Experiences of pregnancy

The parents we spoke with found pregnancy life-changing and exciting, and described at length its physical and emotional dimensions. Some women enjoyed being pregnant and said they ‘didn’t have any problems’. Others found the experience of pregnancy more challenging, whether for physical or emotional reasons or a combination of both. Some men also talked about their emotional experiences during their partner’s pregnancy.

Common changes women talked about were altering their diets, looking and feeling different, craving certain foods, and experiencing fatigue and nausea. Some were surprised about how exhausted they felt. Many women experienced physical pain or discomfort during pregnancy, including sciatica, restless legs syndrome, deep vein thrombosis, headaches, fluid retention, heightened sensitivity to smell and heat, and tender larger breasts. When pregnant with twins, women felt that their changes and discomforts doubled. A few women loved the physical experience of being pregnant and embraced their new shape. Others felt ‘uncomfortable’ and described being unprepared for the physical dimensions of pregnancy.

Sara L experienced fatigue, nausea and sciatica during both her pregnancies, as well as pelvic separation during her second pregnancy.

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Often women struggled to accept they were experiencing a ‘normal’ pregnancy because they felt so bad physically. Several women with more than one child said their second or later pregnancies were harder, particularly due to having to care for other children. Coping with nausea was more difficult when women had older children, experienced a lack of support, or when they had demanding or inflexible jobs. Some partners helped by providing practical support, including Ajay, a migrant father of one, who learned to cook when his wife was unwell during early pregnancy.

Elizabeth experienced severe nausea which was different to her expectations and challenged her ideas about being a ‘good mother’.

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The physical and emotional aspects of pregnancy were intertwined for many women. Chelsea, a mother of one, described wondering if her nausea was caused by her anxiety or if it was the other way around. Others experienced a sense of disconnection between being pregnant and their day-to-day lives. Loretta described having difficulty focusing in formal work meetings while feeling her baby’s hiccoughs inside her: ‘That’s something I will never forget, just thinking – these two worlds are not matching in any way and I don’t know how they’re ever going to’. A few women mentioned social expectations to be happy, positive and ‘glowing’ during pregnancy.

Josie described being surprised by how physically demanding pregnancy was.

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Women talked about how the novelty of the experience of a first pregnancy distracted them from thinking about parenthood. Zara explained how she felt during her first pregnancy: ‘I think the whole time the focus was on the practical matters and I didn’t really give a lot of thought at all to the emotional consequences or realities of what it would mean to become a mother’. As a result, many women described being unprepared for life with a new baby – yet said they were not sure anyone could have prepared them.

A sense of vulnerability and responsibility for their unborn child was described by some women, while others remembered marvelling at having a baby growing inside them. Pregnancy brought emotional ambivalence for women such as Susanne who had always wanted to become a mother, but found pregnancy challenging and felt ‘miserable’.

Although having a baby was all she had wanted her ‘whole life’, Susanne found pregnancy ‘really awful’, and as a result felt emotionally ‘conflicted’.

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A number of people related emotional distress during pregnancy to past experiences of depression and anxiety, or childhood experiences. When pregnant with her second child, Maree was worried about unconsciously repeating the favouritism she thought her parents had shown towards her younger sibling. Others experienced anxiety, stress, or antenatal depression related to the pregnancy itself (see talking points under the theme ‘Perinatal depression and anxiety’).

Fred was apprehensive about the arrival of his second child but was able to work through this with the support of his partner and friends.

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A number of people experienced significant life events, including losing jobs, relationship breakdowns, family violence, or moving interstate or overseas, including to escape war. These experiences significantly contributed to emotional distress in pregnancy. Melanie described how a difficult relationship with her mother became more complicated after finding out that her mother had lung cancer. Tolai migrated from Afghanistan to Australia during very late pregnancy.

Tolai described moving from Afghanistan to Australia when she was eight months pregnant with twins as a ‘big thing’.

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When her mother was diagnosed with cancer during Melanie’s pregnancy, she felt like she was being pulled in ‘many different directions’.

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Parents described a range of complications during pregnancy involving the mother’s health, the baby’s health, or both. These included ectopic pregnancy, bleeding, placental problems, ‘incompetent cervix’, gestational diabetes, severe nausea (hyperemesis gravidum), ovarian cysts, high blood pressure and pre-eclampsia. Two people experienced problems with their babies, including supraventricular tachycardia (SVT) and gastroschisis.

The emotional impact of these experiences ranged from a sense of inconvenience through to significant distress. Erin described a range of complications including gestational diabetes in her fourth pregnancy and bleeding for over half of her sixth pregnancy due to a hematoma within her uterus.

Erin said the bleeding she experienced throughout her sixth pregnancy made her feel as if she was ‘walking on eggshells’.

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Prenatal testing results that fostered fears about a baby’s health were stressful for people. Despite Chorionic Villus Sampling (CVS) revealing that Sarah M’s baby did not have Down Syndrome, she continued to have ‘morbid thoughts’ about her pregnancy. Loretta’s first child was diagnosed with a genetic condition while she was pregnant with her second, making her anxious about her unborn daughter. Rarer or more serious complications were experienced by some women, sometimes with a risk of stillbirth or a threat to their own health or fertility. These included extremely rare conditions such as placenta percreta. A few women were hospitalised for part of their pregnancies. Surgery for an ectopic pregnancy left Jane, who is now a mother of twins, unable to conceive, leading her and her partner to undergo IVF (which was successful).

Jane described her ectopic pregnancy and its impact on her emotional and physical health. The surgery she received affected her ability to conceive and she subsequently had twins via IVF.

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See also:
* Experiences of pre-term birth, special care, stillbirth and death of a baby
* Experiences of conceiving, IVF, surrogacy and adoption
* talking points under the theme ‘Perinatal depression and anxiety’.