When I was three months pregnant, a slice of cheese made me burst into tears. It wasn't even an actual piece of cheese -- just the idea of it. I was still in that phase when most foods made me gag, and after I ordered a plain turkey wrap at the diner, I became irrationally convinced that the cook was going to sneak in an unwanted slice of Swiss. As my husband tried to calm me down, I got more hysterical, convinced that my dinner would be ruined and he just didn't understand what I was going through!
Had an alien invaded my brain as well as my belly? Nope, I was simply experiencing the dramatic mood swings of pregnancy. Between soaring hormone levels and the enormous physical and emotional changes we go through when we're pregnant, it's no wonder that during pregnancy, we find ourselves sobbing, laughing, and forgetting our own name—sometimes all within a few minutes. Here's what to expect.
As soon as you realize there's a baby brewing in your belly, you can ride a roller coaster of emotions: excitement, fear, delight, worry. Add to that the exhaustion and nausea prevalent in the first trimester, plus a massive surge of hormones, and your moods can swing faster than an Olympic gymnast on the high bar. "Estrogen and progesterone are skyrocketing at the beginning of your pregnancy," says Lucy Puryear, M.D., psychiatrist and author of Understanding Your Moods When You're Expecting. "The changes have big effects on your mood. You can be tearful one minute and happy the next." Kathleen, a mom of one in New York City, remembers those days well: "I would have what I called 'the 10-minute meltdown,'" she recalls. "All the stress in my life would merge, and I'd sob hysterically for 10 minutes. Then it was over, and I'd happily go on with my day."
While the crying jags can be set off by legitimate worries—can I afford this baby? Will I ever be able to sleep late again?—the silliest things can also trigger them (ahem, my cheese breakdown). Moms report bursting into tears over TV commercials, pictures of babies in clothing ads, an old song on the radio: outbursts that can make you question your own sanity. "You're wearing your emotions on your fingertips, so you're much more reactive to everything," says Jennifer L. Hartstein, Ph.D., a family therapist in New York City. "After your meltdown, you can get freaked out, thinking, What is wrong with me? This will get you upset all over again. Just remember that it's normal, and try to laugh it off and move on."
The early stages of pregnancy also bring another puzzling symptom, known to moms simply as "baby brain." Progesterone, at sky-high levels during this phase, is a calming hormone, Dr. Puryear explains, but it can also cause fogginess and forgetfulness. "When I was pregnant with Parker, I once put my older son Peter's Legos in the refrigerator, and then I tried to serve him a cup of keys to drink!" says Caroline, a mom of two who lives in Oklahoma City.
After you're through the difficult first trimester, you cruise into the best part: "You can finally tell other people you're pregnant!" points out Hartstein. Morning sickness dissipates, you start to show, which means that even strangers treat you like a celebrity, and you begin to feel the baby move. The abstract idea of "baby?" becomes the exciting idea of "baby!" If you find out the gender, the baby may seem even more real. At this point, you are likely to find yourself beaming from ear to ear, laughing out loud in the middle of a dull meeting, and ravishing your husband in the bedroom (more blood flowing through your body can make you feel more sexual, Dr. Puryear says).
Once you get closer to your due date, your euphoria can morph into crabbiness as you grow larger, making sleep an impossible task. You may start to worry about the actual mechanics of childbirth ("This has to come out of there?") as well as the huge life changes that are right around the corner. At this point you might snap at everyone, especially your partner, who is probably clueless about how to help. I am not too proud of the time I insisted my husband go out at 11 p.m. and not return until he found me a chocolate doughnut.
The other major manifestation of the loonies at this stage is the powerful urge to clean and organize. This is due both to an increase of oxytocin, the nesting hormone that prepares your uterus for labor and your breasts for nursing, and a sort of emotional last stand. "Your whole world is about to change, so you think, What can I control?" says Hartstein. "You're trying to put in order a world that is about to become extremely chaotic." Moms have told me about scrubbing the floor until it shone and refolding every towel in the linen closet. Sometimes these nesting instincts can take on comic proportions: "About two weeks before I was due, I suddenly decided I had to bake for all the people who would come to see the baby," says Jennifer, a New York mom of one. "I panicked that we would have nothing to feed them, so I spent hours in the kitchen, baking about 12 dozen cookies. We still have some. Want any?"
Whether you're sobbing at Pampers commercials or maniacally folding laundry, here are some ways to get through the crazies:
Know that it's normal. Whoever said that pregnancy should mean 24/7 bliss was never pregnant. Accept the fact that you will be happy sometimes, stressed out and worried other times. It has nothing to do with how much you'll love the baby.
Talk to other moms. Find a support group in person or online, or make a weekly (decaf) coffee date with another pregnant friend so you can compare notes and laugh at each other's nuttiness.
Pamper yourself. Yes, you have lots to do, but make sure you block out time to relax by reading a favorite book or getting a pregnancy massage.
Help your partner help you. Instead of becoming angry that he doesn't instinctively know how to help, give him some tips. ("Honey, when I am crying, I need you to get me a cup of herbal tea, and then quietly back out of the room.")
Seek help when needed. "If you're crying consistently and feeling down for more than two weeks without any pleasurable moments in between, or feeling worthless or hopeless, ask your healthcare provider for help," urges Dr. Puryear, who points out that women can start having symptoms of postpartum depression before the baby is born.
Marisa Cohen, a mother of two, is a writer in New York City.