Babies are wonderful. They are adorable, perfect little packages of cuddly love. But let’s get serious. As sweet as they are, sometimes waiting for their arrival is scary.
I am a birth worker. As a doula and birth photographer, I have the privilege of working with many pregnant people as they prepare for birth and parenthood.
I recently met with an expectant couple who are preparing to welcome their first child into the world. We were chitchatting about their homegrown businesses when the mother shared with me how she grateful she was that it had been easy to hide the pregnancy from the public. Almost as an afterthought and as if compelled by duty, she threw out there, “You know, so we could enjoy the excitement, just the two of us.”
Now, while I could be projecting my own experiences into my interpretation of that interaction, I felt that her use of the word “excitement” was forced, insincere even—as if she were required to say that her pregnancy excites her. My heart broke for her.
In our culture, a pregnancy is to be acknowledged as a joyful blessing. While it is permissible to complain of fatigue, morning sickness, or other small pregnancy-induced trials, it is simply incomprehensible for a parent to feel anything less than ecstatic about their pending child.
However, the truth of the matter is that pregnancy is frequently an extremely emotional journey for individuals and families and those emotions can fall deeply within the negative range. Even for parents who know they want children and have been trying for a baby, when the pregnancy actually materializes, they (startling) may find themselves locked into an emotional rollercoaster, which, consequently, rockets them into the world of shame.
Last year, I met with a first-time expecting mother. When I inquired about how her pregnancy was progressing, she quite bravely confided in me that she was terrified of becoming a parent. While the pregnancy had been planned, it was driven by her biological clock and she was now anxious that she would not be able to bond with her baby.
“I don’t think I’ve ever said this out loud…because it sounds awful,” she confessed, with a look of shame sweeping over her. I wanted to wrap my arms around her, embracing her until that guilt melted away. Since it was only our first meeting, I controlled my aching heart and instead told her that her feelings were normal, that they were valid, and that they were okay. I saw relief in her eyes almost instantaneously. “No one has ever told me it’s okay to feel this way.”
Why had no one told her that she was entitled to her feelings? Why did she feel that she could not share them? Because in our culture babies equal bliss. This skewed perception needs to change. Pregnant families need to feel safe in sharing all of their baby-related emotions—they are all normal! Placing a façade on oneself is always unhealthy and, if negative emotions go unprocessed during a pregnancy, they can lead to perinatal mood disorders.
I speak from experience. My husband and I got married before our first anniversary of dating, only a few months after I gradated college. We decided to try immediately for a baby and conceived just a month after our wedding. I had wanted a baby, right? So I dutifully presented a happy face when I shared the news with my husband. We announced the pregnancy to my parents in the darling way of presenting them with an inscribed children’s book. Yet, I wanted to vomit and run away the whole time I celebrated with them. My entire pregnancy was propped up by a false joy, feeding our culture’s expectations, while internally I was wrecked.
I struggled with my changing identity, with becoming a stay-at-home mother because financially that decision made the most sense even though I had always dreamed of holding a full-time career. I punished myself with guilt when I felt a twinge of relief as I experienced heavy bleeding and thought I might miscarry. Anxiety consumed me as I feared my ability to bond with a son when I so desperately desired a daughter. More guilt harangued me as I sobbed in disappointment and shame after the anatomy scan that revealed a male child. I drove away from one of my baby showers crying because the guilt I felt from not being excited was intense and overwhelming.
I subsequently spent the next four years in a depression that spiked to “severe” a few months after my second child was born. There were other contributing factors that influenced and fed my depression, but it was the internal struggle, invalidation, and lack of overall cultural support that invited the beast into me in the first place.
While babies are wonderful and can be blessings, I encourage all to be thoughtful and aware of their interactions with expectant individuals. When asking, “how’s the pregnancy going,” be genuine, validate the parent’s concerns if there are any, and please do not disengage solely because of feeling uncomfortable. Those of you who are expecting a child, please honor your feelings and find a safe space in which to share them. If you have trouble finding a supportive system, contact a birth worker (like a doula). Most will be able to provide you with the affirmation you need. Or find a local resource that specializes in perinatal mood disorders, such as www.postpartum.net.
You are not alone.