The Fright Stuff

beach-life-maternity-51386By Kathy P. Behan

The test results are positive. You’re pregnant.

Whether the news comes from the doctor’s office or from a home pregnancy kit, women trying to have a baby are usually ecstatic when they find out. Visions of an infant swaddled in receiving blankets and cooing contentedly suddenly crowd out all other thoughts. At least for a while. But as time passes, most mothers-to-be acknowledge that some of their initial euphoria is dampened as doubts and fears soon seep into the picture.

One mother may worry about the beer she drank before she knew she was pregnant; another about the allergy tablets she’d swallowed. In my case, I worried about almost every aspect of pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood. I even worried about my marriage. Were my husband and I really cut out for parenthood? After confiding my fears to some of my closest friends —- and nearly every woman I sat next to on the train -— I found that when it comes to pregnancy, worry, like weight gain, comes with the territory.

Nevertheless, one thriving marriage and three healthy babies later, I’ve discovered that even though there is a lot to worry about, there’s also a lot you can do to ease your mind. What follows is a chronicle of the most common fears — and how to exorcise them.

“I was obsessed with the same thought throughout both of my pregnancies,” confesses a 38-year-old mother of two from Crestwood, New York. “I worried that the baby had some sort of abnormality.”

Indeed, giving birth to a baby with birth defects is one of the greatest fears experienced by pregnant women, according to doctors T. Berry Braselton and Bertrand Cramer in their book, “The Earliest Relationship.” And it’s easy to understand why: Having a child is such an intensely emotional and physical investment that it’s devastating to think anything could go wrong.

To banish these thoughts, consider the odds; in normal pregnancies, they’re always in your favor. “Today more than 90 percent of expectant mothers can look forward to a routine and uneventful nine months, followed by delivery of a robust son or daughter,” writes Dr. Harlan R. Giles in the Better Homes and Gardens New Family Medical Guide. You can optimize your chances by taking good care of yourself: Eat properly, get plenty of rest, and stay away from drugs, cigarettes and alcohol.

Another way to keep your fears at bay is by talking about them with an obstetrician you trust. “Doctor’s visits shouldn’t only be physical exams,” says Bernadette Rossi Lehr, a copy editor from Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the mother of two sons. “They should be emotional checkups as well.”

It’s also reassuring to listen to your baby’s heartbeat at the doctor’s office after the third month. For many nervous mothers-to-be, hearing that steady thump-thump is a great relief. Sonograms, which show the fetus moving about, can help dispel worries, although your doctor probably won’t give you one simply because you’re nervous.

If you’re at least 16 weeks pregnant and you’re concerned about the baby’s movement—or lack thereof—your doctor can put your mind at ease by suggesting the “count-to-ten” method, in which you record how long it takes to feel ten fetal movements. You’ll probably be amazed at just how active your baby really is. (If you don’t feel any movements at all in three hours, contact your doctor immediately.)

Compared to concern about your baby’s health, it seems trivial to worry about your unborn child’s sex, but many expectant mothers do. “Because there were only girls in our family, I wasn’t sure that I would know how to take care of a boy,” explains Martha Prozeller of Sudbury, Massachusetts. By contrast, another mother worried about having a girl: “It intimidated me. I thought I’d identify too strongly with her and try to correct in her all the things I didn’t like in myself.”

There’s obviously nothing you can do to change your child’s sex, so instead, focus on the positive. Think of all the wonderful aspects of having a daughter or a son. Luckily, sexual preferences usually disappear at the sight of the newborn.

In addition to the baby’s sex, some mothers-to-be worry that they don’t really want the child at all. These feelings are especially common when the pregnancy was unplanned; but even women who have tried for a long time to conceive are often surprised by, and feel guilty about, their ambivalence toward the baby. This reaction isn’t so surprising. After all, having a baby is a lot like getting married: It’s scary because it so fundamentally changes your life. And as with marriage, you may occasionally doubt—and regret—your decision. But having such doubts doesn’t mean that you don’t really love your husband, or that you don’t truly want the baby.

Physical failures
Some women revel in their pregnant bodies, and others are completely disgusted by them. But even if you have a good attitude about your growing girth, it’s not at all uncommon to believe that you’re no longer sexually appealing. “I felt less attractive when I was pregnant,” admits Lehr. “The irony is that you’re going through the most female of experiences, and yet feeling that you’re the least feminine in men’s eyes.”

Here’s where a sensitive and loving partner can help. “My husband made me feel good about my body every step of the way,” says one mother from Northern California. During my own pregnancy, when the scales climbed to new heights, my husband cheered me on. He assured me that I was more gorgeous than ever before, and I felt wonderful because I knew he meant it—although I did question his sanity.

Beyond altering the size and shape of your body, pregnancy hurls it through one final abuse—labor. Just mentioning the word makes many brave women cringe. “I was terrified,” admits Carolyn Bitetti, a marketing consultant with two sons. “I panicked about how I would deal with it and hated the thought of having no privacy and becoming a public spectacle.”

Even those who’ve been through childbirth don’t always agree on the best way to approach it. “I tried to become as well-educated about labor as I could,” says Cynthia Danaher, a Winchester, Massachusetts, mother of two. “I wanted to learn about the different stages of labor and how to deal with them.”

