Despite all advice and evidence to the contrary, I carelessly thought some of my struggles with depression wouldn't accompany me into parenthood. Like many folx socialized female, I'd wanted to be a mother always. I'd rock baby-dolls, turn GI Joes into nurturing parents and children, and make my Barbies have babies. I was pretty much obsessed with the idea of being a mother. My life-long struggle with depression was conceptualized separately from my ideal of motherhood. What I had to come to terms with (quickly) were the reasons why taking antidepressants has made me a more confident parent.
It is common for folx with mental illness to question the necessity of medication to help manage their mood. This may be associated with our cultural stigma related to mental illness and the idea that taking a daily medication is a sign of mental or emotional weakness. For me, I had to do a ton of therapeutic work just to make it to the point (in my early 20s) where I would consent to even try medication. I, like many others, went through several rounds of going off the medication to handle things on my own because I erroneously thought I should be stronger than the depression (side note: all bullsh*t story lines I had to work past with the help of professionals). In my late 20s I finally began to associate empowerment with taking my meds every day. Doing so didn't make me weak, on the contrary it was a revolutionary act of radical self-care.
Enter parenthood. Unfortunately, the stigma against mental illness places an even greater burden on pregnant people and parents. Though there has been an increase in understanding and acceptance around postpartum depression, pre-existing depression in parents isn't given as much cultural attention. The problem with that is, generally, postpartum depression ends, major depressive disorder does not. Navigating pregnancy and parenthood with depression is a lifelong endeavor. As a therapist and a person who has been pregnant six times, I have heard all sorts of horror stories related to professionals interacting with pregnant people on medication for a mental health issue. The most extreme of which are the doctors who have told their pregnant patients they will not see them during pregnancy if the pregnant person doesn't immediately wean off psychotropic medications. People: this is not OK. What research tells us is that the risk of an unmedicated depressed pregnant person is equal to or greater than the risk of that medicine on the fetus. This does not include the increased risk of a majorly depressed person for suicide.
But the stigma of a pregnant person taking medication still persists. Even as a third year graduate student in counseling psychology with access to this research, I immediately stopped my medication when I found out I was pregnant. All of my providers heartily encouraged this ill-conceived idea. I didn't go back on medication until the beginning of second trimester. Most nights I lay in bed exhausted, unable to sleep out of the fear the dark tentacles of my depression were strangling my fetus. I found myself in front of a coffee shop waiting for my mentor shaking and questioning my grip on reality. With that mentor's compassionate support I made the call to get back on medication not only for myself and my career, but for the child I hoped would come out of this pregnancy. It is within this context I offer my list of why taking anti-depressants makes me a better parent.
Kids Need Their Parents To Be Present
It's no surprise that when someone's depressed, they are unable to be present-centered most of the time. Present-centeredness, though potentially healing, can also be excruciatingly painful for the depressed person. Kids absolutely don't get that, and absolutely shouldn't have to. My kids fundamentally need me to be able to look them in the eye or crawl on the ground and mindfully interact with them. There is so much going on in the world to distract the modern parent from being present for their kids, a treatable issue with my mind shouldn't be one of them.
Staying In Bed All Day Is Not An Option
Depression exists with a myriad of symptoms and not all people experience depression in the same way. One of the ways my depression shows up is a complete lack of motivation. In graduate school and pre-parenthood, there would be days I laid on the mattress in my studio apartment all day and binge-watched Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Depression made me physically unable to move.
Have you ever tried to stay in bed all day when you have children? Chances are, if your kids are like mine, that would simply never happen.
Depression Increases Irritability
A couple years ago I decided to come off my anti-depressants again. I know what you must be thinking by now: haven't you learned your lesson?! Well, apparently one of the ways my depression shows up for me is by whispering that it no longer exists and I'm safe to be unmedicated. (Insert eye roll and exasperated sigh).
By this time I had a 5 year old and a 3 year old. I had somehow developed the misinformed idea that I was unable to love them fully while on medication. (Side note: folx out there with depression, this is never true! It's totally a lie my depression told me to do its bidding.) During the almost-year I was off my medication my relationship with my partner became unbearable because the irritability that I thought I was able to keep away from my kids and my clients had to be released somewhere. (Sorry, babe.) Eventually, however, my eldest came to me and said: "Mama, you used to be so nice to me. What happened? Don't you like me anymore?"
Seriously. Heartbreaking. I made the call to my doctor the next day and vowed never again.
Remember the first few months of having a newborn? If you're anything like me, the sleep deprivation literally drives you to the brink of hallucinatory insanity. Well, with depression-induced insomnia there is no light at the end of the tunnel. Parenting like that is nearly impossible during the time I have a newborn, there's no way that would ever be sustainable long-term.
Healthy Food Choices Are Vital
Depression wrecks havoc on one's appetite, whether you eat nothing or you eat everything. I happen to be a depressed person who eats everything. Well, that's not quite true. I eat everything made of sugar and salt to the exclusion of everything green or grown in the ground. Since we know kids learn best by modeling behavior how on earth am I supposed to teach my children to eat healthy when I have jelly beans and potato chips for dinner?
One of the things I most value in parenting is teaching my children emotional intelligence. That is, it's OK to feel what you're feeling. Let's learn adaptive ways to express and communicate those feelings while growing as a wholehearted person. (Think Brene Brown.)
Put simply, the aforementioned is not possible with active depression. Everything in my emotional life is stunted and numb, mashed down into a pulverized black dust. If I can't feel it and do it, I can't teach it.
My Partner Needs Me To Show Up
If you've agreed to parent children with someone, you expect that person(s) to show up and do the work. My partner needs me to show up as a parent as much as I need him to show up.
Sure, we definitely each have our days where one of us needs to take a break. Sometimes one of us shoulders more of the parenting responsibilities than the other. This is an ebb and flow, give and take of balancing parenting with another human. It would be unrealistic to expect both of us to be on 100 percent of the time. (Side note: shout out to all the single parents out there! Ya'll deserve all the props!) However, it is also not fair to my kids or to my partner for me to peace out all the time because I'm depressed.
Self-Care Is Essential
Again, here is a place where modeling is the best way I'm going to be able to teach my children valuable life skills. If I don't take care of myself they will think that's the way adults behave. When they're adults, therefore, that's how they'll behave. I don't know about you, but I desperately want my children to take really excellent care of themselves when they're adults. I want them to love themselves so much that others are brightened by their light.
Laughter Is Medicine
I can't laugh when I'm depressed. My children deserve my laughter.
Mental Health Is Nothing To Be Ashamed Of
I grew up in a time and an environment where the stigma against mental illness was enforced in overt and covert ways. Some of the messages included: only really sick or problematic people go to therapy; if you're strong you don't need mood medication; all drugs are bad - needed or not; if you're depressed you're doing something wrong; and, if you tried harder/did more/exercised you wouldn't be depressed. Knowing that mental health issues have a genetic component there's a high likelihood that at least one of my three children will be affected by anxiety or depression in their lifetime. I want them to know that there is no shame in asking for support and taking care of their mental health just as they would their physical health. One way I can do that is by modeling the importance and taking care of my own mental health.