For some people, pregnancy is a wonderful time. For me, it has been the most miserable.
As a personal trainer who has trained many pregnant women, I thought my pregnancy would be healthy and active. But I’m past the halfway mark now and most days I still can’t stomach much more than toast, soft drink and lollies.
Twice I tried going for a walk, earlier in the second trimester, only to end up vomiting and crying on the side of the road.
The things that usually help me sustain my health — mental and physical — are work, daily exercise, cooking and connection with loved ones. For months I was unable to do any of that. I migrated from the bed to the couch and didn’t even step out the front door.
The truth is, prior to meeting my fiancé, I never saw children as part of my life. But when we met, the idea of motherhood slipped into the (distant) future.
Then it happened unexpectedly quickly, well before I had planned.
Before I had time to process it, the sickness set in. Extreme fatigue and nausea were so relentless that most days until well into the second trimester I couldn’t lift my head, let alone shower or brush my hair.
At night I had insomnia and lay awake for hours, ruminating. I’m part way through a degree and don’t have my life sorted. What will happen to my freedom and identity once I’m a mum? Am I going to resent this child?
The whole cycle of feeling physically and mentally depleted would start again the next day.
Then came the health concerns for the baby. Results from two genetic tests were inconclusive — very rare and very worrying, we were told. More tests were done, and for several weeks we had to deal with uncertainty around our baby’s life, which pushed me further into a hole.
Crawling out of the hole
Being stuck inside, alone, with no energy to fight the dark thoughts took its toll. What I’ve felt during pregnancy has been downright scary.
I’ve had anxiety since my early 20s, but now it was on another level.
Compounding the relentless sickness, identity struggles and fears for my baby’s health was guilt. Guilt that I was fighting this pregnancy while there were women who’d walk through fire to have a child. Guilt that my fiancé and family wanted to feel excited, but instead they were worried.
In the darkest times I hoped for a miscarriage so it’d all just stop.
Finally, I asked for help. And I found out I’m the one in 10 women who suffer from an antenatal mood and anxiety disorder. I now regularly speak with a psychologist and a psychiatrist — and it has made a world of difference.
Perinatal psychiatrist Catherine Lazaroo tells me that while there’s been great work bringing attention to postnatal depression, antenatal mental health issues are harder to see.
“When we diagnose anxiety and depression, a lot of the symptoms we look for are also symptoms of pregnancy: insomnia, fatigue and difficulty concentrating,” she explains.
“[During pregnancy] women also often feel increased anxiety, decreased motivation and a loss of confidence. But this [can be] a normal part of the adjustment process, especially if the pregnancy wasn’t planned.”
So, many women who have serious mental health concerns are slipping through the cracks, or just believe that they’re hormonal and everything will get better when the baby is born.
However, Dr Lazaroo explains, this isn’t the case.
“[Mental ill-health] is not just a rite of passage; these women are now predisposed to postnatal anxiety and depression.”
Symptoms of antenatal depression:
- Feeling low or numb — some people describe feeling nothing at all.
- Loss of confidence, feeling helpless, hopeless and worthless.
- Feeling teary and emotional, angry, irritable or resentful towards others.
- Changes in sleep — not being able to sleep, even when you have the opportunity, or, conversely, wanting to sleep all the time.
- Changes in appetite — accompanied by weight loss or weight gain.
- Lack of interest and/or energy.
- Difficulties concentrating, thinking clearly or making decisions, which could also result from lack of sleep.
- Feeling isolated, alone and disconnected from others.
- Having thoughts of harming yourself, baby and/or other children.
- Finding it difficult to cope and get through the day.
Mental ill-health can impact the baby
Louise Newman, professor of women’s mental health at Melbourne University, tells me that there are many triggers for antenatal mental ill-health, including a history of mental health issues, sensitivity to hormone levels, life stressors, relationship issues, pregnancy as a result of an unwanted sexual encounter, and an identity shift around motherhood.
“Pregnancy is a period of vulnerability … and everyone needs to be evaluated individually with a comprehensive assessment, since it’s often a combination of factors that contribute,” she explains.
And it’s not just mothers who can suffer if they don’t receive support. Left untreated, chronic levels of stress can impact the baby too.
“[Studies have found the] fetus is vulnerable to the effects of stress-related hormones. In prolonged exposure babies can be born smaller and there’s a higher rate of premature births.
“[There’s also] an increased rate of anxiety and depression in babies who were exposed to those hormones early.”
However, she stresses that these studies have been carried out on women who’ve had very severe anxiety and depression.
“They are not talking about the very normal and common degree of anxiety that comes with pregnancy and childbirth,” she says.
“Treating these conditions early can be very effective in helping the mother and preventing any impacts on the baby.”
Early detection and treatment can also stop new mums slipping into postnatal depression.
“This prevents it impacting the important early development period, where mother and baby need to bond.”
After recommendations from my perinatal psychiatrist, I began medication to help lift the suffocating rug of depression and help prevent postnatal depression. This has given me the space to see more clearly and start working with the psychologist on my unhelpful beliefs around motherhood and fears my identity will be completely swallowed up by it.
I’m now 25 weeks pregnant and while I still feel nauseated every day, it’s no longer debilitating. I can sleep, study and go for walks outside in the fresh air.
The genetic test results came back and our son has been cleared of any condition that will affect his health. He’s healthy, growing well and has started kicking.
He now has a name and already feels like part of the family. This has helped me bond with him and start to feel love, which has shifted this pregnancy from miserable to monumental.
I’m having a baby and need to look after myself and the little guy.
I don’t need to feel hopeless, because there’s help and I’m not alone.
I don’t want other women to feel as isolated as I did. It’s OK to not be OK, but it’s not OK to suffer in silence because we feel guilty or think it’s just part of the gig.
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