As I’ve written about before on this blog, one of the privileges of being the position of guiding people through the darkest aspects of their psyche and soul is that they share thoughts and feelings with me that they wouldn’t share with anyone else. Part of the reason why they share openly about these shadow regions is because they trust that I rarely take these thoughts and feelings at face value. So when I hear, “I’m scared I’m going to harm a child” or “I’m scared I’m with the wrong partner”, they know from reading my blog, even before we speak, that I’m interested in unpacking the metaphor that’s coded inside these common intrusive thoughts. In other words, they implicitly trust that I’m not going to assume that they’re a terrible person for thinking the thoughts that have plagued them with shame for as long as they can remember.
Perhaps of all of the thoughts and feelings that I hear, the one that brings a level of shame and sheer terror hitherto unknown, the one that brings women literally to their knees is, “I’m pregnant and I don’t want this baby.” Now it’s not just that their anxiety may wreak havoc on their own psyche, but the churning waves of terror and the feeling of entrapment directly effect other people: not only their partner but also the life growing inside of them. And that’s exactly the point. When pregnancy anxiety hits it’s often connected to the blinding awareness that a woman’s life – her body, her time, her freedom – are no longer her own. Some common statements I hear along these lines are:
- I feel like I’ve been diagnosed with a terminal illness.
- I don’t want this.
- I love my life; I’m not ready to give it up.
- I hate that there’s a person growing inside me every day.
- I feel like there’s an alien growing inside me.
- My body isn’t mine anymore.
- My life isn’t my own anymore.
- I feel like my entire self has disappeared and I don’t know who I am.
Last September 2016, a woman named “Sam” contacted me in pure panic. Newly pregnant, she was full of terror and regret and was convinced that the only solution was to end the pregnancy. I immediately put her in contact with “Clara”, a very wise woman who went through pregnancy anxiety years earlier and shares some of her story in the Break Free From Relationship Anxiety E-Course interviews, and also urged her to sign up for the Birthing a New Mother E-Course. Sam emailed me back a few days later:
There are almost no words to describe the level of panic, sheer terror, and shame that ensue when pregnancy anxiety hits full force. Especially if the pregnancy was planned or even mostly planned (“we’ll just stop using birth control and see what happens”), the terror and subsequent regret that hit are nothing short of soul-shocking. Many of the clients I’ve worked who have struggled with pregnancy anxiety share that they had envisioned having children for a long time, often since they were young. They assumed, especially based on the images of pregnancy bliss that our cultural disseminates, that a positive pregnancy test would bring peels of joy and are stunned when nausea, regret, and panic arise instead. And to make matters worse, nobody talks about pregnancy anxiety. It’s another one of those highly taboo topics that gets shoved under the cultural rock where it molds into shame. The disparity between their personal expectations and the reality, compounded by the expectations of our culture, is enough to send them into an emotional and psychological hell-realm.
And that’s when Fear jumps into the picture. Good-old Fear, who we know is only trying to keep us safe from risk, begins to whisper then chatter then scream into consciousness. Fear simply cannot tolerate the level of feelings that are suddenly churning inside. It cannot handle standing on the precipice of the unknown. Fear, and its buddy, Ego, long to live in the known realm and will do anything possible to turn back time and avoid change. It’s this voice that wreaks havoc on the newly pregnant woman’s mind, and tells her day and night that she’s made a horrible mistake and the only solution is to terminate.
Here are some typical lines that Fear uses around pregnancy anxiety to try to convince a newly pregnant woman that she’s made a mistake:
- I wouldn’t feel this way if I was older.
- I wouldn’t feel this way if we had been together longer.
- This isn’t really what I want deep down.
- I’m not ready. I thought I was but I’m not.
- I need more time.
- I got pregnant for the wrong reasons.
Please keep in mind that this is in no way a conversation about whether it’s right or wrong to terminate a pregnancy. Rather, just like ending a loving romantic partnership because of anxiety only leads to more anxiety, so ending a wanted pregnancy because fear is telling you you’ve made a mistake will only create a different storyline for anxiety to hang is hat on. As I write about all the time, when we listen to fear and believe that ending a relationship or pregnancy will end the anxiety, we’re only setting ourselves up for more anxiety. There is no escape hatch from your inner world; your fear, grief, and vulnerability need your attention and they will knock in the doors of psyche until you stop long enough to listen.
What I always impart to clients who are struggling through those early stages of terror and panic is that the fear hits every mother at some point, and that, just like engagement anxiety is a gift that allows the engaged woman to address the feelings associated with any death experience before she gets married so that she doesn’t fall into post-bridal depression, so those women who are hit with pregnancy anxiety are being offered, as painful as it is, an opportunity to address the magnitude of this identity earthquake early in the transition, which means that their chances of falling into postpartum depression are drastically reduced. If a simplistic definition of depression is suppressed grief, then we can understand that what the culture names as postpartum depression is, quite often (although not always), an appropriate response to the fact that a woman’s mind, body, and soul has been upended, and that’s what’s needed is an acknowledgement of these feelings and a place to express them. As I share in my Birthing a New Mother course, I’ll never forget when one of my mentors asked me in the first weeks of motherhood, “Have you had a good cry yet?” I had had many big cries, but when she asked me I felt like she was giving me permission to cry, that it was not only expected but also necessary, and with the permission any vestiges of shame were washed away. All this to say that the earlier a woman addresses the enormity of her transition into motherhood, the easier time she’ll have once the baby actually arrives.
What’s essential when pregnancy anxiety hits hard is to discipline yourself to walk yourself through the following steps. By sharing an enumerated list here by no means am I suggesting that working through pregnancy anxiety/terror is as easy as 1-2-3. Rather, if you’re suffering in this particular hell-realm, having a brief and actionable set of steps can be helpful in terms of getting through the stage where fear has taken over.
