Here are some of the things that I asked my OB/GYN while I was pregnant: “OMG, I just ate a homemade pickle, is that OK?” and “The baby has been hiccupping a lot this week—is that normal?” and “Someone at work thinks that they might have the measles—what should I do?”
That’s a small sample of approximately 300 totally weird (but, you know, normal) questions about the baby, my body and being pregnant. But the one thing I didn’t bring up with my doctor? How I was feeling. And I don’t mean all those aches and pains. I’m talking about how I was doing emotionally—which, to be honest, wasn’t always so great. Especially in my first trimester when I would lie awake at night as feelings of anxiety washed over me. Of course, there’s nothing unusual about feeling stressed or nervous about becoming a parent for the first time, but this level of worry went beyond the standard Oh my God, I’m making a tiny human concerns. And I wasn’t alone.
A poll by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America found that 52 percent of pregnant women report increased anxiety or depression. And according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, it’s estimated that 14 to 23 percent of pregnant women experience depression during pregnancy.
It’s unclear why this is, although hormones definitely play a role. “Studies show that estrogen and progesterone [the chief pregnancy hormones] can improve mood for some women or cause depression in others,” OB/GYN Dr. Lieberman tells us. And these hormones also cause fatigue—another contributing factor to anxiety and depression.
The problem is that these symptoms are often confused with, well, just being pregnant. “Mood swings”—alongside morning sickness, leg cramps and excess body hair—are just one of those things you can expect when expecting. But writing off a pregnant woman as “moody” diminishes the very real physiological changes she's experiencing. She's not just moody, the chemistry of her entire body is shifting to build, atom-by-atom, cell-by-cell, a new human being. To write her off as moody is akin to saying Atlas was a little sore after holding the world on his shoulders. Not only is it belittling, but it's also missing the whole dang point. And the only thing that makes holding the weight of new child on your own shoulders worse? No one talks about it outside of think pieces or feminist salons. Well, at least that's been my experience.
“Unfortunately, a stigma surrounding mental health issues continues to exist despite society’s efforts to educate on these topics,” explains psychologist Dr. Danielle Forshee. “Additionally, during pregnancy, everyone seems to be so happy and excited for pregnant women—they come up to you and smile, try to touch your belly, and ask all types of questions about how you are doing. Their intentions are good, but this leaves women who are struggling with feeling anxious or depressed vulnerable to not say anything other than positives due to the concern of bringing down the ‘positive vibe’ that they feel expected to portray.”
Even though I was feeling the most anxious I’d ever felt, every time someone asked me how I was doing, my answer was always the same: “Oh great, can’t complain!” Which is the same response I would get from my pregnant friends when I asked them how they were.
In fact, it wasn’t until mid-way through my second trimester that I confessed to a girlfriend (one who happened to be due exactly four weeks before me) what I was feeling. We had been in communication on a regular basis about some of the quirkier parts of pregnancy (cravings, body aches, breakouts and other physical symptoms) but when I texted her to say, “Actually, I’ve been pretty stressed lately,” it was as if a weight had been lifted off my shoulders (which was ironic given my increasingly heavy weight everywhere else). As it turns out, she’d been dealing with the same thing and over the next few months, we were able to share our worries and fears with each other.
Talking to your healthcare provider or someone you trust about your emotions (and not just, you know, how swollen your feet are) can be incredibly helpful—not just during pregnancy but also after.
“It is imperative to have a support system with whom you can let your façade down, and be
forthcoming about feeling kind-of-crappy, and not-so-happy all the time,” says Dr. Forshee. “If you can do this with your partner and/or a close friend, you are setting yourself up for success for after the baby arrives, when you are sure to go through more ups and downs.”
Because here’s the thing: Admitting that pregnancy is emotionally difficult doesn’t mean you’re not happy and excited about it. Isn’t it time we got a little more realistic about the experience?