Childbearing and Self-care
From the time a woman begins to try to conceive all the way through to the postpartum period, she and her partner can experience excitement, joy, and a sense of awe as well as stress, confusion, anxiety, and sadness. It is a time of enormous transition, challenge, growth and even healing. Research has shown that socio-emotional factors affect pregnancy, labor, birth, postpartum adjustment, and breastfeeding. These factors can range from mental health histories of depression and anxiety to personal histories of abuse, eating disorders and early parental loss, as well as relationship conflicts, financial stress, and social isolation. Research has also shown that addressing these issues can decrease obstetrical complications and optimize the health and well-being of the family unit. In our culture, however, we tend to wait until physical risks develop in the body of the pregnant woman or crisis develops in the new family before we offer some form of emotional support or intervention. As an alternative, I encourage women and partners to avail themselves of preventive emotional support services and care as part of comprehensive prenatal care and birth preparation.
Many people balk at this suggestion, arguing that this is such a happy time for people, a time when women "glow." This is true, but the "glow" state and the states of stress and anxiety are not mutually exclusive during childbearing. They exist simultaneously which can feel confusing. Often, women and partners are hesitant to speak of their sense of ambivalence or their sadness at the anticipated losses inherent in changing from child-free adults to parents, or from a family of three to a family of four. They are ashamed of these feelings, particularly because they have wanted a baby and have often worked hard financially, medically, and emotionally to achieve pregnancy. Yet, ambivalence, grief, and doubt are normal emotions during this period and validation for these emotional states is crucial for a sense of well-being and balance.
Prenatal care can be a good resource for this validation if the provider creates an environment in which emotional issues can be discussed. Prenatal exercise and yoga classes as well as childbirth classes are good forums for support and guidance. Sometimes, a private setting is more appropriate or comfortable. This could be with a psychotherapist or perhaps an hour of nurturing and bodily attention with a massage therapist is right for you. Gayle Peterson, Ph.D., author of An Easier Childbirth, refers to these modalities as "soft technology" and supports their use in the process of preparing for parenthood. Her area of expertise is hypnotic relaxation which, according to research, has proven to be effective in preventing pre-term labor, decreasing nausea, lowering high blood pressure, managing stress, and helping women cope with the pain of labor.
A successful transition to parenthood depends on the adults receiving enough nurturing and replenishment from others so that they can give lovingly and appropriately to their offspring. A depleted mother cannot nourish her child. This holds true during the prenatal period as well as postpartum. Every pregnant woman and partner deserves all the support, validation, guidance, and tools possible to help cross that bridge to parenthood with a sense of wholeness, well-being, and health.