s a baby in there.
And that’s without even tackling the wide and wild list of other physical symptoms.
- Peeing a billion times a day
- Peeing when you laugh
- Peeing a trillion times a night
- Tiredness beyond explanation
- Food aversion (mine is pizza…like, what?!)
- Please Stop Me At Any Point
Now you see, none of these elements taken on their own are life-impairing, but all together… all together they can – and certainly do- impact your mental health in pregnancy. Any change to a routine you’ve spent countless years mastering comes with a set of challenges.
What I’ve learned:
- You are not alone. AT ALL. Having a hard time with your body and mental health in pregnancy is something scholars study. A really great way to combat focusing on the aesthetic, is to focus instead on actions: keep going for walks, take a nice Pregnancy Pilates class, or introduce Kegel and perineum exercises in your daily activities.
- Try experiencing the changes with curiosity instead of annoyance. ‘It’s so weird I can’t stand pizza. I wonder if it’s the same with a croque monsieur’
- I’ve also found that taking beautiful pictures helps. You can experience your changing shape in an artistic and pleasing way, and you can see your body in its entirety, as opposed to focusing on only an expanding mid-section.
3. There isn’t a ‘right way’ to nest – or a need to, at all.
I’m in the extremely fortunate position of having six friends and colleagues pregnant at the same time as I am. This has resulted in an array of useful shared information, and one daunting lack on my part:
I am not nesting.
I have a spare room, and I haven’t made it into the baby’s room. I am yet to buy a crib. My walls are the same colour as they were before, whilst my friends are pink and blue. And I’m wondering… why don’t I feel like it?
There aren’t as many studies on human nesting rituals as there are for animals, so most data is anecdotal at best; however, where animal research shows a biological imperative animals abide by when they nest (ie: if they don’t find a suitable tree to build shelter, their tiny egg won’t hatch etc), human biology has been deeply influenced by gender roles and what other people deem socially normal. As well, a research from McMaster University postulates that nesting has roots in our ancestral past, basically when we HAD to nest to protect our offspring. But… my house is warm already. And clean. I have food in the pantry.
Further insight came from a friend who is getting married next year: he is not having a sit down dinner, a videographer, or a three-tiered wedding cake (what?!). They want to get married just as much as the next person, but in order to do so, they didn’t need to follow the wedding blueprint – and although that’s not what I would want to do on my wedding, it doesn’t devalue his approach. I’ll add – money played a role too.
What I’ve learned:
- There may be no biological imperative for you to nest – so don’t feel bad about it.
- There will be things you need, and cannot do without. But you don’t have to know what they are now, and they don’t have to come in the same package they do for other pregnant people.
- Equally, this is another opportunity to think cognitively of how this experience can be tailored your specific needs. Making a baby room, or purchasing baby things, is not the only way to be prepared for parenthood. And if it doesn’t work for you, the last thing you need to do is judge yourself for it.
- Money is a constant and permanent fixture in everyone’s life, made more evident when you’re expecting, and it plays a huge part in your mental health in pregnancy. If it doesn’t make financial sense to buy an expensive crib, which you will have to replace in twenty minutes because babies grow that fast, then… don’t.
4. You might need new soothing and coping techniques.
When you’re taking care of your mental health, you develop coping techniques. When you’re taking care of your mental health in pregnancy, these coping techniques might not be available to you (and yes, I’m including my ritual evening whisky in this list).
Some of my personal go-to soothing and coping techniques include:
- Having a nice glass of Ardbeg or Laphroaig after dinner
- Doing a super-intense weight lifting session
- Having one-on-one time with my partner in the evening (read: sex)
- Eating whatever I please
- Getting a massage, face down
- Watching Grey’s Anatomy without going into a full blown meltdown.
OK, alcohol is a no-brainer. Perhaps so are sushi and tartare. But when my doctor told me I had a slight placenta detachment, and to refrain from working out, I thought… no! This isn’t fair.
Goodbye Coping Techniques
Like many, I use exercise as stress-relief. The link between exercise and stress relief is one of the strongest and best proven ones. Take exercise away, and you’re suddenly left with the same amount of stress, and nothing to help diffuse it. Equally, even if I could exercise as strenuously as before, I simply don’t have as much energy now so… that’s off the table twice.
