“Your blood pressure is still high,” the midwife said. “Have you been stressed about anything?”
I laughed, picturing myself four days early, at 38 weeks pregnant, hoisting a couch up the stairs to the second-floor apartment that my husband and I were moving into. I knew, in the moment, that it wasn’t the brightest idea, but I was also determined: let’s just get this done.
I had never intended to move during the last weeks of my pregnancy, but planning only goes so far, especially when you’re working with limited financial resources. My husband and I had signed a lease on this apartment that was supposed to start two months earlier, giving us time to settle in before bringing home baby. But when the previous tenants refused to vacate, the landlord needed to go through a full eviction process, leaving me homeless (but living with family) while the courts figured it out. The stress of not knowing if we’d get into our new home before baby — coupled with the financial stress of not having money to find another option — was overwhelming.
And now it was showing. The midwife ordered me to bedrest, but I had a house full of boxes. I was still supposed to be working full time. I didn’t follow doctor’s orders. My blood pressure had been perfect throughout my pregnancy, but less than a week after the move, it spiked again and I was induced.
Research is teaching us about how devastating maternal stress can be
Right now, scientists are beginning to understand the ways that maternal stress can impact pregnancy outcomes, and even a child’s health for years to come. We all know that stress is bad for us, but research shows it’s so much worse than we thought: the stress that moms experience can be passed on to their children and impact them throughout their lives.
A team of researchers at UCLA had been doing very interesting work on this. Recently, they found that mothers who are stressed during their pregnancies have children that age faster throughout their lives. Ultimately, that can lead to the development of chronic diseases, and ultimately early death.
As if that’s not scary enough, the same team found that women’s stress levels and mental health even before they get pregnant affect pregnancy outcomes. Women with high stress levels before conception were more likely to have premature births, which can put children at risk for life-long health effects.
“An important takeaway from this work is that prenatal and preconception maternal health and well-being are critically important for the health of the infant,” study author Judith Carroll said.
Addressing disparities without blaming
As an infant, my first daughter had a slew of health concerns. She just was not a very happy baby. And I couldn’t help but wonder what impact my stressful pregnancy had on her. I wondered if people blamed me, something that was indirectly confirmed a few years later when my mom asked me if I thought a friend’s stressful pregnancy was responsible for her son’s health issue.
It’s super important that we understand how maternal health impacts intergenerational health. Knowing about this could help us address disparities in health outcomes for people of color and poor people, who very well may be impacted by stress before they are even born.
However, we need to be so careful in how we talk about the evils of maternal stress. We can’t tell women to just “reduce their stress” or let them think that they may have impacted their children’s wellbeing. We need to look at this at a society-wide level, rather than individually. We as a society need to step up to change an environment that contributes to maternal stress, just like we would clean up a toxic spill.
“If we as a society can make changes to help give pregnant women the resources they need and provide them with a safe and supportive environment before and during pregnancy, we may have a significant impact on the health of their children,” Carroll said.
Sometimes, I still get pulled into guilt about my first pregnancy. My second pregnancy was a breeze by comparison, and my younger daughter was happy and healthy from the start. Was her intrauterine experience just that much more blissful? But when I find myself wondering “what if,” I remind myself that I did the best I could with the circumstances that I was given — something most moms do — and I couldn’t be expected to do more than that.