Rose Beatty a forester from Northfield, Vermont, took the opposite tack: “I purposely didn’t do any reading about labor until the end because I had enough to worry about with all the other aspects of pregnancy.”

Labor may be the worst pain you’ll ever experience. But even though it’s no stroll through the park, it isn’t necessarily a trip through hell. Each person responds differently to labor, and fortunately or unfortunately, you won’t know what you’re in for until you’re actually in the thick of it. Lamaze and other childbirth education classes, as well as information on pain medications should you want them, will help you feel prepared, which in turn will let you feel as if you have some control over the situation. It may also help to remember two things: One, it’s eventually over, and two, it’s pain with a purpose—it’s probably the only agony you’ll endure that brings ecstasy.

And Baby Makes Three
“One thing that scared me was knowing that my relationship with my husband would definitely change, but not knowing how,” acknowledges Beatty. “Because of the pressure of having a child, I wondered if we would be able to maintain a good, loving relationship.”

Most couples are concerned about the same thing. Needless to say, babies are very demanding, and they complicate and change almost every aspect of your life so it’s understandable that couples worry whether their marriage will become a casualty of parenthood. The bad news is, yes, parenthood often greatly alters your relationship. The good news is that many couples report a lot of changes for the better. Explains MaryAnn Long from Scarsdale, NY, “I always thought my marriage would be enhanced by having kids, and that’s exactly what happened. We felt closer together because we had our own family — we weren’t just two individuals. We enjoyed our children so much that I appreciated him more and he appreciated me more.”

One area of your marriage may suffer more obviously than others, however, and that is your sex life. During pregnancy you may find you’re more in the mood for sleep than you are for love, and many women worry that this trend will continue, or worsen, after the baby comes. Christine Cambria, a 37-year-old mother of five, says she never realized how much her sex life would change after the birth of her first child. “It came as a real surprise, but we weren’t upset about it. We just decided it was normal.”

In fact, it is normal. Almost all new mothers report that they lose—at least temporarily—that loving feeling. Although you may never get back to your pre-child sexual frequency, the quality of lovemaking may nevertheless be enhanced. After all, you now have tangible proof of your love for one another in your child. And parenthood may add a new and very attractive dimension to your spouse.

If you are having problems with sex, the solution may simply be better communication. Talk to your husband about your marital concerns and desires while you’re pregnant: You’ll start a healthy habit that should continue long after the baby’s birth.

Almost every woman embarks on her career as a mother without previous experience raising children, and for many it’s a terrifying prospect. “I worried I’d be too rigid and that I wouldn’t be patient, fun, or available enough for my kids,” says freelance artist Theresa Gorman-Kahler, the mother of three sons. “Sometimes I’m not. Then there are other times when I know I’m a good mother.”

Some women worry that they won’t be wise enough to deal with the complexities of parenthood, or that they’ll make the same mistakes their own mothers did. Perhaps the best way to approach these fears is to realize that you’re not always going to know the right things to do, that there will be many good days as well as some disastrous ones.

Nobody, in fact, parents perfectly, and the worst thing you can do is set unrealistically high standards before the baby arrives. For instance, I considered myself to be a highly successful mom when I managed to have myself and the baby out of our pajamas and fully dressed by 2 p.m. during those first few weeks.

Experienced mothers agree that your priorities should center on the health and happiness of the baby, yourself and the rest of your family. You’ll have a better idea of what to expect if you talk to other moms. Join a mothers’ group or start your own with the members of your childbirth class. Read childcare books and talk to your own or your spouse’s mother. It will also bolster your confidence to take a class on baby care at a hospital or community center.

Of course, just when you think you’ve got the hang of it, you may decide to have another child, and you’ll face a brand-new set of concerns. Some mothers worry about the effect of a new baby on the family as a whole; others fear sibling rivalry. “When I’d think about how a new baby would change my relationship with my first child, it was almost like being in mourning,” says Lehr. “I was sad about losing the one-on-one with my firstborn.” Other parents wonder if they’ll be able to love the second child as much as they love the first.

In both cases, parents need to take the longer view. If you’re worried about short-changing the first child, consider the ways that you’re actually enhancing his/her life. For starters, you’re producing a live-in, lifelong friend; they’ll fight and hate each other at times, but chances are they’ll also become loyal allies. You’re also taking the heat off number one—all that attention can be suffocating at times for only children.

As far as cheating the second child, he probably won’t be as well documented in the photo album or baby book as the first, but he’s also gaining a set of older, experienced parents. One New York mother explains, “Aside from time and energy limitations, I think I’m a better mother with my second child. She gets the best side of my mothering—the side that doesn’t panic at runny bowel movements or throwing up.”

There are few, if any, women who can honestly say they faced pregnancy, birth, and motherhood fearlessly. For whether it’s your first child or your fourth, fears spring from a positive source—your deep love and concern for your child, whether he’s born or unborn. That’s why there’s at least something redeemable about these anxieties. But when they become too overwhelming, try to remember that true hazards are extremely rare, and that worrying about unfounded fears doesn’t do anyone—your baby, your partner, and least of all you—any good.

Kathy P. Behan, a mother of three, is a nationally published freelance writer specializing in family and health issues.

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