Most people expect you to be happy when you announce you’re pregnant – and probably assume you are absolutely thrilled. It’s one of the reasons they don’t ask about your mental health, I think.
If they do ask how you’re doing, it can feel like they’re only asking to compare notes. They expect to hear all the gory details of your morning sickness (sugar puffs don’t flush, incidentally) and your frequent urges to pee as the pregnancy progresses, so that they can tell you how they had it worse. That includes the horror stories they share about childbirth.
They expect you to be “blooming” and “glowing”, when honestly the only time I ever glowed in pregnancy was when I was heavily pregnant, sweating, trying to walk home from dropping my daughter off at school.
And then there’s the friends – even strangers – who expect to touch your growing belly, as if they now have the right to do that; I never understood this. I wouldn’t dream of going up to someone in the street and leaning in for a belly rub.
And most of all, they expect you to be excited about your pending new arrival, and that you are carrying on as normal.
Which is why they seem so surprised when you say “Actually, I’m not sure I’m coping. I feel quite low”.
And this is where my story began.
In the summer of 2003, I miraculously fell pregnant having been told to “think beyond having children” following a diagnosis of extensive endometriosis. My son was born safely and happily, by Caesarian in Spring 2004. But the journey between those dates was honestly terrifying.
I can look back now and say I had suffered with anxiety before my pregnancy on and off, and my earliest memory of having Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) was when I was a young teen. But during the nine months I was pregnant with my son, the OCD was the worst it’s ever been.
I would wash my hands repeatedly, so much so they would split and bleed – feeling contaminated if someone even accidentally bumped into me in a shop. (You can see now why someone touching my belly was bad).
I spent weeks crying.
I stayed in bed for days.
I had persistent negative thoughts that something awful would happen to my precious cargo.
And the weird thing I about it all? I was desperately happy to be pregnant. But I was miserable at the same time. So desperate in fact, it fleetingly crossed my mind to throw myself down the stairs. Not because I wanted anything bad to happen, but because I just wanted the fear to go away.
When those terrifying thoughts happened, I plucked up the courage to speak to my midwife and she explained what was going on. It was the best thing I could have done – and as it turned out, I wasn’t alone.
But family and friends also play a big part in both helping to support good mental health and encourage recovery. Knowing what to say and what not to say (seriously “what have you got to be unhappy about?” – that’s not the one). My top tips for women, their partners and their families would be:
- Recognise it. Acknowledge what’s going on and put the elephant in the room. It’s understandable to be nervous about disclosing how you feel, but genuinely it’s better out than in. Encourage family to give you space to say how you’re feeling, put your thoughts in the open. It’s like opening the window to the attic, it’s good to give your thoughts some air.
- Keep talking. If you’re the one suffering try not to feel you’re a burden – people who love you want to help. If you’re a concerned partner or family member remember it’s good to talk, but just as important to listen. You don’t have to ‘fix’ anything, just listening and holding space with that person might be enough.
- Ask for help. If you recognise the signs, speak to your doctor or midwife as soon as possible. They can offer guidance, extra support and maybe even services locally which can help.
And most of all, remember you’re not alone.
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Note to the reader: This article is produced in time for Maternal Mental Health Week. The campaign provides the opportunity to put mental health – during and after pregnancy – back on the public radar. If you are experiencing signs of poor mental Health in pregnancy please speak to your doctor or midwife as early as possible, they’re there to help. Samaritans are also available 24/7 on 116 123
©️ Copyright Delphi Ellis