As Shannon Shelton Miller tells us
Every time I went to the doctor during my pregnancy, I would do a test or screening to make sure my baby was fine. My health care providers (HCPs) also checked my vital signs and gave me a clean physical health bill each time.
But nobody asked how I was doing. While protecting my baby’s health was a top priority, my own mental health was neglected.
Like many women, I was initially concerned about how my husband and I would incorporate pregnancy into our busy lives, but we were excited to expect it. The excitement about the new baby didn’t stop me from feeling overwhelmed by the physical and mental changes as my pregnancy progressed.
Nausea forced me to slow down and I was exhausted for most of my first trimester. Researching information about pregnancies created fear of what could go wrong for mother and baby during pregnancy and childbirth, and I began to be afraid of every single symptom that felt.
Internet research led me to believe that every unusual symptom I was experiencing was a sign of a miscarriage, and I was constantly afraid of losing my baby after learning that spotting and convulsions are the biggest red flags. I’m a fitness trainer and since I was still teaching I had a few cramps and a few spotting times. I kept telling myself that I was fine, my baby was fine, and that I didn’t have a miscarriage.
At medical appointments, pregnant women are told that they need multiple checkups to make sure their children are healthy. HCPs screen the mother for gestational diabetes and other conditions that could affect pregnancy. You’re doing the right thing, of course, but I was always worried that something might be wrong and I felt stressed, and then I worried that the stress might lead to other complications.
When I went through this during a pandemic, I was cut off from people who could have been my support system. Trying to keep everything in check and cope with my feelings on my own, I figured that I should just be able to handle it all on my own.
After waking up another morning with a bizarre dream, feeling bad, and just being grumpy with my husband, I realized that I had to get it all off my chest. Fear was not healthy for the baby or for me. I got to a breaking point where I admitted that everything wasn’t okay, that I felt vulnerable and needed help.
I relied on my mom, my friends and my sister, who has two small children and works as a doula. My sister helped me understand that everything I went through was to be expected. That’s the message I needed to hear – everything I felt was normal, even if it didn’t feel like it at the moment. It was important to give me permission to express all of my feelings about pregnancy and impending motherhood, even if they weren’t always positive at the moment.
I was also really honest with my partner in everything I felt. Just opening this dialogue with him – even if he couldn’t quite understand what was going on – helped. It was liberating when I could tell my husband how I was feeling.
I also decided to contradict one of society’s greatest expectations about pregnancy – that you don’t announce your pregnancy until you are past your first trimester. It’s incredibly difficult when you are struggling with your pregnancy but feel like you can’t tell anyone you are pregnant because you might have a miscarriage. I decided people around me would know I was pregnant. That way, if I had a miscarriage, I could reach out to them for support.
I started prenatal yoga, which taught me to adjust to my body and helped me feel more connected to the baby. I arranged sessions with holistic healers who gave me a safe forum where I felt free to say whatever came on my mind.
Even small things at home helped lift my spirits, like watching Netflix shows and listening to audiobooks about new mothers experiencing motherhood. When I was just sitting on the couch, I would light a candle nearby. Anything that can make a difference when you’re stressed out can be part of taking care of yourself. I realized that I didn’t have to make an effort to be perfect – pregnancy is a time to rest, to honor yourself and your baby.
I turned a corner when things got off my chest and opened up to my close friends and family. I was able to get through the rest of my pregnancy, labor, and delivery, as well as the postpartum period, with better mental health because I relied on the people around me. I felt less resilient to taking the step into motherhood.
I remember telling one of my friends that I cried every day after giving birth. She told me that she went through it too and that because of this mix of hormonal changes, the identity shifts you are experiencing and the love you feel for your new baby, it is normal. You can feel that everything is really difficult and still be a great mother and partner. At one point I finally opened up to having friends and family who looked after me during my pregnancy and after giving birth made a world of difference.
My daughter Mylo is now 6 months old and my experience led me to a second career as a coach for women to reduce stress around conception, pregnancy and the puerperium. I want to passionately remind pregnant women that they are entering a brave and beautiful chapter in their lives, but it can still be scary – and they are not alone when they need support.