Trimester-by-Trimester Guide to Your Emotions

by Paula Spencer

Trimester-by-Trimester Guide to Your Emotions

Hormones gone haywire? Here’s how to survive your nine-month short circuit.


Pregnant, you say? Expect to be bombarded with well-meaning advice about fetal development, Lamaze breathing and clever ways to add folic acid to your diet. This is all certainly very useful, but let’s cut to what’s really on your mind. Have you recently:


  • Exploded at your husband because he brought home butter-pecan ice cream instead of mint chocolate chip?
  • Rushed to stores to buy maternity clothes, only to loathe the sight of them a month later?
  • Burst into tears over the latest mushy commercial?


From the moment your baby-to-be starts growing, your emotions embark on a nine-month roller-coaster ride filled with exhilarating climbs and startling dips, and you have no idea of what lies ahead.


“It’s just your hormones,” everyone says with a shrug. True enough: Wildly fluctuating progesterone and estrogen levels do account for some of pregnancy’s infamous mood swings. Still, understanding the cause of these changes doesn’t curb them.


In fact, what goes on in a pregnant woman’s psyche is extremely complex and too seldom talked about, according to Arlene Matthews, a New York City psychotherapist and the author of Excited, Exhausted, Expecting: The Emotional Life of Mothers-to-Be. Often, Matthews says, pregnant women are expected to wear a happy face despite morning sickness, worries about the baby’s health and fears about their own inadequacies.


“Women think that if they express any negative feelings, they’ll be perceived as a bad mother,” she says.


British pregnancy and childbirth expert Sheila Kitzinger, author of The Complete Book of Pregnancy and Childbirth agrees.


“Emotions in pregnancy are often underplayed,” she says. “But some apprehensions about having a baby are healthy. They help prepare you for the complex business of motherhood.”


And it’s these same intense feelings that can lend a fantastic, almost spiritual side to preparing for childbirth.


“Pregnancy rips away the mundane and puts you in touch with what’s really important to you,” says Jennifer Louden, author of The Pregnant Woman’s Comfort Book.


As you wind your way through the emotional chaos of pregnancy, let the following guide reassure you. Even if your own experiences detour a bit, you’ll find comfort in that old cliche: I’m not crazy; I’m just pregnant.


The First Trimester


Is This Real?


Accepting the reality of a pregnancy is the first mental hurdle a woman faces, says Raphael Good, M.D., a clinical professor of psychiatry and obstetrics-gynecology at the University of Miami School of Medicine. There’s the miracle of biology to grasp, for one thing. “It can seem unbelievable that something so tiny could grow arms and legs and eventually walk around,” Good says. Then self-doubts appear: Are we ready to be parents? Can we afford a child?


Survival Tips


If you feel ambivalent about impending motherhood, remind yourself that this is a normal reaction. To help the baby seem more real, take a look at the miraculous photographs of fetal development in Lennart Nilsson’s classic book A Child Is Born.


Above all, realize that you may continue to experience conflicting emotions, says Matthews. And beware of the “Pollyanna pregnancy” trap of feeling you must be grateful and beaming all the time, especially if conception was difficult for you.


The Wait-and-See Weeks


For many women, the big news is too exciting to hold back for more than a few hours or even a few minutes. Others choose not to reveal their pregnancy until they feel more confident. But waiting can bring both secret pleasure and agony.


“So much was changing on the inside—wondering how I would fit my work in, feeling sick and fat—that didn’t match the outside, which still looked just the same,” says Sarah Pierce of Seattle, who kept quiet for 13 weeks to be on the safe side.


Whether you decide to go public or not, the specter of miscarriage hovers over even the most joyful expectant mothers during the first 12 to 14 weeks.


“Every little drop of blood is anxiety-producing in patients, even though 30 percent of all pregnant women will have some bleeding,” says Johanna Abernathy, M.D., an OB/GYN in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.


When Laura Patyk of Charlotte, N.C., had some spotting at seven weeks, she cried. “I thought I was being punished for something I’d done wrong,” she says. 