And intimacy needs to sometimes be re-configured too (and I don’t just mean positions and adjusting your ever-expanding boobs). If you need more sleep and get tired earlier during the day, then your love-making routine might need addressing. Take sex away, or the ability to be spontaneous like you were, and you’ve taken one more tool off the table.
A final gripe: I don’t love watching TV, but Meredith Grey and I have an understanding. Oh… no more. Now everything sets me off. During pregnancy, the female body produces an array of cool new hormones to help the foetus develop properly, and it floods mum’s body with buckets of oestrogen and progesterone, to name a few. Oestrogen especially affects mood, and it affects the parts of the brain that control our emotions and produce endorphins, the feel-good chemicals.
Translation: Random, unprovoked, senseless crying at everything. Especially Grey’s Anatomy (damn you, DeLuca!)
What I’ve learned:
- Be prepared to PIVOT. If you can’t use your old tools, create new tools. FAST.
- No strenuous workouts have now been downgraded to walks. A ritual glass of whisky in the evening has been shifted to a ritual face cleansing routine. If I’m dying for sushi, I get the cooked kind.
- Sex is a fundamental part of many couples’ relationships (and arguably what got most pregnant people to where they are). If you can’t get your naughty on in the evening, do it in the morning.
- Some days, you will just feel SO sad, for no reason. SO overwhelmed. Everything will be triggering. Everyone around you will be annoying. Try exploding in the gentlest possible way, and … don’t watch Grey’s Anatomy, for God’s sake.
5. Knowledge is good. Too much knowledge? Not so good 🤷.
Things were going fine for me till week 6, when I made a crucial mistake. I downloaded ‘the pregnancy apps’.
As someone who enjoys scholarly research, and finds peace in knowledge, I entered pregnancy knowing I didn’t know much, but could learn. For instance, did you know that around week 8 foetuses begin to feel touch? And that studies have shown that they recognise a mother’s touch, as opposed to a stranger’s (or even the father)? That’s the kind of stuff I was after, as well as what foods and supplements to try for foetal development, and how to stretch out your perineum to avoid tearing (it’s a thing!).
What I didn’t need to know? Birthing mortality rate due to incompetence. Infinite stories of SIDS. Where to purchase an at-home foetal heart monitor (a huge no-no from every OBGYN and midwife I asked). The fruit size of my baby at any given moment. (OK, this was cute, but the push notifications were getting a bit much, and I don’t want to think of my child as a mango…)
The internet is rife with anecdotal stories. And if you’re in a sensitive mood, the last thing you need is exposure to triggers. That’s not to say that you can’t have empathy for people who have gone through loss, or learn about potentially harmful things for your baby. But you will also need to filter and police your consumption, so as to not live your pregnancy wondering if your foetus still has a heartbeat, and if you might be one of those women who miscarry but don’t realise. The aim is to gain valuable knowledge AND keep your mental health in pregnancy.
What I’ve learned:
- The difference between knowledge being powerful and crippling is our ability to discern what is truly in our best interest to know. Tragedy-porn, and the overconsumption of sad, distressing and frankly irrelevant news is detrimental to good mental health in pregnancy.
- An interesting anxiety-relieving strategy to combat the catastrophic thinking that might creep up in pregnancy (my baby could die/ could be born with a serious handicap / people have PTSD after birth) is to relinquish control to a greater power.
- For instance, if you find yourself experiencing crippling anxiety over whether your will have a miscarriage, decide that you’re only allowed to be anxious when Mr Universe Creator Of Babies says so. If miscarriage is in the hands of Mr Universe Creator Of Babies, then you are not allowed to freak out unless it says so.
- Consume data from people whose job it is to impart knowledge. Stay away from stories of your friend’s cousin’s colleague who ate unwashed salad, got toxoplasmosis, and killed her child (an actual story that was told to me, in those specific terms)
And most importantly… have a good pregnancy. Whether it’s your first or last one, whether its easy or hard, please take care of your mental health. These are trying, changing and challenging times, and you are DOING THE BEST YOU CAN.