Pregnancy's Emotional Roller Coaster

9 min read

C'mon, admit it. You have some "Pleasantville"-like images of pregnancy. We all do. You know, cheeks and hearts glowing (even if our stomachs aren't). Reveling in the months, and inches, of our ever-expanding bellies without a worry or doubt. Invariably you even know somebody who seems to fit the bill.

The truth is, women often experience a range of emotions during pregnancy, even if they and their partners are excited about the baby and planned it from the get-go. They might have mood swings. They might be worried about their babies' health, uncertain about the changes in their bodies, their relationships, their abilities to be mothers -- the list goes on and on.

How could that be, if you're apparently so happy about that tiny life growing inside you? Duh, experts say (although they won't be that blunt). It's because moms-to-be are teetering on the brink of something really big.

"Motherhood is such a permanent transformation," says Deborah Issokson, a licensed psychologist in Boston who specializes in perinatal mental health. "I don't know any life event so permanent and transforming that wouldn't come with some anxiety, worry, regret, ambivalence or wondering. It's the nature of the beast, the enormity of the journey you're on."

Unfortunately, these less-than-glowing feelings are also among life's best-kept secrets. Everyone thinks on some level that they're not supposed to feel these things, and if they do, something must be wrong with them.

"You look in the baby magazines, and there's the picture of the woman who's beautiful and happy and she's setting up this incredibly expensive nursery. ... We look at all of that and wonder why we don't fit in," says Jennifer Louden, author of "The Pregnant Woman's Comfort Book."

For women who have experienced infertility or miscarriage, such guilt or disillusionment can be worse, because they may not think they deserve any doubts. "They don't dare voice their ambivalence or wonderings, because people would just say, 'You should just be grateful you're pregnant,'" Issokson says.

But take a deep breath and relax. These feelings aren't necessarily a reflection of how badly you want your baby or how good a parent you'll be. In fact, Issokson worries more about couples who don't feel any of these things. "To me that means they're a little bit in denial about how enormous this change really is."

Here's a look at some women, and men, who were thrust onto the emotional roller coaster of pregnancy and some tips on how to still enjoy the ride.

Simon D'Arcy, a management consultant in Santa Barbara, Calif., clearly remembers his wife Sharon's pregnancies. "The mood shifts were pretty amazing. There were times when I'd call before leaving work and say, 'How was your day? How are you feeling? Did you feel the baby kick?' She'd say, 'Fine, honey. I can't wait for you to come home.' Ten minutes later I'd walk in the house and get it with both barrels."

D'Arcy even started tiptoeing in and peeking around the corner first "just so I could see what the mood in the house was. I thought, Should I go into my office? Do I come in with my hat in my hand? Do I go back out and get flowers? I was floored." Sometimes he could pinpoint a cause for her sudden angst. Other times he didn't have a clue.

So are the range of emotions during pregnancy simply a case of hormones run amok? Not necessarily, doctors say. Some women may react to the increased levels of hormones; others may not. And even if they do experience moodiness, hormones certainly aren't the only cause.

"Emotions are triggered by so many sources other than hormones," says Dr. Frank Ling, professor and chairman of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Tennessee. Even the physical discomforts of pregnancy, such as morning sickness, breast tenderness or constipation, can play a role, since you'd naturally feel down when you're uncomfortable.

"What I tell patients ahead of time is, 'Look, you're not going to feel the same during pregnancy as you did before, so you and your spouse have to recognize that how you respond to a circumstance when you're pregnant may be different from how you responded before,'" Ling says.

When Debra Sherman was pregnant, the typically unemotional Chicago business journalist would burst into tears at the slightest provocation, even a TV newscast she watched about a dog killed in an accident. "It could be anything -- happy or sad," she says.

Sometimes she had no idea why; other times she knew exactly, like the time she and her husband were looking at graphic books on childbirth at a bookstore. "That was fear. I was crying because I didn't think I could do it," says Sherman, who gave birth to 8-pound, 15-ounce Alex on May 5.

Sherman's experiences are common. "Part of it is that you're just in such an open, raw state," Issokson says. "You're growing another life. What could be more powerful and sacred? It opens people to loss and vulnerability in ways they've never known."

One of the best tactics to manage your anxieties and fears is to find other people (your partner included) with whom you can share those feelings, whether it's an exercise or childbirth, heart-to-hearts with friends or family members who will listen without trying to fix, or even structured sessions with a therapist, experts say.

"I encourage people to ask very specific questions of other women," Issokson says. "Don't just say, 'How was your pregnancy?' but 'How were you feeling when you felt the baby kick?' or 'What were you feeling on the days when you were really tired?'" Journal writing or reading books about all aspects of pregnancy can help.

