She embarks on her journey, she – the one in the boat, leaving her safe shore for the unknown. She carries precious cargo across deep waters. Some days are peaceful, and the anticipation of arrival fills her heart with gladness. On other days, the water wails and rises up higher than the boat, threatening to overturn it and everything she’s worked for. But on she sails, determined to reach the other side.
Maternal mental health:
before becoming pregnant, my mind automatically went to the “Day 3 Baby Blues”, or things like post-natal depression when I hearing those words. I’d never thought of mental health before a baby’s arrival.
As it turns out, it’s something that I’ve had to address face on, and as I have done so, have discovered that ‘perinatal mental health’ (which refers to pre, during and post birth) really should be something we talk about a lot more.
I had an easy and exciting first trimester – and then as I’ve written about, ended up in hospital at 14 weeks and have subsequently had to make some big changes in my life in order to stay well and keep this precious baby growing!
Something you should know about me is this: I’m a list-loving perfectionist who is particular fond of control and has always held very high expectations of herself. In fact, this was evident even as we were trying to conceive our baby – after one ‘unsuccessful’ month I was ready to have my eggs checked and consider adoption!
So looking back it’s probably no surprise that, at 17 weeks pregnant, I realised that I wasn’t feeling like myself. This went deeper than the fact that I wasn’t working, or leading what I knew to be ‘normal life’: there was something inside me sounding an alarm. Perhaps it was the extra time to think and be still, or the shock of all that had happened… I started noticing myself feeling less sure and generally ‘smaller’, as I developed anxious habits that I didn’t like and certainly didn’t want to bring into motherhood with me.
After spending a whole day interchangeably crying into a pillow and eating crunchy nectarines – #pregnancycravings – I decided to do something about it.
My mental health is just as important as my physical health, into which I pour resource and time and effort. What’s more, the mental and physical realms are absolutely linked.
I decided that my mental health was a worthwhile investment, and that this investment would benefit me in pregnancy, but also allow me to begin motherhood on a firmer footing – benefitting my baby and wonderful, supportive husband.
Isn’t it strange to write about something so personal online? Am I being too vulnerable? No, absolutely not! Mental health is something that everyone has and that everyone should be able to look after.
Again, your mental health is just as important as, and so linked to, your physical health.
And my goodness, if I meet just ONE other pregnant woman who hasn’t noticed an emotional or psychological change – at the very least: most I have spoken to have shared their own anxieties and ‘ups and downs’- I’ll be shocked. Channel Mum (who have just launched a really accessible mental health resource) carried out some research that suggests 80% of mums experience issues with their mental health. That’s 4 out of 5 of us: so we really need to talk about it. As I’ve opened up, I’ve heard many stories from really different women…from their mental health taking a knock during the TTC stage all the way through to unexpected night-time anxiety during pregnancy, traumatic births and different post-natal struggles.
This is not something we should be scared of. Good mental health is a totally achievable goal.
So let’s start in pregnancy. We’re pregnant…everything is changing, both inside of us and also in our external lives. (Not that anyone – pregnant or not – needs to rationalise taking care of their mental health.) But we know it’s true: during pregnancy, a little rocking of the boat is to be expected. And a little steadying of that boat is perfectly normal. In fact, it’s good.
Here are four things that have helped me steady mine. I’m leaving out things like enjoying fresh air and eating well, spending time with loved ones and celebrating the absolute socks out of the wonderful parts of pregnancy, but these are important too.
Flipping the switch
A good friend of mine talks about taking her thoughts captive: catching them, staring them in the face and then deciding what to do with them. I’ve tried to be vigilant about catching negative or anxious thoughts. And when one makes its way into my mind, I challenge it by ‘flipping the switch’. That is, I’ll immediately think of something good, maybe something that I’m thankful for or just something that has gone well/been fun/makes me feel good about that day. And then I think of another, until I have at least three. Doing this actually changes your neurological function, and makes it much harder for negative thoughts to spiral. Maybe it helps you to imagine turning a car around – I imagine a STOP sign before flipping the switch.
Sheryl Sandberg’s 3 P’s
In her book ‘Option B’, Sandberg writes about challenging the 3 P’s when faced with difficult circumstances. She suggests trying to be mindful that what is happening isn’t personal – it isn’t caused by you; it isn’t permanent – things will change; and it isn’t pervasive – it does not need to affect the whole of your life. Measuring the 3 P’s up against my own thoughts has been a really helpful way of framing what I’m going through.
Talking about it
Talking to friends and family, and to other mums and mums-to-be sounds simple, but it’s powerful. Verbalising things can make them less scary or big – and we find that we are not alone. This is normal (even though it’s not OK). We are worth taking care of.
I found a fantastic counsellor who is also a midwife and offers a set ‘course’ of four sessions for women who are dealing with complicated pregnancies, traumatic births and post-natal difficulties. This helped me process the shock and trauma (with a small ’t’) of what has happened, think about how to trust my body through pregnancy, birth and caring for a newborn, and develop some mechanisms for relaxing and staying calm. I’m a firm believer that everyone could benefit from counselling at any stage of their journey, and it has really helped me in this particular stage of mine!
If you take away one thing from this piece, let it be this: mental health is precious, and worth looking after. It is normal to experience issues at any stage of the birthing process, and it’s OK to talk about them. You’re not alone. And you will get better.
Gemma lives in Northern Ireland with her husband, Dan.
She is a writer and speaker who works in communications and international development.
Her top pregnancy craving is crunchy fruit.
You can find her at:
Blog – gemmaruthbrown.com
Twitter – @gemmaruthbrown
Instagram – @gemmaruthbrown
Facebook – @gemmaruthbrown