How women can avoid shame in pregnancy and postpartum
As a woman, and as a therapist that specializes in women’s health, I thought I knew what to expect in pregnancy and the postpartum period. I thought I was adequately prepared with my knowledge as a mental health professional, and felt like I was doing enough by going to my own therapist early on in my pregnancy to prepare for the transition to come.
But I had no idea.
I had no idea about the emotional rollercoaster I was about to embark on in pregnancy, about how much my relationship would be tested postpartum, or about the overwhelming grief and nostalgia I would feel about my life pre-baby.
No person or textbook could prepare me for the crippling shame I would experience for having these feelings, or the intense guilt that would surface when I would hear myself complain.
How could I feel this way?
I had a healthy pregnancy, I had a healthy baby, I had plenty of resources, I wasn’t experiencing Postpartum Depression…. And yet, it was hard, it is hard, and I was not prepared. There are so many things I wish I knew before starting the journey of having a baby. Not because It would have changed my mind to become pregnant, but because I believe being prepared and having adequate expectations can save us a lot of emotional turmoil in life. The common narrative around pregnancy and postpartum have not held true for my life, and I get the feeling that many women out there feel the same way.
Here are some things I didn’t expect that in retrospect I wish I had:
I felt a sense of loss: This was probably my hardest challenge. It started in pregnancy where overnight I found myself having to give up most things that made me, me. Working out was suddenly different, my social life changed, the hormonal changes were awful and I felt out of sorts with my feelings... and then a deep nostalgia settled in postpartum when I brought my baby home. I felt a profound grief about my old life and the freedom I once had. And then, worse than these feelings was the intense shame that set in for having these feelings in the first place. This was a tough one to work through, but I did.
Morning sickness was not my biggest challenge: I had this false belief that if I didn’t get morning sickness pregnancy would be a breeze. HA! Not so much. Morning sickness is really tough, and I feel for women that deal with this. Luckily, I never had morning sickness but found myself still dealing with other physical problems that I didn’t know were possible. For example, I had femoral nerve pain that was excruciating and lasted my entire pregnancy. I had no idea this was a possibility, and it very much impacted what I was able to do while pregnant.
I didn’t glow: OK, a little humor, but really, I never glowed. I kept waiting for the moment I would wake up to a radiant complexion…. it didn’t happen. Pregnancy was still beautiful in other ways. Instead of waiting for the glow, I wish I had the same anticipation for the way my heart would explode when I felt her first kick, or saw her for the first time in the ultrasound. These were the real moments to look forward to.
I had moments of panic that made me wonder why I did this: Okay, so another hard one. I plan to write about this extensively in upcoming blogs. But in short, In the really tough moments postpartum, I wondered why we even did this. Life was good before… and then shame reared its ugly head (again) for even having these feelings. (Spoiler: I have not renewed my subscription to the shame channel. I will share the way I wrestled shame and won, in my upcoming blogs).
Only share your vulnerability with people who understand: To use Brene Brown’s words, vulnerability is earned, not given. I found myself being way too honest with people who would casually ask me how I was doing (during both pregnancy and postpartum) and most of them couldn’t handle my answer. Most people just want to hear that you are doing great and that you are happy and it’s the best time of your life, etc. Only share your real feelings with people who can accept your truth, and can truly assist you if you are struggling. If you feel like you don’t have that person(s) this is a great time to seek therapeutic support.
My relationship would be challenged, but in ways I didn’t anticipate: My husband and I went to therapy early on in my pregnancy to prepare for the transition of having a baby. While this was helpful, there was no way for me to anticipate how taxing having a newborn would be on our relationship. (Stay tuned for blogs on this, and how we came together to support each other!)
Despite the struggle I will be head over heels in love with my baby (But it may not happen right away!): The moment the nurse placed my baby on my chest, was probably one of the most overwhelming & amazing moments of my life. But the same way I waited for the glow, (that never came) I waited for that “feeling” that you hear of that you are “supposed” to experience when your baby is born. Luckily, unlike the glow, the feeling came, just not right away. It took some time for me to feel really connected to my baby girl, and again, I wish I had a different set of expectations for that. For some women, it takes a little while for that connection to happen, and that’s okay. There is nothing wrong with you and you are and will be an amazing mom.
I share this here because I am committed to challenging the narrative around pregnancy and postpartum. You may not glow in pregnancy and you may not love the newborn stage, and there is no shame in that. An alternative narrative is necessary and is freeing for women experiencing similar feelings. An alternative narrative is a shield against shame.
This blog series will be a vehicle to make that happen. Through sharing my own experiences and offering professional guidance and support, I hope that you feel more connected and less alone. No woman should have to silently struggle, and no woman should ever be met with minimizing statements or criticism when they are vulnerable and share how they truly feel about pregnancy or the postpartum period. It is really hard. And everybody’s experience is beautifully unique.
If you are reading this and are feeling like you or someone you know could benefit from some extra support, please do not hesitate to call me, Dr Alex Gard, LMFT. I am dedicated to providing you with high quality therapeutic services and would be honored to be on your journey with you. Click here to schedule a free phone consult today!