When you’re diagnosed with clinical depression and generalized anxiety, your mental health intersects with all of your identities in complex ways. I’m excited to dive into the intersection of my mental health with one of my most important life roles. My hope is that other mothers who struggle with mental illness will experience the same catharsis reading this that I feel writing it. I am sure that like myself, their womanhood and the expectations placed upon it by society informs much of the anxiety they experience as mothers.
Through the hindsight extensive therapy and treatment has provided me as an adult, I can recognize that I’ve been anxious my entire life. My depression as far as I can remember took form in high school (then paired with body dysmorphia), increased during my college years, and peaked in my early 20s. It was then that I accepted the inadequacy of my coping skills and therapy. I needed to pair them with medication. I got my referral, went to a psychiatrist, and was prescribed Zoloft. Once adjusted to the medicine, I felt like a new person. My brain which normally spun until I was dizzied by my own anxious thoughts finally felt balanced and peaceful. For the first time I was able to process and manage my mental health. Then, two months after starting my medication, I became pregnant. It was unexpected and it was terrifying.
I was just starting to get a hold on my adult life, just learning to care for myself through my disability and now I had a new, weighty, and lengthy responsibility to another person. I was afraid I’d have to stop taking my medicine and that I would pass my disabilities on to my child. I was afraid that my illness would make me a neglectful parent despite my best intentions. While most parents have anxieties and fears regarding their child’s health and future, this is heightened and more debilitating when you’re living with mental illness. For a while, I considered terminating the pregnancy. I was convinced I wouldn’t be able to provide any child with the life they deserved. I was plagued with morning sickness, hot flashes, and night terrors. I was overwhelmed by the prospect of nine months without control of my body let alone years of parental responsibility. I felt resentful to the excitement of the people around me which felt like pressure to be happy. I felt guilty for my own thoughts and emotions because I had so many dear friends that longed to be pregnant with a healthy baby. All I wanted to do was sleep and cry.
My experience being depressed and pregnant taught me my first lessons of motherhood with mental illness and these lessons have all held true in the 14 months since my daughter was born.
1) Be honest and gracious with yourself: one of the blessings of pregnancy and motherhood is they require you to prioritize yourself and your health in a new way. When your body is sending you a dozen strong signals that you need more water, sleep, or food to nourish the life you’re creating, you try your best to oblige. On those days when my depression made me apathetic and unwilling to meet my body’s needs, I extended grace to myself. By giving myself relief from the must do’s I was able to tame my anxiety around the pregnancy and lower my level of stress, thus caring for myself in a different way.
One of the symptoms of my depression and anxiety is the need for isolation and silence. I’m extremely sensitive to sensory input and too much makes me feel sick. There are nights when I would rather clean the entire house three times than do bath and bedtime with my daughter. There are times when her cries seem too loud or her hugs seem too smothering and I’ve found that naming these things allows me to navigate them. If I name that I just need some time in silence, I can ask my spouse (who is truly wonderful) to do bath/bedtime while I do the baby’s laundry. It is still an act of love. It is still a key part of my role. It doesn’t make me less of a mom and it allows me to wake up the next morning fully engaged and present with her, ready to give and receive the affection she needs.
2) Don’t feel guilty for what you don’t control: guilt serves no purpose other than to destroy you. I spent a lot of time feeling guilty about my daughter having to be at daycare because I worked, despite loving my job and having zero interest in being a stay at home mom. I wouldn’t go to the gym after work knowing that exercise helped with my depression because I didn’t want to have even more time away from her. I dragged my feet on hiring a babysitter despite my desperate need for a night out or time with my spouse because I felt I hadn’t earned it. I allowed foolish unwritten rules about motherhood to increase my anxiety and blind me from seeing what everyone around me marveled at constantly- my child is happy. She is full of joy and love. She adores both her parents. She likes the time she has with other children at daycare. I had no reason to feel guilty and several reasons to feel proud.
3) Ignore the opinions of the masses: I took my Zoloft throughout my pregnancy and after while exclusively breastfeeding my baby. I am grateful for doctors that were supportive and progressive. While I admire natural parenting and practice some bits like cloth diapering and cosleeping, I delivered in a hospital with the aid of medication. All of these things allowed me to lower my anxiety and better manage my depression. They made me a better mother. Mamas- you know yourselves and your children best. Feel liberated by that truth.
4) Don’t be afraid or ashamed to ask for (or even demand) help: you don’t have to do it all alone. If you’re living with illness or disability, you often cannot do it alone. Communicate your struggles and your needs so that you can remain sane and model that practice for your young ones. I spent almost two months earlier this year in a partial hospitalization program for mental health. I felt so defeated and embarrassed when I started. I worried about how people would view me as a mother, a co-worker, or a leader if they knew. But I was at a breaking point. I had no motivation to care for myself or anyone else. I chose to seek help over neglecting myself and my family and I’m so glad I did. The treatment I received changed my life. I was no longer a depressed mom. I was a mom who lived with and managed her depression. I had new inspiration. I had new community. I had new confidence and joy in my role of mother. For the first time, I felt deserving of the gift of my daughter and that I too could be a gift to her- mentally ill and all.