1. Normalize: If you’re suffering from pregnancy anxiety, hopefully reading this article will let you know that it’s completely normal, you’re not alone, and that it will pass through. Just like very few people talk about engagement anxiety and so the normal feelings of grief and fear mutate into anxiety and intrusive thoughts, even fewer people talk about pregnancy anxiety. The taboo around it creates a cesspool for shame. Hopefully we as a culture can start to bring more consciousness to this extremely common yet under-expressed topic.
2. Allow your fear to be here: Make a list of all of your fears. Writing them down will release them from the dangerous place of an unspoken mind where they will only fester into shame as they spiral around and around and eat their own tails. I’ve listed some of the top-layer pregnancy fears above. Here are the fears that every pregnant woman has (even if she’s not taken down by pregnancy anxiety):
- What if I don’t love my child?
- What if I’m a terrible mother?
- What if I don’t want to touch my child?
- What if I feel suffocated by motherhood?
- What if I think my baby is ugly?
- What if my baby looks like [a family member that I find unattractive]?
3. Allow yourself to feel the grief that lives underneath the fear: Let yourself grieve the fact that life as you’ve known it is ending. Let yourself grieve that, while you’re not literally dying, you are in the throes of an initiation which, by definition, includes a death experience as the identity and lifestyle you’ve known is coming to an end. Recognize consciously and actively that there absolutely is a loss of independence and a loss of self, and that your partnership will undergo a radical shift as well. Cry hard. Cry every day. And every time you cry remind yourself that you’re doing the most important thing you can do to prepare for this transition. It’s okay if you’re not happy right now; you’ll have plenty of time to feel happy. It’s okay if you don’t feel “in love” with your baby right now; you’ll have plenty of time to fall in love. Every single woman I’ve ever worked with falls in love with their baby, but it might not happen during pregnancy and that’s okay.
Also, if you’re worried that your grief and crying will harm your baby – as every pregnant woman seems to do – please let that go. Your baby is safely tucked inside the miraculous grief-proof sack of the placenta and, if anything, is only served by your loving attention to your own pain. The culture sells us the bill of goods that pregnant women have to maintain a state of unblemished bliss or the baby will suffer, but nothing could be further from the truth. Your baby is fine, I promise.
When you understand that becoming a mother is the biggest transition of your life and carries the most weight by virtue of its permanency (you can leave a marriage but you can’t leave your role as mother), you can understand why terror could become unleashed like a flock of furies from the underworld. And when you understand that transitions are designed to break us open for the purpose of shedding what is no longer needed, redefining outdated contracts in our relationships, and examining and shifting harmful beliefs, we can more easily make room for the depth and magnitude of the inner work that is required in order to cross this threshold consciously and make ourselves ready for the awesome task of becoming a mother and assuming the task of raising another human being. What is being asked is seismic, and all woman in the midst of this transition are aware of level of sacrifice they must make in order to mother a new life.
Is there a tremendous sacrifice when we become mothers? Without a doubt. Motherhood asks us to turn ourselves inside out and upside down from the core. Our body first houses then nourishes another human being and our minds suffer the alterations of hormones that sometimes blur our formerly laser-clear thinking. We sacrifice time, sleep, energy, and money to nurture another human being. When the sacrifices seem too big, when the fear-mind takes over and latches onto every negative image of motherhood you’ve ever ingested, it’s essential to remember two things:
1. The sacrifice is temporary.
In the early months and years, starting with pregnancy, we give ourselves over to our children completely in every possible realm of self. We sacrifice time. We give away sleep. We let go of our pre-pregnancy bodies. We forget who we were before we had kids. Every new mother at some point says, “I don’t even know who I am anymore. I’m not the person I was before but I don’t quite know who I’m becoming.” And yet… it’s all temporary. At some point – and that point is different for every mother – we begin to reclaim aspects of ourselves. We carve out time for exercise. We have a date with our partner. We tap back into our creativity. And we realize that because of the transformational experience of becoming a mother, we are better than before. Having a child whittles life down to its essentials and the frivolous and more superficial things we prioritized no longer seem as important. With this new awareness, we focus our energy on what really matters. Sometimes this means a change in career. Sometimes it means a change in our friendships or our relationship with our mother. Whatever the changes they’re stemming from a clarified sense of self and a strengthened identity. This is one of the many gifts of motherhood.
2. The sacrifices pale in comparison to the blessings.
Perhaps not all mothers share this mindset – and if you were raised by a mother who imparted either directly or covertly that motherhood is nothing more than a ball-and-chain then the negative mindset will be difficult to uproot and probably plays a part in your panic – but in my world motherhood is nothing short of a daily privilege and joy. Are there challenges every day? Absolutely. Are there times when I feel like pulling my hair out with frustration? Yes. But underneath the frustration, grief, exhaustion, and challenges lives a hum of joy that is unparalleled. The joy comes directly from the love, and the love I have for my boys is beyond time and space. Every mother I’ve ever worked with says the same.
As far as Sam, I hadn’t heard back from her so I decided to check in last July 2017. Here’s her response (shared with permission):
My baby daughter was born late spring; I absolutely adore her and can’t imagine my life without her. She’s the best thing that ever happened to me. When I look at her, I sometimes feel guilty for the difficult feelings I had at the beginning of the pregnancy. I still feel scared at times at the immense responsibility of a new little person, but I know it will pass.
Thank you for passing me onto Clara; she provided me with the clarity and support I needed. She was the only person that really understood what I was going through. I’m extremely grateful to Clara, as well as to you for putting me in touch with her.