In support of the #anxieteaandme campaign started by the lovely Charlotte from Mombie Diaries, I’ve written this post about my struggle with anxiety during my pregnancy in the hope that more of us will feel able to share our struggles, normalise mental health issues and seek help.
Pregnancy is supposed to be a really exciting, happy time. Preparing a new life for the world is meant to be one of the most fulfilling things a woman can do but unfortunately for me, it didn’t happen that way.
I’m naturally a worrier so in my first pregnancy, it came out to play a bit but it was manageable and didn’t bother me too much. On 22nd December 2016 at the 20 week scan, we found out there was something wrong with our baby. It turned out to be Thanatophoric Dysplasia, a lethal condition that meant our baby would not survive. We opted to end the pregnancy and our son, Adam, was born at 21 weeks without life. It was devastating.
I struggled with the grief of losing our baby boy, the wait for the post-mortem results was hell, once they confirmed the condition was a one off and not genetic I became obsessed with trying for another baby. It consumed my every waking minute and when I got a positive pregnancy test I was elated. When that positive faded to nothing in the next couple of days it broke me. It was the end of April and the last chance to be pregnant again before Adam’s due date, something I was desperate for in a vain attempt to make the pain of my loss easier. I was a mess, I broke down at work and couldn’t cope. On one occasion I convinced myself I had ovarian cancer and sat in the doctors waiting room sobbing because I was so frightened I was dying. At this point I sought out counselling which made a big difference.
I had a lovely counsellor called Margaret who really helped me deal with all the feelings of guilt, shame and devastation that the loss of our baby had evoked. We continued to try for a baby over the next few months. Even though it had only been about 5 months of trying I had all but given up, I was disheartened and on the day of my last counselling session I took a pregnancy test a couple of days early so I could see the negative and be sure I could cope with it once my counselling was over. It was positive. I was so shocked!
Obviously I was thrilled, all I wanted was for us to have a baby but something else kicked in with that positive: anxiety. From that moment, the overwhelming emotion that I felt for the next nine months was fear. I “knew” something was going to go wrong. In the first 19 weeks I worried about it constantly, I obsessively checked for bleeding, every twinge or pain meant I was losing the baby. I drove myself insane googling everything that could go wrong in early pregnancy.
The hospital and, in particular, our consultant, were really good with us. We had lots of extra scans from 6 weeks onwards to try and reassure us (for ‘us’, read ‘me’ as my husband was a lot more positive and practical about it all) but whilst the scans did help, they also made things worse. I dreaded them. After all, it was a scan that made our world come crashing down last time. We’d also had two private 16 week gender scans for Adam where the condition wasn’t picked up (it would have been obvious to them) so I didn’t trust any one.
We paid for a Harmony test at 8 weeks. This is a blood test that picks up fetal DNA in the mother’s blood and tests for conditions like Down’s Syndrome. This came with a private scan. The woman said that she’d do “the worst bit” first to get it over with, she was talking about the blood test. I told her that wasn’t the worst bit. Scans were (and are) something to be afraid of, I can’t enjoy them. We had scans at 6, 8, 10, 12, 16, 19, 28, 32, 36 and 37 weeks – I dreaded every one of them, cried before and during some of them and only had a couple of days of being reassured after each one was ok before the worry returned and I started stressing over the next one.
We had our anomaly scan at 19 weeks, they moved this forward twice at my request – the first appointment they booked at 21 weeks. I had to explain to the booking staff what had happened to Adam but they would only move it forward to 20 weeks (even though it can be done from 18), as it drew closer I got more and more worked up and ended up ringing the consultant and crying asking if it could be done sooner, thankfully she moved it forward for us. Going for that scan was one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever done. I cried in the waiting room remembering what had happened last time, praying that we weren’t going to be the ones coming out of the room in tears after getting bad news again. They were running really behind so our appointment was an hour and a half late. There were four ultrasound rooms and I saw right away that one of the sonographers was the same one that had done Adam’s anomaly scan. I hoped against hope it wasn’t going to be her doing our scan. When she called my name I nearly bolted for the door. I cried before she’d even started scanning me. After I explained why I was crying she remembered us and asked if we wanted someone else to do the scan. Had she asked me an hour before I would have said yes but we’d already been waiting for so long I just wanted it over with. Obviously everything was fine, although she spent ages trying to get a good picture of his heart and I was convinced there was something wrong and she hadn’t told us. I felt like that for the next 8 weeks until we had the next scan. It was actually quite nice for her to do the scan and it all be ok, she was really happy for us.
Once I started to feel the baby move, I didn’t worry constantly because it meant the baby was, at least, still there. But the anxiety didn’t lessen, in fact it increased. What was normal? Was the baby ok? If he hadn’t moved for a bit should I tell someone? Go to triage? Just wait longer? What if the baby died because I waited? What if the midwives were cross with me for timewasting? Was the worry enough to take time off work to go to the hospital? All these things buzzed round my head constantly. We ended up going to triage twice for reduced movements, each time it knocked me for six as it made the possibility of losing the baby even more likely in my mind like a cold, hard slap in the face.