Women tend to berate themselves for all sorts of things they can’t change, says Abernathy. “What have I eaten? Did I drink any alcohol or a lot of caffeine before I found out?” During the first few weeks of a pregnancy, women can torture themselves with questions like these.


Survival Tips


Matthews says that the anxious early weeks are a good time to follow the pregnant woman’s credo: Do whatever you think is best. If you’re the kind of person who wouldn’t mind if others knew that you’d had a miscarriage, you may be more comfortable spreading the news of your pregnancy than a more private person would be.


Consider, too, whether you’re willing to confront the possible reactions. Will your mother overwhelm you with advice? Will your boss panic? Until you’re ready to deal with such responses, it may be best to keep the news under wraps. Whatever you decide, it’s wise to confide in at least one friend or coworker to give yourself a supportive sounding board.


One way to ease your worries is to have a talk with your obstetrician or midwife about your fears of miscarriage or birth defects, suggests Abernathy.


“You can’t change the past, so focus on having healthy habits from here on out,” she says.


Finally, balance your concern for the baby with care for yourself. As Louden says, “We think of nurturance as something we do for others, but be good to yourself as well.”


Who’s In Control?


Just when you’re inspired to do your best on the baby’s behalf, here comes the counterpunch: an unnerving loss of control. Chicago parents-to-be Lisa Wilkinson and Dave Kay call their unborn baby Captain Picard, after the Star Trek commander.


“This kid is running the show—when I eat, when I sleep. I’m just the starship Enterprise,” says Wilkinson. “Giving up control is not a normal component of my personality.”


Survival Tips


Let go of the reins a little. Louden advocates what she calls “Zen and the art of peeing”: Turn repetitive activities, such as going to the bathroom or taking your prenatal vitamins, into your own mini relaxation getaways.


“Take a deep breath and say a word or phrase that makes you feel calmer,” she says.


Basically, do anything that will make your life easier—get a low-maintenance haircut, take taxis, wear sneakers at work. Most important, learn to ask for help. That’s a special challenge if you pride yourself on your self-sufficiency.


“If it’s hard to do, imagine that you’re asking on behalf of your unborn child,” Louden says.


The Second Trimester


I’m Huge!


Mid-pregnancy is often referred to as “the honeymoon,” but even the most blissed-out mom-to-be can’t ignore her disappearing waistline. In fact, body image is the second most common concern that Abernathy hears women mention, after fatigue. Some women may worry about their sexual desirability. Others are afraid of any long-term effects that pregnancy may have on their body. Dawn Reeves of Knoxville, Tenn., was upset when, by the 29th week of pregnancy, she had gained 15 pounds.


“I know you have to gain weight to have a healthy baby,” she says, “but I was afraid I’d never get my old body back.”


Survival Tips


Flip through books of 17th-century paintings, with their voluptuous, fleshy women, to remind yourself how arbitrary standards of beauty really are. And don’t assume that your partner will think you resemble a whale. Lots of men find their blossoming wives a real turn-on. When she was 19 weeks pregnant, Tammie Kee of Nashville, Tenn., looked better than ever.


“My skin was glowing; my hair was thicker; I just felt more womanly,” she says. “And it helped that my husband liked my appearance.”


Something else to relish: Once women are pregnant and get a sense of what their bodies can accomplish, many feel liberated from a lifelong preoccupation with their weight, says pregnancy and childbirth expert Kitzinger.


To Test Or Not To Test


Although nearly every mom-to-be worries about her baby’s health and development, some find reassurance in getting as much information as possible. However, as Mary VanClay of Oakland, Calif., discovered, knowledge gleaned from medical tests can be a double-edged sword. Test results suggested that VanClay’s baby wasn’t developing properly. After genetic counseling, an appointment for amniocentesis and agonizing “what if” conversations with her husband, it was determined that VanClay wasn’t as far along as her doctors had thought. Her irregular periods had simply led to a miscalculation of her due date. “It was a big scare,” she recalls.


Survival Tips


When anxieties rear their head, fight back with concrete information about each test’s purpose and possible outcomes. Then work with your doctor or midwife to determine exactly which tests you need and want. Talk with other parents as much as possible. Hearing about other people’s concerns goes a long way toward calming your own fears.


