Pregnancy Distress

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Revisiting some myths around the “glowing bump”

Expecting a baby is usually experienced as a source of utmost joy, excitement and glorious expectations for parents. New evidence, however, is having us rethink some myths surrounding the “glowing bump”. Pregnancy, once believed to be a time of greater emotional wellbeing for women, has been linked to a range of mood disorders. Research shows that a growing number of women worldwide are demonstrating high levels of depression, anxiety, and stress during pregnancy. These women are found to have a range of common concerns including loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities, isolation, prolonged sadness and crying, and uncontrollable worrying about the pregnancy, the baby, labour and parenthood.

Psychological distress during pregnancy has been linked to a number of potentially adverse consequences for both bub and mum, such as problematic birth, prematurity, low birth weight, less than optimal adjustment to motherhood, bonding, and postnatal depression. Furthermore, new mums find themselves doubting their own abilities to take care of a newborn, thus enabling a vicious circle of insecurity and low self-esteem.

While experiencing difficulties during pregnancy and after bub is born is normal, many woman choose not to seek help.  This is the result of a complex mix of factors:

Nobody talks about this! Popular beliefs work subconsciously in making women feel ashamed if their experience differs from the perfect, settled, fully-prepared mum-to-be, whom we face every place we turn – books, magazines, parenting apps, GP’s waiting rooms, and  often with other women. Australian women, participating in an ongoing study on Pregnancy Mood, Birth and Early Motherhood*, shared a common understanding that “other women could be each other’s worst enemy”, suggesting that there is a lack of honesty, openness and support when it comes to the reality of pregnancy and motherhood. As a result of  this “keeping it quiet” attitude, once women become mothers, they often realize how unaware they are about the impact of, and the changes associated with having a baby. This can be especially true for women who have not had  the opportunity to experience first-hand parenting through their sisters or close family members and friends.

Psychological distress and mental disorders continue to be perceived and labelled negatively in modern society. It is not surprising that a woman does not seek help when she is not coping, when admitting that she is not coping is likely to be viewed as a weakness or deficit in her character. In addition, while women must cope with the perception that others may have of them at this difficult time, they must also battle their own perception of their situation. Women who struggle to cope with the often overwhelming demand of being pregnant and having a baby tend to perceive themselves negatively. This self-stigmatisation is a key reason why many women decide to isolate themselves from friends and family, either by putting the “perfect mum” mask on or by minimising contact with others. What is worse is that this happens not only after a clinical diagnosis of depression, but even in experiences of temporary sadness or irritation, as these are not easily accepted by our culture, again due to the common belief that pregnancy entails only a positive glow. In reality, even in situations where a woman may appear to be well supported (such as where the pregnancy was planned, the woman is financially secure, and she is in a long-term, stable, loving relationship), pregnancy and adjustment to the maternal role can be accompanied with  unexpected and confusing sadness.

The transition to parenthood is a time for many physiological, social, financial and psychological adjustments. Some difficult psychological changes can include a loss of identity, a loss of autonomy, changes in appearance, and changes in various alternative roles. While many women cope with the changes relatively well, others are more vulnerable to experiencing psychological distress. We need an increased awareness of maternal mental health and symptoms of depression and anxiety in order to be able to negotiate parenting in an optimal way, and to also offer meaningful advice, support and understanding to other women. Above all we need to share an understanding that pregnancy, as much as any other human experience, is a mixed bag that comes in all colours and shapes, over and above the pink cheeks, ribbons and glowing hearts.

Take good care of yourselves mummas, which also means getting the right kind of help for yourself if and when you need it. Click here for a list of Brisbane based support agencies. We all need to remember, there is no perfect way of doing the motherhood thing!

Aleksandra Staneva is a PhD Scholar at The University of Queensland in the School of Psychology, researching the experience of pregnancy, birth and motherhood in Australian and New Zealand mothers.

E: a.staneva@uq.edu.au

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