When I picture pregnancy, I rarely picture an ambivalent mother. In fact, with my first pregnancy, I experienced very few mixed feelings and I felt predominantly positive towards the pregnancy itself (though it was not without challenges) and also the idea of expanding our family. But now, I’m currently pregnant with baby number two, and things feel different. I’m feeling ambivalent.
The second time around, I know more about the work that is motherhood, which means I’m much more aware of the impact that a child has on life. This pregnancy was planned, but I’m still very anxious about the upcoming changes in my family.
And though I know all of that is healthy and normal, there is pressure—spoken, unspoken, imagined, obvious—that suggests any feeling about pregnancy other than excitement is synonymous with ingratitude.
We often hear people wonder about the possibility of regretting not expanding their family—the guilt about being ‘one and done’. But what happens when you do decide to have more children and the anxiety and overwhelm start to trickle in? When you’re haunted by questioning statements such as, Am I making a huge mistake? Or…
My marriage already feels so strained since having a child, is having two going to make it worse?
Where am I going to find the time or energy for another child?
Will I ever be able to focus at work?
How will I divide my energy fairly?
Why am I fixing something that isn’t broken? One child is finally feeling manageable.
Anticipating the challenges of balancing two children, work, marriage, household responsibilities and well, life—I often spend hours awake at night wondering how and when this is all supposed to happen.
What is pregnancy ambivalence?
Though it might be taboo to discuss, ambivalence in pregnancy is very common. Studies looking at pregnancy ambivalence, though limited, suggest that we don’t typically subscribe to one reaction in pregnancy or the other—but that our feelings towards pregnancy oscillate at any given moment.
Ambivalence in pregnancy can be understood through a variety of measures, but I think a helpful way to understand it was described through one study as “going back and forth” between strongly positive and strongly negative reactions to pregnancy. It couldn’t be further from a lack of emotions—instead, it feels more like a rollercoaster of negative and positive emotions.
This is consistent with the concept that “two things can be true.” We hold both positive feelings and negative feelings toward pregnancy, without having one feeling be “truer” or more consistent than the other. Sometimes there are days where my emotions are positive and excited, other days, when parenting a toddler feels challenging, I am filled with dread and insecurity about what is to come.
In my personal experience, this has certainly been the case over the past months of my second pregnancy. Knowing what I know now about parenthood, I certainly have my fears—specifically around sleep loss, identity loss, financial impact, fears about the impact of parenthood on work, and of course, concerns about how a new family member will shift our current family dynamic.
What the research shows about family expansion
In examining all of this, I wasn’t only interested in researching pregnancy ambivalence but also the reality of how it feels once you’re on the other side—once your family has expanded. Are bigger families happier? When I took some time to look at the data behind family expansion and happiness, the findings were all over the place; often conflicting. There is data that supports the idea that women are not more satisfied with more than one child versus one. Some analysis suggests that happiness rates are lowest among parents of preschool-aged children, but improves over time.
Another study shows that some men are happier with more than one child, while women are happiest with one and progressively unhappier with more.
Perhaps the most disheartening analysis of existing data suggests a decline in marital health which worsens with each additional child, suggesting that the time and freedom it takes to account for the new addition is likely withdrawn from the couples’ alone time.
And yet, I feel this biological pull toward expanding our family—even though I know logically, practically and emotionally it is going to be difficult. I know in my heart it is right for my family, but my mind is just trying to solve for practicality.
How to cope with pregnancy ambivalence
In moments of doubt, I always turn to other mothers. In particular, I spoke with several mothers who experienced this transition from one to two children recently and are still in the adjustment phase. Here are some of the most common anecdotal experiences they shared, especially as it relates to the first few months.
- Don’t be surprised by feeling rage or resentment toward your toddler when the baby is born.
This may happen for reasons which are largely biologically based, like wanting and needing to protect a newborn. I’ve been told that the intensity of these feelings dissipates after a few months, but that the guilt for having those feelings at all is hard to manage.
- Don’t be surprised if you resent the impact of the baby on your relationships.
Contrary (or perhaps in addition to point number one), there is a longing for one-on-one time with your toddler and the ability to be present. It can often feel like the baby is the source of conflict between you and your toddler, and it’s hard not to feel like things were easier before the baby joined the family.
- Don’t be surprised if you really resent your partner.
This one came as no surprise to me after my experience with baby number one, but the mental load of managing two or more children takes some serious getting used to. It also takes frequent communication, delegation and reorganization.
- Your patience will feel limited in the beginning.
I heard from almost everyone I spoke with that they felt an intense lack of patience and warmth in the early months, due to overall exhaustion. I was reassured that over time, as sleep restores some semblance of normalcy and routines start to settle, patience starts to feel progressively more attainable.
- The guilt is real—and challenging.
It’s hard to hear that I should prepare for a level of guilt that I may have never previously experienced, but it’s also comforting to know that it feels like a universal, or at least, very common experience. One common example of guilt during this adjustment is feeling like neither child is getting good or sufficient attention. Hearing that this experience was very common across the board is a good reminder that these feelings are normal, but that doesn’t make them true.
I feel compelled to add that almost all of these experiences were followed by “but it gets better”. Plus, plenty of reminders that seeing the children together brings an overwhelming feeling of love.
Big change takes time to process
Sometimes when ambivalence arises, the most comforting thought is knowing that having doubts is a completely healthy and appropriate way of processing and planning for change that is inevitable.
For now, I am trying to enjoy the months I have left with my son as my only child, and really savor the long stretches of sleep which will be (temporarily) compromised. Becoming a parent was the most difficult challenge of my life so far, but I am stronger for it. I am looking forward to seeing the ways that I grow emotionally as my family expands.
So mama, if you’re reading this and you’re nervous, scared or ambivalent, just know you’re not alone. Know that it doesn’t mean you’re not equipped to handle this challenge. There are certainly parenting seasons that are more challenging than others, but we’ll get the hang of it. We always do.
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