Hello In There!


The highest high of pregnancy tends to be the physical evidence women hear, see or feel: the amazingly rapid whoosh, whoosh of the fetal heartbeat, the blurry tadpole on the ultrasound screen, and especially, quickening—that first flutter in the womb.


“Quickening is the most decisive part of pregnancy in many cultures,” says Kitzinger. “It can’t be recorded on any medical charts; it’s just the woman’s own intimate experience. She has the opportunity to feel that this isn’t just a fetus but a real baby with a personality.”


Survival Tips


Revel in it! Kitzinger believes that feeling the baby move is a tremendously significant step in the bonding process, one that takes place long before a woman is able to hold her newborn baby in her arms. Sing to your belly, talk to it, caress it and encourage your partner to do the same.


The Third Trimester


Onward Through the Fog


First Cynthia Foote began missing appointments. Then she’d make a mental note to do something, like fold the laundry, and discover hours later that she had forgotten all about it.


“It was like I was having an out-of-body experience,” says Foote, who lives in Annapolis, Md. “I was aware of things, but not functioning like I usually do.”


Welcome to the homestretch. As your due date approaches, your subconscious begins to focus on the Big Event and crowds out everyday life, explains Good.


“Women become more intuitive during pregnancy and less able to calculate a grocery bill or find the car keys,” says Matthews.


Hormonal shifts and interrupted sleep contribute to this space-case syndrome.


Survival Tips


If you feel not quite yourself, remember, you’re not, says Matthews. You’re yourself and your baby. Embrace the amazing reality of the one-of-a-kind life that’s developing inside you.


More ways to slow down and appreciate this new gift: Take long walks, meditate, write in a pregnancy journal, or if you can swing it, suggests Louden, go on a retreat to a spa or a quiet country inn—the rest and reflection will do you good.




You may look more like a penguin than a sparrow, but the instinct is the same: to prepare for the little hatchling. Matthews sees nesting as the mind’s diversionary tactic, a way to move your attention away from your increasing anxiety about labor and the many changes ahead. Nesting also provides a sense of control. It’s as if you’re telling yourself, “If I can do this, I can do anything.”


Survival Tips


Pace yourself and have fun! However, warns Matthews, be aware that modern American nesting involves a lot of anxiety-provoking consumerism.


“You can get overwhelmed by all the options,” she says. Self-doubt and even panic can creep in. Remind yourself that you don’t have to get everything done before the baby is born.


Honey, It’s Happening


The parade of emotions of the past nine months pales in comparison with the densely packed sensations of labor and the postpartum period: pain, lapses in confidence, and a cloudy memory.


“Everything changes,” says Kitzinger, including every relationship in your life. Hormones pack an even greater wallop now, too. “The only other time our bodies undergo a physiological shift as major as that of giving birth is in death,” says Good.


Survival Tips


Knowledge and support are crucial. Well before your due date, find childbirth classes that discuss labor honestly, says Kitzinger.


“It’s not helpful if they don’t talk about fear or pain,” she says. Women who are prepared have less irrational fear.


The Dip


Good says with birth, strangely enough, often comes loss—the physical loss of your child from your womb, loss of sleep, loss of your old identity as you make the transition to motherhood.


While pregnant, Louden had heard about this emotional dip, but she’d thought that the so-called baby blues meant that “on day three, I’d either get weepy or turn into a raving lunatic. I never imagined that I’d experience such a wide and long-lasting emotional range.”


Survival Tips


Talk, talk, talk. And then talk some more. Kitzinger says she’s heard from women in their 70s who still feel a compelling need to retell their birth stories.


“Woman-to-woman conversations are the best way to make sense of what happened,” says Kitzinger.


If you’ve had a negative or disappointing labor experience, you’ll likely only prolong this crucial sorting-out process if you tell yourself dismissively, “It doesn’t matter. I should just be grateful for my beautiful baby.”


Finally, bear this in mind: For all the tumult, and no matter how many twists and turns you encounter along the way, at the end of the thrill ride is your newborn. And that’s just the beginning of a whole new adventure.