Anxiety: Friend or foe?
Having a baby isn’t always easy. Perinatal Psychotherapist and Counsellor Melissa Hughes takes a look at how you can better cope if you’re experiencing anxiety about your pregnancy, birth or newborn bub.
One of the hardest things about preparing to be a new Mum or Dad is imagining what life will really be like. A firm reality is that you will need to readjust the control you have had in your life to date. Unfortunately your baby is neither born with a how-to-handle-me handbook, nor have they read any of the baby books that you may have read. For a lot of couples it is the first time they have had so little control in their lives. These unchartered waters of pregnancy, birth and the first few months of parenting in turn promote varying levels of anxiety.
A helpful way around this anxiety is to ‘reframe’ what you cannot control. It is also useful to discuss with your partner or a professional how you are feeling about making the baby-driven adjustments to your life.
I don’t know if I can handle the pain?
Reframe your outlook on the pain: Your body has been designed to give birth, you can choose to view the pain as ‘good’ pain. Also your anxiety about the pain is natural. Even the best performers of our time suffer from some performance anxiety. In fact many perform more effectively with this adrenalin on board. You can and will get through this.
Partners are often concerned about how they will handle seeing their loved one in pain. Being a support person during labour is a tough role. There are fears about how their assistance will appear to their partner. Whilst one does not want to come across as the tyrannical softball coach you wish you never had at school, it may also feel unhelpful to stroke her hair, rub her back or fetch ice chips to feed your partner. Remember, all you can do is your best. Being there counts.
When will labour start?
Reframe your ‘waiting’ time as enjoying the time prior to your new baby joining you and your partner. If you concentrate on using the time rather than watching it pass, it will assist in lessening the anxiety.
The due date is a rough guide. And, let’s face it, no-one has let your unborn child know that they are expected on any given date. As the due date approaches partners will experience varying levels of anxiety. For some, anxiety is attributed to the impending birth, whilst for others anxiety is firmly affixed to the inevitability of life changing.
I have a birth plan. What if things don’t go ‘to plan’?
Firstly please remember that it is not necessary to have a birth plan. Cave women gave birth in caves without any structured birth plans and plenty of 21st century women continue to do so. If you do have a birth plan, reframe by injecting some serious flexibility into the process. This way, no matter what happens, you will have the mindset to deal with it.
For the partner, this is a strange new world where terms like cervix dilation, waters breaking, mucous plugs and epidurals are commonplace. Often midwives and doctors will look to the partner to make decisions about the birth. This can feel quite overwhelming and it is important to remember that you are doing the best you can with what you have.
What should I wear during labour? Is it essential to be naked?
No. You do not have to be naked. But if you don’t want to wear anything, that is OK too. If you are concerned about what to wear, try an oversized men’s singlet, a loose nightie or a big t-shirt.
I am concerned that I’m not ready to be a Mum and my partner is not ready to be a Dad?
Often the reality of a baby does not hit couples until towards the end of the pregnancy so it is normal to feel a little out of sync with each other. It is really important to discuss these issues, or to see a therapist to highlight both of your concerns and figure out the best way forward. Make sure you give yourself 4-6 weeks to complete therapy together.
I am so focussed on the birth, I haven’t even thought about what is on the other side when we bring the baby home.
Often with first children the pregnancy is seen as the journey and the birth as the end point, when in fact the birth is just the beginning. It is important to focus on the practicalities of bringing baby home. Things like clothing that will be effective for breastfeeding, clothes that will fit you and be comfortable, how you will get food into your home to feed yourself (internet shopping, plans for the local supermarket, friends to help for a couple of weeks).
Also do not place too many expectations on yourself in terms of planned events, holidays, return to work or catch-ups with friends. It is important to keep the days flexible for you, your partner and the baby.
Looking forward to the future.
An important factor in whether anxiety will become the ruler of your lives, or a temperate passing experience, will have to do with how you and your partner choose to communicate through the process. It is important to understand that you are both going through this together and just because you may find yourselves on different pages at varying stages, it does not mean that all is lost.
