Pregnancy marks the beginning of a huge life shift, but we don't always approach it that way. These are the best ways to prepare yourself for motherhood.

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Credit: Illustration: Yeji Kim.

Before I got pregnant with my daughter Sunday in October of 2019, I knew just about what most young women in this country who spend their 20s actively preventing pregnancy do about becoming a mother: next to nothing. 

Of course, I didn't think that at the time. I had babysat and nannied! I had "always wanted" to be a mom! I had changed my little sister's diapers! I had a cousin with baby twins!

But the truth is, even as a reporter who regularly wrote stories about women's health, reproductive health, and pregnancy, I never felt more in the dark than when I was pregnant. I spent most of my first trimester sick. The emotions I thought I'd feel (elation! excitement!) weren't there in the levels I expected. Pregnancy seemed to take away that which I loved (running). I didn't really like being pregnant, I didn't dare admit it, and I didn't know where to turn. 

So, in June of 2019, after giving birth to my daughter, I became an integrative health coach with a specialization in perinatal mental health and started my company Dear Sunday, named after her. I do prenatal and postnatal coaching and run webinars and virtual mom groups. But mostly, I educate women about the transformative process of becoming a mother.

I think that preparing for pregnancy is often something that's missed in the reproductive journey—and I strongly believe that if you're better informed before you get pregnant, you can have a better motherhood experience overall.

Here are five things I wish everyone knew before they got pregnant.

Your Emotions Around a Positive Pregnancy Test Might Surprise You

When I found out I was pregnant with my daughter Sunday I cried. They weren't happy tears. I don't always like admitting that but I think it's important to be honest about the vast array of experiences and emotions women can have throughout pregnancy. 

I remember so vividly sitting in the small apartment my husband and I shared, thinking, "Had I made a mistake?" and "Did I really want this?" From there, the thoughts spiraled from the practical ("we were going to have to move") to the anxious ("what if I miscarried?"). 

I'd only ever imagined a pregnancy, especially a planned one (which this one was), to come with positive emotions. I was surprised when it didn't. Worse, I felt guilt creep in. Knowing a few friends who were struggling with infertility, I wondered, "Who am I to feel this way?"

It's hard to know how you're going to feel in any given moment until you, well, feel that way. And many women feel many different ways about a positive pregnancy test. What's also true: Pregnancy marks the beginning of a big life change. So, it's OK—it's normal—to have pause, angst, or emotions you don't expect surrounding that. 

But what I really wish someone told me at that moment: Let big changes set in—and try not to have expectations or judgements about what they should or should not feel like. 

Your Experience Might Not Be What You Pictured It To Be

Beyond the obvious physical changes of pregnancy, I didn't expect many of the uncomfortable symptoms that came my way: swelling, heartburn, hemorrhoids. Many women don't. (I also likely suffered from hyperemesis gravidarum (HG), an extreme form of nausea and vomiting, in both of my pregnancies.)

And more often than not, that's how it goes: Your pregnancy and motherhood experience is going to be different than you thought it was going to be. That's especially true now. Pictured in-person prenatal classes and showing off your bump to friends? You could be struggling to come to terms with a lack of opportunities to do either in a pandemic. Thought you'd enjoy every moment of pregnancy and don't? You might end up feeling confused or guilty.

Everyone's experience in pregnancy (and every subsequent pregnancy) is different. But I've found pregnancy—especially a first pregnancy and especially now—to be a test in tolerating the great unknown as well as the unexpected.

In the 1950s, a pediatrician named Donald Winnicott coined the phrase the "good enough mother." The idea is that there's no such thing as perfection in motherhood, nor should there be. Good enough is good enough. I think this sentiment can be applied to other aspects of parenthood, too, and I try to remind women that it's OK for their experience to be simply "good enough."

Becoming a Mom Is a Massive Life Change

You likely have some idea of how a child will change your life. But becoming a mother marks the beginning of one of the most significant physical, psychological, and physiological transformations of your life. Anthropologists call it matrescence and liken it to adolescence. Matrescence impacts every aspect of who you are from your brain and your body and which hormones circulate throughout to how you interact with your partner, friends, and family.

Yet, we don't always give women the space to process this huge shift. Often, it's simply assumed that joy is the reigning emotion. (Scroll through the comments on any Instagram pregnancy announcement and you'll see what I mean.) And pregnancy is joyful. But what I've also found to be common among moms and moms-to-be is the emotion of ambivalence, having both strong "positive" feelings (gratefulness, excitement) and strong "negative" ones (fear, worry). Ambivalence is normal. It often continues far into motherhood ("I am so fulfilled and so exhausted"). 

Perinatal Mood and Anxiety Disorders (PMADs) Are Common, Treatable, and Can Start in Pregnancy

You usually get lots of medical tests in pregnancy—screenings for sexually transmitted infections (STIs), a test for gestational diabetes, a swab for group B strep. But while The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends screening for PMADs at least once in the perinatal period, not all women are screened. That's despite the fact that gestational diabetes, for instance, impacts between 2 and 10 percent of women, and PMADs—which can show up in pregnancy or postpartum—impact anywhere from one in five to one in seven.

If your health care professional doesn't screen you for these common mental health conditions, you can ask for a screening. And if you've noticed your mood change, have symptoms that are getting in the way of your day-to-day, or have symptoms that persist more than two weeks postpartum, reach out for support.

Postpartum Support International, for one, has a 1-800 number as well as a provider directory that lists thousands of mental health professionals trained in perinatal mental health. PMADs are highly treatable through a mix of therapy, support, and medication.

You'll Appreciate Having a Postpartum Plan

Much of the planning that's talked about in pregnancy is centered around labor and delivery. Delivering a baby is a massive physical feat.

But a postpartum plan pays off in dividends. Today, there are more companies that offer the essentials you'll need in those raw early days (Frida, Bodily), directories that connect you with perinatal experts ranging from pelvic floor therapists to lactation specialists, and online platforms like Dear Sunday that offer educational resources and virtual social groups.

I always ask moms-to-be what they have for themselves on their registry. Although it's far more difficult to weigh risks and benefits amidst a pandemic, a doula or a night nurse is some of the best money you can spend in my opinion. 

One of the hardest parts about becoming a parent during this pandemic is that parenthood requires support and love and often lots of extra hands. But even today, there are simple ways to find help and support postpartum: Have loved ones drop off food, find a trusted ear you can turn to (even by phone), enlist the help of professionals virtually. And be OK doing it! A perinatal educator who's become a friend throughout the years once told me that we go through different seasons of giving and receiving in life and that when you become a mother, you're in the season of receiving. It's something healing to keep in mind.

Cassie Shortsleeve is a freelance writer, a health coach, and founder of the online motherhood platform Dear Sunday. Follow along on Instagram at @dearsundaymotherhood.