Books that explore the emotional aspect of pregnancy include "Journey into Motherhood; Writing Your Way to Self-Discovery," by Leslie Kirk Campbell; "Excited, Exhausted, Expecting: The Emotional Life of Mothers-to-Be," by Arlene Modica Matthews; "The Girlfriends' Guide to Pregnancy, or Everything Your Doctor Won't Tell You," by Vicki Iovine; and Louden's "The Pregnant Woman's Comfort Book."

When author Jennifer Louden was pregnant with her daughter, Lillian, she spent a lot of time talking to her belly, not just to coo adoringly, but to reassure and apologize. "I'd say, 'You know, I'm really happy you're here, and I'm sorry I'm feeling ambivalent,'" Louden recalls.

"I was feeling ambivalent about this huge change to my life," Louden admits. "That whole sense of freedom to direct our lives, to use our time the way we want. ... We're never going to be undivided again."

Conflicting emotions during pregnancy can be particularly common for women who have developed successful professional careers. "They're more conscious of the huge amount of sacrifice," she says. "Before we might have been in our 20s and thought that having a child was one of our biggest creative outlets. For a lot of women it's an essential part of life, but it's not the key so much anymore."

Of course, her ambivalence brought on a flood of other feelings, among them guilt that she wasn't completely enraptured, as well as anger and resentment that she wasn't feeling the unqualified high that friends seemingly were. It also stirred up other unresolved conflicts, including some with her own mother and her upbringing. Lillian is now 5, but it could take another five or 10 years to work through them, Louden says with a laugh.

"The idea that our feelings keep pace with events outside of ourselves is such a fallacy and causes us so much pain every day," Louden says. "We really expect to be ready to be a mom in nine months, and a lot of times, we're not." Ditto for life in general. "It's so cliché, but the biggest obstacle we face is that we think we have to do it alone, we have to do it perfect, and we have to do it all right now."

In her book, Louden suggests certain rituals and exercises to accept these changes, whether it's with your identity or relationships. One is making lists: "Parts of My Life I Like Best," "Parts of Myself I Most Fear Losing," "What I Will Gain in My Life" and "Parts of My Life I Don't Mind Losing." Use them as jumping-off points for action, like doing some activity you like more often, or thinking about how you can sustain it later.

"The need to be self-accepting is the key to life," Louden says. "That doesn't mean you indulge it or get to be a victim or that you don't have to keep moving. But it does mean that you sit with it and say, 'Look, I'm ambivalent, and I'm not going to beat myself up for it.' Then -- but not immediately -- you ask, 'What is that trying to teach me? What do I need to do with it?'"

When Beth Rodgers-Kay was pregnant with her first child, Melissa, she heard about other women's mood swings and would jokingly explain her own bliss by saying she had "happy hormones." In truth, it was because this pregnancy was such a long time coming. "I really wanted to have children for a long time. It was a long journey," says Rodgers-Kay, who knew her husband, Roger, for 11 years before they decided to start a family.

Yet the second time, about two years later, the experience was completely different. In fact, when they decided to start trying to conceive that first month, they actually avoided intercourse on the days when she was most fertile. The differences continued to haunt her during the pregnancy. She had more nausea, she couldn't spend as much time swimming, and she worried she wasn't connecting with this baby like she had before.

"With Melissa, we both felt like there was this big space in each of our lives that we wanted a child to be in. The second time, that space was already filled," Rodgers-Kay says. "We knew we wanted to have another child, but (Melissa) was doing a pretty good job of consuming us, not only in terms of logistics, energy and time, but also love. We were both in love with her, and it just seemed harder to make space for the second child."

Of course, simply understanding why didn't make it any easier. What helped were some sessions with Issokson, which included two visualizations -- one of the baby in her womb and one of the childbirth. They gave her a chance to focus on the new baby and to gain confidence that she really accomplish the tasks at hand. The second session was taped, and the couple listened to it together at home before the birth.

"The first visualization helped me connect this new baby in my womb with who I was now, both in my pregnancy and in my life," says Rodgers-Kay. "It helped me as a mom. I thought, 'Oh, good,' I am taking care of him." I'm in a different place, and things are different, but it's still OK. I'm still doing a good job."

What also bubbled to the surface by the second visualization was a recognition that underneath her anxieties was some sadness, too. She realized that she was grieving over the fact that it would be the last time she was going to be pregnant, and she was mourning the change her relationship with Melissa would go through.

Her son, Addison, is now nine weeks old, and although her worries haven't dissolved, she's much more secure about the prospects of life as the mom of two children.

"Sometimes I still feel like maybe I'm not as connected to him because even now Melissa may have my full attention," she says. "But I love him just as much, and what I'm making peace with is that he's sharing me more, but I'm not sure he's getting less. Being 100% his mom is just more complicated."