Throughout decades of art and literature, theater and music, there is a depiction of the pregnant woman as blissful, grateful, elated.
This wasn’t me.
I had never been a woman who dreamt of getting pregnant when she was older. In fact, I dreaded it.
However, I mostly kept these feelings to myself: I knew this wasn’t an acceptable way to think since I had friends who had had trouble conceiving and would give anything to have a baby grow inside of them.
This seemed to be the one area in which there was no room for ambiguity.
If you were fertile, you should be grateful, count your lucky stars and shut the hell up.
After I was married in March of 2014, the questions jumped from: ‘When are you going to get married’ to the inevitable: ‘do you want to have kids?’ Aside from the invasiveness of the question, it was not one I felt comfortable answering because I was struggling with the understanding that I didn’t seem to really want kids. The biological clock didn’t seem to be ticking for me.
And I felt isolated.
I had always dealt with existential questions, and the idea of giving life—all of life—including its hardships and absurdities, seemed rather cruel and strange. I had struggled with anxiety and some bouts of depression, and the thought of passing this on seemed irrational.
Then I read a great passage in Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny, Beautiful Things. She advised a reader who was ambiguous about having kids to imagine herself as an elderly woman: would she want children and grandchildren in the picture? I certainly did.
The first time we tried, it happened.
My period was late and I bought the tests, two of them, to see if the assumed ‘condition’ had descended upon me. According to the first test, it had. And according to the second, it definitively had.
I called my husband from the bathroom, crying. He was pleasantly shocked as I experienced the emotional equivalent of watching the walls cave in.
I went into my den and turned on The Affair, drowning in the moroseness of the show.
The next day, I called my parents and my brother, telling each in turn the news, with a blast of tears. They laughed, knowing my neuroses all too well and offered their unwavering support despite my making this joyous news tricky to accept. They thought my jitters would pass. I looked down at my stomach with the knowledge that something, someone was growing inside of there.
I had not met any women who had admitted to suffering from these specific feelings during pregnancy. I felt alone and ashamed and guilt-ridden.
I started obsessing to myself:
I’ll never be a good mother.
I don’t want this child.
My baby is starting at a disadvantage by having me.
I’ll never survive the delivery.
My mind was ramped up: these were only some of the things I thought about on a minute-to-minute basis.
When you’re pregnant, people expect you to be over the moon because they’re over the moon. No one tells you that growing another human inside of you wreaks havoc on your hormonal compass on a level that surpasses arguing with your husband or crying at puppies in commercials.
I was so anxious that I took my husband’s joy as an affront to myself. I didn’t want him to experience joy if I couldn’t experience joy. I realize now how selfish this sounds, but that’s how it was.
My husband toned down his excitement and I felt guilty about it.
For some reason, the next few months passed relatively calmly: I wrapped my head around the idea and even started calling the baby ‘poppyseed’ in honour of its supposed size according to BabyCenter.
The anxiety hadn’t gone away, though: during month six, it crept into every area of my life. As a high school teacher, I started to have major anxiety at work: the students were doing their public speeches and it took every ounce of me to stay focused. I had a consistent nervous feeling in the pit of my stomach and a generally depressed air about me. Performing in front of teenagers every day was getting harder and harder as the baby got bigger.
I felt I had made a huge mistake. The more people asked me how excited I was, the worse I felt.
In February of 2015, I was put in touch with a psychiatrist who specialized in medication during pregnancy.
I had been on the anti-depressant drug, Cipralex, and she told me that it wouldn’t cause harm to the baby and that I could stay on it. I felt slightly guilty taking it. A few weeks later, she suggesting trying to go off of the medication as I was also taking benzodiazepines to sleep.
With these changes in medication, I started to become distant. I couldn’t stop crying. I had trouble getting out of bed. I started to obsess about whether or not to stay at work. I couldn’t make decisions. I would arrive full of despair, unable to bring the usual enthusiasm and passion to the subject I taught.
Dr. Psy. was overwhelmed with work and patients. In our medicare system this was standard. While we do have access to medical care due to the taxes we pay, it is not uncommon to have to wait months for an appointment.
I wanted to know my options for medication. I was now obsessed with whether or not to go back on the original dose of medication and how this would affect the baby. I felt conflicted and mentally unwell due to my fixation on this issue.
I wanted to be healthy but I knew that the baby had a slight chance of becoming dependent on the meds and I didn’t want to hurt her. This should have indicated that I was already acting maternally but, of course, it didn’t.