Communication can quickly slip down a couples priority list, so it is important to seize moments for yourselves as a couple to talk openly about where you are at. It is also helpful to have a discussion when you find that you have moved through the tougher times and reflect on what it is about the two of you that allowed you to make it to the other side. You may find this reflection helpful should baby number two come along.
Melissa Hughes is based in Sydney and is the Director of Baby and Beyond Parental Counselling. She specialises in anxiety and depression associated with pregnancy, birth and parenting. For more information call 02 9957 5858 or go to babyandbeyond.net.au.
Andrew and Alicia’s story is representative of many couples. Here Andrew discusses the anxieties he experienced from pregnancy through to those trying first few months.
It is interesting to be asked about this, and to reflect on what it was like for Alicia and I through that time. I thought a lot about Alicia’s ability to cope with the pain of birth, I was really worried about that. I probably worried too much and found that she was more internalised with the pain of labour. I was also concerned that I would come across a bit like a Dictator during labour saying “Come on you can get through this, not long to go now”. I mean who was I to say that she will be able to handle the pain? It felt a bit odd to coach her through something I had not been through before. At that point it’s hard to imagine how anything I might have to say would be received and whether it’s helpful. It certainly wasn’t the time during labour to be asking Alicia for feedback on how she rated my performance as a support person.
Though I worried about coping, I managed to be there for my wife throughout the entire labour. It’s a difficult role and I do not think I was prepared for all the twists and turns that go with a labour. Just when things appeared to be going in one direction we would need to change gears. I found it odd and slightly disconcerting that I was being consulted on various ways to move forward with the labour. I barely felt qualified as the support person, so adding midwife and OB/GYN decisions threw me for a bit of a loop. I did think, hang on a second, why are you asking me?
I thought a lot about how it would affect our relationship. We have been together 10 years and up until this point we had only ourselves to worry about. We also felt the pressure from the family considering that this was the first grandchild on both sides. In our case, we both have divorced parents and so that means that when people called to check in, it wasn’t simply one call – it was four.
It was important for us to set boundaries and let family members know that there were new rules. It did feel a bit rude to stipulate that a call before people came over would be appropriate, or that we may not return phone calls because we were busy. This in turn set up some issues with disappointed grand-parents-to-be, and we spent a few weeks dealing with the fall-out from our boundary setting exercise.
I was not overly concerned about Alicia’s body changing and she was very comfortable with how she looked whilst pregnant. I guess it was a bit weird and foreign for me. Felicia noticed that I was a lot gentler with her. I focussed a lot on her belly. The baby belly could become a distraction and sometimes Alicia had to remind me that she was still there behind the baby, still my partner and best friend.
I think on reflection we both put far too much emphasis on the pregnancy. In reality for us, the birth was only the very beginning of our journey as a family. I did start to experience some anxiety around 3 months post-birth. Our daughter was a challenging baby, we had trouble with feeding, reflux and then with illness and a short hospitalisation. Her sleep patterns were not very good and I found myself thinking that my life was now going to be about spending all day in my pyjamas like I was 70 years old.
We had friends that had mentioned that you get your life back around the time that baby turns 3 months. So when 3 months came and went and it still felt like Groundhog Day, I found myself getting quite anxious. It actually felt as though my life was going in slow motion, or that it was on pause. There were plenty of friends who liked to brag about babies that slept all the way through the night, or were feeding on solids, or were a complete delight to take out to a restaurant, but we really never heard very much from the parents who were struggling. Part of our journey as a couple has been talking to people about how life ‘really’ is. It seems that the more we share, the more people tend to open up and talk about how the experience really was for them.
Something that helped me to put life back into perspective was when I started thinking about it as a temporary state of being. It did get better and continues to do so.
If you would like to speak with Melissa, phone (02) 9957 5858 to make a face to face appointment or email firstname.lastname@example.org for online counselling options.