The Waiting Game

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How Do I Stop Looking For My Depression In Our Kid?

It’s inevitable that I will look for myself in him, root around for signs of what came before, but I also owe him more than that.

Even before I knew what depression was, my life was defined by its heavy shadow. Most of my early memories are sketched in the shades of my mother’s shifting moods, of watching her draw the curtains on herself. Her illness shaped our family dynamics and trained us all in the art of tiptoeing. Sometimes I feel like I’ve spent half my life holding my breath and am just now learning how to let it go.

I was 16 when I began to understand the contours of depression in a more intimate way, feeling its grip on my own brain, beckoning me to draw the curtains on myself. I still felt alone and unequipped when it came for me. But my mom was so understanding, so prepared for it, that I wonder now if she always knew or if she was just holding her breath, too.

In my lowest moments, I felt like I’d inherited a curse, a kind of familial terror braided through my DNA. And when I started thinking about having a child, I wondered if I was already betraying this non-existent person by passing on my intergenerational pain. Was it fair? Did it have to be?

Obviously, depression doesn’t preclude you from parenthood, but I worried a lot about what I’d be passing on and how to talk to my kids about it. Would I arm them with the knowledge that they may struggle with depression one day, outline its shape so they can recognize it when they see it? Or is it better to just watch and wait like my own mother did, look for the signs it’s already there and map the contours for them once they’ve arrived? Of course, this was all just amorphous anxiety barreling through my mind; it didn’t really mean anything. Then I got pregnant.

We tried to reassure each other with best laid plans, promised to be better than our parents about mental health, promised to see our son in his totality.

Throughout my first pregnancy, I drove alone a lot, slinking around the city listening to a long-perfected sad girl mix, imagining the kind of person I was growing inside of me. I wasn’t filled with glowing hope or unimpeachable optimism; I was holding my breath again, wondering how or if I’d talk to him about these feelings I sometimes feel, that he might one day feel, too.

My husband and I talked about it in whispers, late at night. We tried to reassure each other with best laid plans, promised to be better than our parents about mental health, promised to see our son in his totality.

When he did arrive I remember peering so closely at him, as close as our faces could get, trying to see if it was in there, if I could tell what kind of disposition he might already have. Our birthdays are just days apart. He’s so much like me — would he be too much like me?

Having kids is like holding death so close you can hear him rattle, a constant reminder of your mortality and theirs. I spent so many of those first few months with a constant buzz in the background, wondering if he was OK, agonizing over every choice I’d made that day/week/month. Tallying all the ways in which I’d already let him down.

I’d leave my son wailing at day care drop-off, sobbing myself the entire train ride to work, imagining all the future harm I was creating. Worrying that these drop-offs would form the first layer of his inevitable therapy journey. I punished myself anytime I heard from his day care that he was struggling with transitions or cripplingly shy. I gave that to him, I’d think to myself. I made him like that.

Every day I relive some new painful part of my childhood through his experiences, and I have to remind myself that things are different for him...

But as the years passed, something new was being carved out, a giggle and a booming belly laugh were unearthed, an uncanny ability for impressions and a sly, knowing understanding of the world around him. A fervent kindness, a love of bugs and other creepy-crawlies, a passion for Spider-Man. He was taking form in front of me and was already beyond my idea of him, the one that was so shaped by my worries. The stinging anxiety about what he might inherit from my blood was already being replaced with eager joy about the parts of my family he was giving new life to.

A new chapter at school has brought the flood of fear back. I have to keep myself from lecturing his classmates about being good to my kid, restrain myself from explaining away his shyness or try to fix his loneliness. Every day I relive some new painful part of my childhood through his experiences, and I have to remind myself that things are different for him, that there are better ways of dealing with whatever may come in these next few years.

It’s hard not to feel like there’s a countdown hovering over both of us. Will he be 16, like I was, when depression finds him, if it does? I still haven’t figured out exactly what to say or how to say it, figured out the right sequence of words that will magically make it easier for him if it does happen. But in seeing what is so unequivocally him take form over these last few years, I’ve been trying to worry less, to understand what connects us through our genes as a promise not a burden. It’s inevitable that I will look for myself in him, root around for signs of what came before, but I also owe him more than that. He’s his own person, as separate from me as I am from my own mother. What connects us to each other doesn’t have to doom or confine us. In the same way that we grow into ourselves as new parents, stop holding our breath to make sure our newborns are still breathing, I’m learning to step back and see him and me for who we are and not what we might be.