Before planning for a baby, myself and my husband discussed whether my recovery was stable enough for the challenge of pregnancy. And I certainly pondered if I was up to the challenge of motherhood. I guess most first-time-mothers wonder about this, but I worried that my history of mental illness put me on the back-foot.
But, what exactly makes a parent a good parent? And does my history of mental illness really put me at a disadvantage? These are the questions I asked myself often. After much thought, it helped me to remember that mental health is like physical health; the past doesn’t determine the future. I was even able to acknowledge the possibility that my battle with mental illness has actually equipped me with the resilience, compassion, self-awareness, and strength that I need as I approach motherhood.
Despite this, I still worry about relapse and other challenges like post-natal depression. How would my child be affected if myself (or my husband for that matter) was to relapse or develop an addiction, clinical depression, crippling anxiety or any other disease of the mind?
I experienced addiction first hand in childhood and it definitely had an impact on how I learned to cope with life and conflict. But, I got through it and so did my siblings. My siblings all handled the situation in different ways, but one thing is constant; we all love our parents and know we are loved.
I guess what I am saying is that whatever the future holds, we know we can provide the most important thing for our child; unconditional love and a willingness to do anything to be the best parents we can at the time.
During my pregnancy, I have taken the time to interview eating-disorder specialists and have asked how mental health and a history of eating disorders can affect children. I asked what I can do to give my child the best start in life and also what I need to look out for should she develop an eating disorder herself. But, this is not the focus of our article today, you will need to wait a while yet for their answers, but they are coming.
Today, we are going to talk about my personal experience of how mental health can take a beating in pregnancy and what tools helped me maintain my recovery and a semblance of sanity throughout my pregnancy.
Crazy? Or just pregnant?
We have all seen how pregnant ladies are depicted in the movies. Some ‘crazy-pregnant-lady’ snapping at someone without reason. Or, those rush-to-the-hospital scenes, that are not actually a reflection of real life. (Apparently, labor isn’t a quick process, so you probably don’t need to violate any traffic laws for fear of giving birth in the back of a taxi).
Despite the inaccuracy of on-screen depictions, it is common to experience some crazy mood swings in pregnancy. I was expecting as much. There have indeed been a few occasions where my emotions ran away with me. Just last month for example; I took some delivery men hostage in my apartment because they delivered the wrong sofa. I was tired, hungry, and frustrated and had a complete meltdown; crying and refusing to sign any dockets for the correct furniture they had also delivered. I thought it was really clever to keep them stuck waiting at the time. I was convinced they would just leave me with the offending article if I signed.
I lost all perspective and resorted to some pretty immature mean-girl tactics; threatening to return everything and not pay (which would NOT have helped my situation), sending sarcastic messages to the woman tasked with customer service and exaggerating the impact of the mistake to epic proportions. In my defense, moving home in the third trimester is tough and the handling of the mistake by the vendor and delivery crew was almost comical. When I pointed out the difference between what was in front of me and what I had ordered (see pics above), the delivery crew actually asked ‘you like?’. My sarcastic answer to this question just added to their confusion. Note that sarcasm and language barriers don’t mix.
Seeing me that evening, you would be forgiven if you thought the world was about to end. There are two delivery men out there today who are likely sworn off delivering to crazy-expat-pregnant ladies for life.
Other than this and a few outbursts at my poor husband, I have been fairly fortunate in this pregnancy. Despite my past struggles with anxiety, depression, self-harm and addiction; my physical and mental wellbeing have remained mostly stable. A lot of this I attribute to my time in recovery and the support I have around me. Being alert to the risk factors and giving myself the time and care I needed was essential.
Pregnancy wellbeing zappers and tackling them ‘head’ on
Pregnancy is physically and mentally demanding; our bodies natural defenses against illness are now being shared with another tiny human. Our physical immune system can suffer and it is no wonder our mental capabilities get a hit too.
Sleeping, eating, exercising, and relaxing become harder. So, naturally, we are not at our best. This doesn’t mean that we are mentally ill, but if like me, you have established unhealthy behaviors for dealing with this state of being; it is helpful to be alert and ready with coping tools.
#1 Extreme Fatigue
Have you ever snapped at someone because you are too tired? Or broke down in tears at the smallest thing? No one feels at their best when they are tired. And pregnancy and tiredness go together like beans on toast.
For my entire first trimester and much of my third trimester, I have been completely wiped out. Heartburn and pain often kept me tossing and turning at night and so I felt like crawling into bed by early afternoon. Without caffeine to perk-me-up, I was zapped. Especially at the start. I was lucky that my commitments are all flexible.
