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The pregnancy panic attack

Moms-to-be seem to worry about everything. And how can they help it? Impetus for anxiety abounds.
Kim Carney /
/ Source: contributor

A few years ago when I was blissfully naive about such things as the one-hour post-glucose check or a Britax car seat, I also was clueless about the level of anxiety lurking in the hearts and minds of pregnant women. Of course, it only took two little pink lines on the home pregnancy test and, like magic, I’d joined the sisterhood. That is, Our Sisters of the Anxious Pregnancy.

Check out any pregnancy chat room and you’ll immediately get what I’m talking about. Moms-to-be — including me when I was expecting — seem to worry about everything. And how can they help it? Impetus for anxiety abounds.

I couldn’t walk into my doctor’s office and pick up a magazine without reading the bad news that awaited my unborn child and me. Words like “ectopic pregnancy,” “blighted ovum,” “gestational diabetes” and, of course, the most dreaded word of all “miscarriage” popped out at me from magazines. Amniocentesis had barely entered my vocabulary before I was informed by a (well-meaning, I’m sure) woman about the hazards of having one — no, not the fear of that long needle that everyone else talks about; she was referring to the risk of miscarriage due to having an invasive test. (The risk, I was later informed by my doctor, is less than minuscule. There’s something like a .03 percent chance that anything negative could happen.)

As a pregnant woman, I was astonished that I couldn’t have a symptom — or, more seriously, not have a symptom — before someone would inform me that it was ominous. I didn’t have morning sickness. Yes, I admit it. And I have a healthy 21-month-old son who is right this minute escaping the clutches of his father to pound on Mommy’s office door.

Yet, when I was several months pregnant and told a woman who I was interviewing for a story that I had no hyperemesis gravidarum, she lowered her voice and said, “Oh, please tell me you were maybe a little queasy a few times.” She was suggesting there was something wrong if I wasn’t sick!

So I did what any sane person would do: I lied to get her off my back. I just wanted her to stop freaking me out. The minute I hung up the phone I started calling recently pregnant friends and Googling “morning sickness” and “hyperemesis gravidarum.” After some Medline research and a few phone conversations, I learned that roughly half of pregnant women have some morning sickness and half don’t. In some cultures, a word for the condition doesn’t even exist.

So either I was a displaced native of the Republic of Seychelles or I was just one of those 50 percent who didn’t get sick. The point is there was nothing wrong with me just because I didn’t have morning sickness — but I spent a couple of sleepless nights worrying about it.

Women scared silly
When I brought my concerns to my Los Angeles obstetrician, Dr. Stuart Fischbein, he told me how frustrated he’d become. In the last decade or so — maybe because of the increasingly litigious nature of our country — with the various alarming consent and disclaimer forms now required in medical practices, the government warnings on everything from gas pumps to public buildings, all the new tests that are often helpful but also scare women silly and the increased access to sometimes dubious medical information or reports, pregnancy anxiety has drastically escalated.

It has become so bad, according to Fischbein, that he spends half his day not practicing medicine but simply calming fears. As I spoke with more doctors, midwives and birthing educators, I was repeatedly told the same thing. Perhaps the profession closest to the subject of maternal anxiety, however, is the doula.

Officially, doulas are professionals who provide emotional, physical and informational support and advocacy to women and families before, during and immediately after birth. But Ann Grauer, president of DONA International, an association representing doulas, has a more interesting definition for them: birthing Sherpas. “When you hire a doula we can’t have the baby for you but we’re with you every step of the way,” explains Grauer.

The doula’s primary role is to give pregnant women confidence and do whatever she can to decrease their anxiety. As pregnancy anxiety in our society grows, says Grauer, so does the demand and need for doulas. (To wit, in 1994, DONA had 750 members. Today the organization has 5,718 members).

“Within the last five years even I’ve seen pregnancy fear grow to unbelievable proportions,” says Grauer, who has been a birthing instructor and doula for 16 years.

Women come to Grauer and her colleagues concerned about everything — from symptoms, environmental toxins, tests and possible miscarriages to birth defects, diet, giving birth and more. In her opinion, the very worst contribution to pregnancy anxiety are some reality TV shows.

“The television programs ... show a birth and they say something like ‘Will Megan and her baby survive? We’ll find out right after this commercial!’ They create a lot of anxiety because they give women the impression that we’re all high-risk and the truth is that the vast majority of us are incredibly low-risk,” says Grauer. Those TV programs, some pregnancy books and magazines, as well as Web sites and blogs offering opinions disguised as fact seem to play on the pervasive societal fear that already exists, Grauer says.

After I spoke with a pregnant woman who told me she threw one pregnancy book across the room in disgust because it was filled with worst-case scenarios and instructions to walk on eggshells (not literally, of course; I’m sure that would present some kind of risk of transdermal food poisoning), I started researching a book of my own.

I learned that despite the “risky” tests, the possible perils of filling your car with gas or eating canned tuna, the recklessness of drinking a caffeinated beverage or taking an aspirin, the odds were overwhelmingly in a pregnant woman’s favor that around 40 weeks or so from conception, one way or another and mostly regardless of what she had or hadn’t done, the average pregnant woman would deliver a baby and that baby would be just swell.

I also discovered that once you saw the fetal heartbeat via an early ultrasound when you were around six weeks pregnant, your chances of miscarrying drop to just 2 percent. And that the majority of women, without killing themselves with exercise or crash dieting, are back to their pre-pregnancy weight (or at least within a few pounds of it) by the time their children celebrate their first birthdays.

But, truly, as much as it hurts for a writer to admit this, you don’t need a lot of books to calm your anxiety about pregnancy. Women who have newly passed over to the mommy side actually tell it best.

I recently spoke with one such woman who had lots of fears during her pregnancy — everything from weight gain, testing, whether she’d get varicose veins, you name it.

Now that she’s a mom, this is what she told me: “Most of what I worried about during pregnancy was stuff I dreamed up but never even happened — or if it did it wasn’t even a big deal. Now that I have my daughter, I think, what was I so worried about!? Look at her. She’s a miracle — just like all the other kids at the park or mall or Gymboree class.”

Amen, Sister. Or rather: Amen, Mother.

Victoria Clayton is a freelance writer based in California and co-author of "Fearless Pregnancy: Wisdom and Reassurance from a Doctor, a Midwife and a Mom," published by Fair Winds Press.