I exchanged the jeans for the romper and left the store, hot, shaking, tears smearing my sunglasses. When I got to my car, I sobbed. What was the point? In six months I’d have a baby on top of all these feelings. How could I handle that? There was no way life was supposed to feel like this, and I was sure everything would only get worse.
Everything I’d read had prepared me for changes in physical health, but somehow I didn’t expect pregnancy to affect my mind—at least not until after birth. Pregnancy was supposed to be a time of joy, even amid its bodily hardships. The flush of morning sickness, the labor-drenched brow: The mother-to-be is glowing, luminous, even in the throes of physical strain. In reality, for many people, pregnancy can be one of the most emotionally taxing experiences of their lives.
A 2012 study found that 70 percent of the pregnant women surveyed reported symptoms of anxiety or depression; another study estimates that 8 percent of American women take antidepressants during pregnancy. Some figures put the number of women who will deal with a mood and anxiety disorder during pregnancy at one in five. Yet, despite this, prenatal depression—sometimes referred to as antenatal depression—remains difficult for women to discuss and difficult for medical professionals to disambiguate from preexisting conditions. Intense feelings of worry and sadness, paranoia, sleep disruptions: The symptoms of prenatal depression mimic those of depression unrelated to pregnancy. Plus, carrying a child is an overpowering experience that naturally leads to some big emotions, not all of them good.
Alexandra Sacks, a reproductive psychiatrist with Columbia University Medical Center and the co-author of What No One Tells You: A Guide to Emotions From Pregnancy to Motherhood, commonly sees patients who report emotional distress, worry, and even anger during pregnancy. “These are all natural emotions,” Sacks told me.
Those emotions, and their continuous upheaval during pregnancy, are called “matrescence,” a term that Sacks and her co-author, Catherine Birndorf, reintroduce in What No One Tells You. Coined in the 1970s by the medical anthropologist Dana Raphael, matrescence is described as a time of tumult similar to adolescence. “Adolescence is a transition of development from childhood to adulthood that we associate with adjustment,” Sacks said. “It’s physical, hormonal, emotional. It’s telling that we don’t have a popularized term for motherhood like that.”
Consult any What to Expect–type guide to pregnancy; from the first trimester on, “moodiness” is among the symptoms. The bombardment of hormones (estrogen and progesterone) plays a part; so, too, do fatigue and sleep interruptions, as well as the many other countless, constant shifts a woman experiences in her body.