Brave New World

The 20 biggest scares and surprises about having a baby

Every newly pregnant woman embarks on an adventure as boldly as astronaut Sally Ride and as full of expectations as Christopher Columbus. Even if you’ve been pregnant before, each voyage is fraught with new fears and blessed with new surprises. To ease these fears and help prepare you for the reality that awaits, we talked to straight shooter Vicki Iovine, mother of four and author of two wise, honest and hilarious books, The Girlfriend’s Guide to Pregnancy (Pocket Books, 1995) and The Girlfriend’s Guide to Surviving the First Year of Motherhood (Perigee Books, 1997). We also sought the advice of Leslie Hartley Gise, M.D., a psychiatrist who has counseled mothers through pregnancy and childbirth in her 16 years at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York and in her present role as a psychiatrist with the Hawaii State Department of Health.

We also talked to a few regular moms (this author included) who have been through it. We’ll allay your biggest fears and help you prepare for the happiest moments of pregnancy, childbirth and new parenthood.

10 Biggest Fears

1. It’ll Hurt!

“The biggest fear is that the pain will be so great that you’ll collapse and break into a thousand pieces,” Iovine says. “We’re frightened we won’t be able to have natural childbirth, as well. If you plan on and succeed in natural childbirth, great; if you need an epidural or C-section, great.” The skills taught by childbirth educators are invaluable, but Iovine warns against letting natural-childbirth proponents take you on a guilt trip. In many cases, the pain isn’t nearly as bad as you might have feared (some compare it to really bad menstrual cramps), but relief is attainable if it gets intense. “Anesthesia is available to help you cope,” Gise says, “and you’re not a bad person if you decide to use it.”

2. Losing My Lover

Many women fear that their husbands forever will see them as chubby, milk-stained moms, rather than exciting lovers. “Most of us think, ‘Why would he want to have sex with me when I wouldn’t want to have sex with me?’” Iovine says. As it turns out, Iovine’s back-fence research among friends revealed that the problem typically isn’t with our mates’ minds but with our own. You nevertheless may not be overcome with desire the minute your doctor gives you the six-week go-ahead to have sex, according to Iovine. “Don’t rush the recovery,” she says. “The desire will come back eventually, within the first year, as will your old body.” And try to remember that your husband probably desires you as much as ever.

3. It’ll Hurt the Baby

“Many women worry that they’ll ‘hurt’ the baby by being active or having sex,” Gise says. The reality is comforting, however: It’s generally safe to do most of the activities you did before pregnancy, from tennis to cycling (just don’t water-ski or take up windsurfing in your fourth month, and you should put off risky sports like downhill skiing and horseback riding). You also can have sex right up to the due date as long as you aren’t experiencing any complications (no, it won’t trigger labor).

4. Having a C–Section

We’ve all heard the stories: 48 hours of labor, followed by a Cesarean section and a mother depressed because she didn’t have a “regular” birth. “It doesn’t mean you flunked childbirth if you have to have a Cesarean section,” Gise says. “It really is safer when something goes wrong — it saves a lot of babies when you need to get them out fast.”

5. Something Will Be Wrong With the Baby

Nature is on your side here: The vast majority of babies are healthy. In fact, only about three in 100 will be born with any sort of birth defect, Gise says. And many of the babies who are born with problems can be helped with surgery, medical therapy or simple TLC.

6. Losing Control

One of the scariest things about pregnancy is the specter of losing control — that in the throes of labor and delivery you’ll scream, curse or barf all over the doctor. And you just might. “Lots of us poop, throw up or scream for drugs,” Iovine says. “Nobody’s grading you.”

7. Taking the Wrong Stuff

This is a biggie. My asthma demanded that I use inhalers during my pregnancies, which caused me needless worry; other women blithely smoke, drink or take cold medicine before they realize they’re pregnant, and then they panic. “Remember that the most serious cause of birth defects is definitely not moms taking medicines, or smoking or drinking — the cause is unknown,” Gise says. “Moms tend to worry too much.” But, she advises, discontinue any medication you can live without once you know you’re pregnant or once you begin trying. And, of course, don’t smoke or drink. Consult with your doctor about which medications you should and shouldn’t take while pregnant.

8. Being a Bad Mother

Here’s how I comforted myself when I was struck with this fear: I got out an old picture of myself at 11 months, beaming from within my dreary, toy-free playpen, where I’m pretty sure I was left for hours on end. Despite having had six kids in seven years, my mother somehow gave us a happy childhood and plenty of love. And in turn, my kids are happy and loving — despite my failings. “Don’t think you have to be perfect,” Iovine says. “Babies respond to day-in, day-out care and love.”