I spoke with a pregnant friend today and she agreed that the tiredness is the worst part and that she has had to apologize almost daily to her team at work for being abrupt or snappy. I don’t know how working mums-to-be do it without the ever important cat-naps in the afternoon.
Coping Strategy Suggestion
‘Rest is best’ – sleep when and where you can. I did and it helped a lot.
#2 – Access to recovery support
Because of the fatigue I experienced, it was hard to ‘show up’ for meetings with recovery friends or appointments with my counselor. I had times when sciatica made walking hard and so traveling into central was downright inconceivable. My commitment to attend support groups waned and I drifted from the routine that was my supporting recovery.
Some people may ask if I need to stay connected with others in recovery or why I still attend support groups. I have been in recovery over two years after all and I feel fairly stable. But, for me, having people around me who have been where I am is essential to my wellbeing. Now more than ever. And I am lucky to have recovery friends who are mothers and mothers-to-be themselves.
Coping Strategy Suggestion
Show up where you can and use the phone or other online ways of connecting if you cannot. Remember that we live in a digital world, so being isolated from others in recovery can be avoided. Check out my article on support resources available online or on the phone.
I had to keep reminding myself that my recovery is important for both me and baby, and that this next period is going to be challenging. Staying connected is protection against relapse so it is important. I just need to remember this.
#3 Uncertainty about the future
Change is uncomfortable. And uncertainty is inevitable in pregnancy. When we conceived, I was just starting a new journey in a new career which aligns more with my values. I was in flux anyway. But starting a family adds a whole new dimension to the anxiety I felt during the career change process. What does becoming a mother do to my plans? Is this it for my career?
These questions messed with my peace of mind. Firstly, I would worry I will never be able to contribute to my family financially again (something that is important to me). Then, I would feel useless. Then, I would remember that being a mother is what I always wanted, we planned this after all. Then I would feel guilty that I was thinking of other things. Then I would worry I would resent being a mum. And so-on until I would either end up in tears or hatch an unrealistic plan about what I can achieve before baby comes.
These thoughts don’t make me mentally ill. But, my self-esteem is shaky in this transition period. And the headspace it takes to worry about the uncertain future really takes away from the joy of this wonderful time of my life.
Coping Strategy Suggestion
Talking through concerns, desires, and fears with others or writing them on paper is a great way of putting a pause in the spiral into anxiety. Even just asking yourself ‘What is it that I really want most in life?’ can help to re-establish what is important to you.
Talking it through with others, I quickly found that my priority is baby and family right. That doesn’t mean my life vision has to be one-dimensional; I just don’t have to have clarity on the plan right this second.
As I am training to be a life coach, I am fortunate to have at my fingertips some great strategies and methods to work through life change (not to mention fellow coaches willing to work through it with me); but sometimes it is just a matter of having a chat with my husband and listening to each other’s concerns.
#4 Pressure to be ready
‘Are you worried about the labor?’, ‘Have you got the baby’s room sorted yet?’, ‘Do you plan to breastfeed?’, ‘That couch will be ruined in a year, you should have purchased a leather one’, ‘have you nailed all your furniture to the wall yet?’… Preparing for a parent seems to open the door to accusations that ‘YOU ARE NOT READY!’. Sure, most of the questions our well-meaning friends and family ask are actually meant to be helpful; but, it is overwhelming at times.
Like getting married, or moving country; there is just so much to think of. We moved apartment when I was starting my third trimester. So in a way, I had a double-whammy of things to consider. Everyone deals with pressure differently. However, I challenge you to find a single person who has gone through pregnancy without having at least one panic at the enormity of the task ahead.
I am a perfectionist and am prone to worry about worst-case scenarios that are very unlikely to take place. Aiming for perfection is futile and worst-case-scenario thinking is unhelpful to say the least.
In therapy, I was thought to recognize my tendency for this type of thinking and to challenge my thoughts. Preparing for motherhood has made this a daily challenge. There is just so much new information and conflicting advice about pregnancy and parenthood, that it can be difficult to keep up and I have found it hard to slow down my thoughts at times.
Coping Strategy Suggestion
Sometimes, just breathing is enough. Most worst-case scenarios are highly unlikely. Relaxation techniques like breathing, meditating or just sleeping are great for the tough times but are also really beneficial for mum and baby when things are going well.
Thankfully, when my anxiety was at it’s worst these past few months; I was able to use breathing exercises to calm myself enough to take stock of reality. Having practiced some of these tactics in recovery, I felt much more prepared to deal with the overload of new considerations that come with entering parenthood.
Join me next week as I wrap up my pregnancy journey with my top 10 takeaways from the whole journey. Thanks for reading.
Aunty Pam (or soon to be Mummy-Pam) x
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