I remember lying in bed, cuddling my sleepy five-year-old son. I was newly pregnant, and every time I shifted a little, I felt as though I was going to vomit. But soon, the sickness turned to panic. As my son drifted off to sleep and I stroked his soft, auburn hair, I wondered how on earth I was ever going to love this new baby. How could I share the intensity—the pure, singular love my son and I shared?
As soon as these thoughts entered my mind, I was wracked with guilt. I wasn’t wishing my new baby away, but part of me was. Part of me wished that this had never happened. What were we thinking bringing a new baby into our lives? I didn’t have room for this baby in my heart. We didn’t have room in our already-stretched budget, our tiny apartment. It was a stupid idea. I was stupid. I was a bad mom.
These thoughts would wash over me every night as my fatigued, sea-sick, hormone-fueled body shifted around in bed. I couldn’t eat, I was losing weight and, at times, I couldn’t sleep. I was experiencing racing thoughts and panic attacks almost daily. As someone with an anxiety disorder, I was probably pre-disposed to these kinds of feelings anyway. But they were new to me too, because I hadn’t experienced them with my first pregnancy.
Some of my thoughts bordered on paranoia. I wondered if maybe the pregnancy wasn’t real, that it was all a mistake.
The week after conception, I’d gone to the dentist for a regular check-up. I knew I might be pregnant and I told the dentist so. He told me x-rays would be fine, and draped that heavy apron over my body to protect me and the “maybe” baby. But in those first few weeks of pregnancy, I was sure that the x-rays had somehow harmed the baby.
And it was my fault, my fault…
Thankfully, the racing thoughts and anxiety dissipated after the hormone-induced haze of that first trimester. Once I could eat and sleep again, I felt more like myself. But there was an underlying terror tinging that entire pregnancy. I was never ready for my second child to be born. I was perpetually afraid of something being wrong with the baby. And it was always, always my fault.
I didn’t know until a few years ago that there was such thing as prenatal depression or anxiety—and that it was actually very common. I’d heard of postpartum depression and anxiety, of course. I had experience a bout of postpartum anxiety after my first son was born. And although not nearly enough is talked about PPD, at least it’s been discussed in the media and medical world for years. People know what is.
But anxiety or depression during pregnancy? Not so much. Why aren’t people talking about this? If you look at the stats, anxiety and depression during pregnancy are extremely prevalent.
“Perinatal depression, which includes major and minor depressive episodes that occur during pregnancy or in the first 12 months after delivery, is one of the most common medical complications during pregnancy and the postpartum period, affecting one in seven women,” notes the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG).
A 2016 study out of Northwestern University found that a third of all mothers experience a prenatal mood disorder. But as the Chicago Tribune points out in an article about prenatal mood disorders, there is no screening tool to assess mood disorders during pregnancy like there is in the postpartum period, and fewer than 20% of women self-report symptoms to their providers, according to ACOG.
“You’re supposed to be enthralled with being pregnant and excited and have all positive feelings about it, and a lot of women are just ridden with anxiety,” Dr. Gina Hassan, a clinical psychologist from California tells the Chicago Tribune. “It’s very hard to speak openly about that with others.”
YES, it sure is. But we need to talk about this. That’s why I always tell my story about those awful, terrifying months during my second pregnancy. It’s why I don’t hold back in telling you that I really believed I was “going crazy” and that the thoughts I was having were going to harm my baby, me, or everyone in my family. I won’t hold back in telling you that my heart raced inside my chest every night as I fell sleep, as bile mixed with tears in my throat.
But I was okay. I talked about my feelings with my husband. My midwife assured me that the baby was healthy, and that my five pound weight loss was not a problem. I wrote in my diary. I cried and shook alone in my bed when I needed to.
I got through. My baby was fine. I learned how to love him, and how to fit both of my children in my heart. The worst of the anxiety passed, and I am grateful for that. I know it doesn’t always pass for moms, especially ones with a history of an anxiety disorder or other mental health disorder.
If you are experiencing anxiety or depression during your pregnancy, I want you to know that you are not alone. It is more common than you think. You are not “going crazy,” and most of all, help is out there if these feelings don’t pass, or if they are consuming you. Opening up to a loved one or a health professional can help. Therapy—particularly cognitive behavioral therapy—can help.
And with the help of a doctor, it is sometimes even possible to take medication for anxiety or depression during pregnancy. Your doctor can help you find a safe way to do it, because sometimes your mental health is the priority, and if you can’t function without medication, it might be appropriate for you to be on it, even during pregnancy.
Prenatal anxiety is a real thing. But it’s not talked about nearly enough. So let’s be more open about it. Let’s share our stories. Let’s listen to each other’s stories. And let’s make sure our fellow mothers know that they are not alone, help is out there, and they deserve to feel calm, well, and unafraid.