I had waited to buy anything for the baby until the anomaly scan, convinced that something would be wrong and we wouldn’t get to keep this baby either. Once the scan was ok I had to get used to the idea of preparing for the baby’s arrival even though it hadn’t changed anything in my mind, I was still sure that it wasn’t going to work out. I went through the motions but every time I bought something I thought “I’ll probably have to send this back because we’ll lose the baby”. When we brought Theo home from hospital the majority of his clothes, sheets, muslins and so on still had the tags on because I didn’t believe that we’d get to use them.
After I had decorated his nursery, it made me worse because when we lost Adam we only had a few things that people had given us which we put up in the loft immediately. I used to lie in bed at night thinking how horrible it was going to be having a permanent room in the house to deal with while we were grieving.
In the later weeks of my pregnancy my anxiety ramped up still further, I thought constantly about how cruel it would be for my baby to be taken away when I had been so close to the finish line.
Throughout my pregnancy I described my anxiety in percentages, in the first 12 weeks it’s not an exaggeration when I say I was 99.9% certain it wasn’t going to work out. At best, probably in the late second/early third trimester I got to about 70/30 and by the end of the third trimester I was back to being 99% certain of the worst happening.
When I was 36 weeks pregnant I bought a private test and tested positive for Streptococcus B. Strep B is a harmless bacteria that lives in the body but can have very serious ramifications for newborns, there is an increased risk of it being passed on to the baby with a vaginal delivery. This discovery pushed me over the edge. I cried for hours at the thought my body had betrayed me again and was putting this baby at risk. I was already petrified of something going wrong during labour, it felt so very risky to me no matter how many classes I attended or other mums I spoke to but after finding out about the Strep B my fear ramped up to a new level. I ended up going on maternity leave a few days early because of how it affected me. The best way I can describe it is that I just didn’t have the mental capacity to carry on dealing with everything, something had to give and the only thing that I was capable of giving up was work. I felt guilty about it but it was the only decision I could make and it was ultimately the right one.
I already had a csection scheduled for 40 weeks as I didn’t want to go overdue and I refused induction as I’d had a bad reaction to the drugs I was given to induce Adam’s delivery. When we next saw our consultant I burst into tears telling her about the Strep B and how frightened I was and she said we could bring the csection forward to 39 weeks. I then started babbling about the risks of the csection, I didn’t want to hurt the baby and didn’t know what to do for the best. At this point I think the doctor saw for the first time the full extent of my anguish and she told me that she was telling me the csection was the best option – that helped me decide as it was really what I wanted and her stamp of approval made it a little easier.
During the last week of my pregnancy my anxiety ramped right back up and was at its worst the day before my caesarean. I remember very clearly that I had put some music on to try and distract myself from my dark thoughts and had started washing up in the kitchen. Westlife’s ‘When You’re Looking Like That’ came on and it reminded me of when we drove to France on our holiday a few months before. I’d added it to our road trip playlist and me (with bump), my husband the the dog had all had such fun in the car laughing and singing but all I could think about was that the four of us would never do that again, that it was all about to go wrong. I stood over the washing up absolutely sobbing, that ugly cry when you make a noise because you’re crying so hard. It was awful. I did not enjoy being pregnant one bit but at that moment I was so frightened and I just wanted to be pregnant forever because at least my baby would be with me. Recalling that moment now causes me physical pain in my chest.
I actually managed to stay relatively calm and neutral on the day of the caesarean, I think because something was actually happening, even though I wasn’t actually doing any of it I felt like I had a bit of control back. I’ll write my birth story another time but cutting to the end, everyone told me that I shouldn’t expect the baby to cry right away, that it was nothing to worry about so I had that in my mind but before the doctors could even lift him up over the screen or say anything he let out the biggest cry! That moment will be with me forever. Lee and I looked at each other and tears ran down our faces, it was the best moment of my life and my anxiety melted away.
During the appointment when we moved the csection forward the doctor told me that she was worried how I was going to cope once I’d had the baby, she said that mums who struggled during pregnancy were more likely to struggle postnatally. I had silently disagreed with her on this, my anxiety stems from situations that I can’t control, for example, the post-mortem, trying to get pregnant and ultimately my pregnancy. Having the baby here with me I could (and can) control things, I knew it would be difficult but it would be within my power to deal with so wouldn’t illicit the same feelings of worry and powerlessness. Luckily, I was right.
Don’t get me wrong, hints of it are still there – I’ve always been a worst case scenario sort of girl and my brain is often guilty of catastrophising. I imagine the worst situations and outcomes. For example, I’ll say “when he’s 4 we’ll do such and such” but in my head I’ll worry that something might happen to him and we won’t get there but, for the most part, I can recognise these thoughts for what they are and push them away. I’m not trivialising here, it wasn’t possible for me to control any of my thoughts during my pregnancy, that’s the problem with anxiety, but that goes back to how being in control of a situation or not affects me.
Now that I’ve come out the other side of my anxiety I really, really wish that I had sought some help. I really needed some additional support and should have asked for more counselling. I look back now and realise what an awful, dark hole I was in and I wasted what little energy I had battling these demons when I should have sought a way out. I realise how fortunate I am that my anxiety has gone now that I’ve had the baby, not everyone is so lucky.
I hope sharing my story has been in some way useful. If any of it resonates with you please get in touch and if you’re going through a tough time and struggling please, please ask for help. Talk to your GP, friends, family, colleagues or an advice line or support group.