9. Fat Forever

Being 10 pounds overweight is not your destiny, as long as you take charge. “A lot of women say it’s not their fault, that they can’t lose weight after pregnancy,” Gise says. “But usually the problem is that they’re not making time for themselves.” Take care of yourself, exercise and eat right. The weight will take care of itself. Staying in shape during pregnancy helps, too.

10. I Can’t Handle Another Baby

Many women pregnant with their second (or third or fourth) child spend sleepless nights fretting that they won’t have enough love and attention for everybody. This idea isn’t necessarily far-fetched.

“There’s a cliché that there will always be enough to go around, but that’s not true,” Gise says. “There will be times when the needs of one child will come before the other or before the needs of your husband. On the other hand, love does not come in finite quantities, and you can give special love to many.” It’s a balancing act that millions of women have managed, and you will, too.

10 Biggest Surprises

1. The Power of Nesting

Most of us are sideswiped by the urge to nest. Hard-driven businesswomen suddenly feel compelled to regrout the bathroom. Cynthia Goodman, 41, a Los Angeles attorney, found herself painting every room in her house (with water-based paint, of course) before her now 6-year-old son was born. “Try not to do the ridiculous things, but do take care of the shopping, so you can cocoon with the baby later,” Iovine says.

2. Priority Shift

This is a pleasant effect that seems impossible for your prepregnant self to imagine. “You lose interest in the things you used to love,” Gise says. “Who cares about that hot new movie? Your baby just kicked.”

3. Overwhelmed With Love

Nothing will prepare you for the tidal wave of love you will have for this little bitty creature. “This can be a scary thing, because we think that if we lose that love, we’ll die,” Iovine says. “So we spend the next year hovering and taking a pulse and doing everything to make sure that the baby’s OK.”

4. Thin Again

Many women are unprepared for how they will look after childbirth. Muscles take a while to snap back. “After my Cesarean section, my abdomen looked like a Yorkshire pudding,” Iovine says. The happy surprise is that your old self often returns faster than you expected. “I gained 50 pounds, and when I pushed my finger into my puffy foot, the indentation would stay for an hour,” says editor Nancy Gottesman, 40, mother of 3-year-old Robby. “But 10 days after I delivered, I’d lost 40 pounds.” Much of her weight gain was caused by water retention, so it left in a hurry — and her constantly nursing baby took care of the rest.

5. Nursing Really Is Easier

Nursing is one of the best surprises of childbirth. Not only do you get to spend peaceful time with your baby, but you also never have to wash nipples, and there are no worries if you’re out and forget a bottle. Just ask Cathy French, the mother of 1-year-old twins. “When they were born, I was looking at washing, sterilizing, storing and filling 16 bottles a day,” she says. “Nursing them was the best thing I did.”

6. Not Everyone’s Happy You’ve just announced your pregnancy, and you assume that everyone will be thrilled. Not true, Gise says. “Many women are taken aback at the envy, anger and jealousy,” she says. “[Some co-workers] are upset that they might have to do your work.” Revel in the fact that this is your private joy. You’re building a relationship between you and your baby. You may even lose some close friends in the process, but so be it.

7. You Have So Much to Learn

You’ve just brought the baby home. You and your partner look at each other and realize you have no idea what to do next. This one catches all of us by surprise. “Are we allowed to go to the bathroom? Is he breathing all right?” Iovine says. “This is when I bring in the mamas — my grandma, my mom, any mom I can find. Moms understand, and they’ll hold the baby when you need to get a shower.”

8. How Little Sleep You Really Need

You may get less sleep than you ever thought possible, but the amazing thing is how well you’ll cope on so little. “Take those naps!” Gise says. And take heart that in time, you’ll return to a normal sleep routine. (Some couples find that keeping the baby in or near their bed helps, too.)

9. Losing Yourself

So sweeping is your love for your new baby, so deep is your bond, that you may find yourself letting go of some of the most important things in your life — perhaps even your spirit. “Intellectually, you know that it’s a losing proposition to so totally immerse yourself,” Gise says. “Your kids will one day grow up and be gone. Hang on to your life and your spirit. You can still love and care for your child.”

10. Time Really Does Fly

When I was a new mom, nothing annoyed me more than when older folks would chirp, “Treasure these days, for they’ll be gone in a flash!” When you’re neck-deep in dirty diapers and delirious from sleep deprivation, time doesn’t exactly fly by.

The big surprise for me came at my baby’s first birthday; it seemed to arrive in about three months. Now I’m stunned to find myself with an 8-year-old and a 5-year-old. Time is more relative than Albert Einstein ever imagined.