There were also people’s opinions to deal with: while my doctor and other specialists were proponents of taking care of the mother first and thereby supportive of taking the medication, others’ shock and dismay were more than obvious.
I wrote to Dr. Psy.:
I've been waking up with extreme anxiety - obsessive, negative thoughts, beating heart, and I'm worried abut causing harm to the baby both through medication and through this anxiety. Either option causes me further anxiety.
The doctor replied that the priority was to keep me well. In March of 2015, I asked to go back on the medication.
On April 17th, I decided to go off of work and Dr. Ob. ordered me to stay home and try to be positive. It’s worth mentioning that my doctor was an angel of a woman who has been delivering her patients’ babies for thirty years. She cared deeply for me and asked me to write down a list of all of the things that bothered me and I did.
She would sit, hold my hand and go over each and every one, countering them all with a positive thought as I sat crying in her office. The problem was, this didn’t work. I wrote to the psychiatrist again, who agreed that I should increase my dose for the sake of my well-being.
I was desperate to find other women out there who experienced this.
I couldn’t find any.
On May 20th I wrote:
I wanted to know if there are other women who have experienced anxiety to this extent and, if so, they were ok after the birth? I'm trying not to think of postpartum so as not to scare myself too much - I'm looking more for some positive stories to hold on to, rather than negative, where women who experienced this ended up being quite happy with being a Mum.
The reply came:
Concerning the postpartum period, in my view, it is just like any other transition period in life (e.g. starting university, moving out of your parents' home, committing to a relationship, etc.): it comes with lots of positive aspects and some challenging aspects. As such, many women experience anxiety before delivery and still tremendously enjoy being a mother, with all the positive and challenging aspects that it entails.
To truly be able to embrace life and live it to the fullest extent, you have to accept that change is part of life and that, by our own human nature, we all find change to be challenging to some extent, despite the great rewards that also come with it.
Try to focus on the present always and to enjoy each minute as much as you can. Think ahead about how, years from now, you would have liked to go through this special time in your life.
This last paragraph was difficult for me to digest as the time didn’t seem special at all to me.
I was trying my very best to get through the days. I would go swimming, exercise, sit at my favourite café, all with an air of overwhelming sadness and an inability to engage with people the way I used to. I looked great and I felt like shit. And the guilt only added to that layer of negativity.
I tried meditating every day, I went to therapy religiously, I did it all. Nothing helped. And I don’t think anything could have helped. Maybe had I not gone off of the medication or had a supportive group of women to commiserate with, I would have felt somewhat better.
As my delivery date crept up, I went to see a nurse at the hospital, who tried to help me. When I got there, I heard the sound of a baby crying from the birthing unit, which caused such overwhelming anxiety that I needed to leave.
On June 4th, the psychiatrist wrote:
The postpartum follow-up will be particularly important in order to make sure you continue to do well...
Throughout this period there wasn’t any type of support group that I could find in the city of Montreal. I felt completely isolated and ashamed of these feelings that were just getting worse as I approached the due date.
When I reached the 37th week of my pregnancy, I begged my doctor to take the baby out. I was having trouble getting through the day in one emotional piece.
My doctor pushed me into the 40th week. It felt as though I were stuck in an elevator that kept shrinking.
By the delivery date, June 30th, Dr. Oby said I had waited long enough. She was going to induce me.
The moment my husband and I entered the delivery room, a sense of calm entered. Perhaps this was due to the fact that I was now entirely in the hospital’s hands. Everything went off perfectly: I was induced so I never felt one contraction. I pushed for 2 and a half hours and, while it wasn’t fun, it was more like, as my friend put it, an intense workout, than anything else. By the time baby Maggie came out on July 1st, we were tired but excited.
It will take me a long time to process what happened during my pregnancy. But I’m here to give voice to what I now understand is a condition called prepartum depression and anxiety. I’m here to tell you that, if you’re going through this or know anyone going through this, that not only is it ok and that there is an end in sight (however difficult that is to believe), but that there is no shame in experiencing this. And I’m sure that the Renaissance painters would have generated much more interesting discussion if they had depicted women like me during pregnancy.
*Please join the FB group Maternal Mental Wellness: by Moms for Moms if you or anyone you know is struggling with mental health issues during or after pregnancy. We offer a supportive community where anything is welcome for discussion.
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