When I was pregnant, a friend from out of town came for a visit. "Wow, you're glowing," she said when she saw me. "It seems like pregnancy is really agreeing with you."
I cocked my head to the side, trying to think of the best way to respond. I wished so badly that what she was saying was true, but the truth was that pregnancy was not agreeing with me at all — not just physically, but emotionally as well. I was utterly and completely miserable. I was forced to admit that there was more going on than just pain and the nausea. I had prenatal depression, and honestly, I really should have gotten treatment, but I never did.
At first, I was really looking forward to pregnancy. I had always wanted to be a mom, and it was exciting to finally be on my way to living that dream. Maybe it was my inner hippie, or maybe I had just seen one too many stock images of pregnant women smiling serenely in fields, but I imagined that pregnancy would be this magical time of bonding with my growing fetus, and I would feel more spiritually attuned and more in touch with my body. The idea of making a baby filled me with hope and optimism. I couldn’t imagine it in a negative light at all.
Then I got pregnant, and it turned out it totally sucked. Less than a week after I saw my positive pregnancy test, the first pangs of nausea started. It went from bad to worse, and soon enough my midwife diagnosed me with a case of hyperemesis gravidarum, a.k.a. severe morning sickness. My illness kept me home from work, and then it kept me from doing pretty much anything else. It also meant that when I found myself debilitatingly depressed around my second trimester, I assumed that I was just bummed out about my physical symptoms, and that soon enough I would be fine.
According to The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, somewhere between 14% and 23% of women experience some symptoms of depression during pregnancy. Because of all of the hormonal changes during pregnancy, prenatal depression (which is also referred to as antenatal depression) can be difficult to spot, especially because the symptoms, such as fatigue, are similar to typical pregnancy symptoms. For that reason, it often goes undiagnosed.
In my case, as the pregnancy progressed, I got more and more depressed. Halfway through, I had to admit that I wasn’t just feeling a little blue — I was experiencing a full-on depressive episode. I did my research and learned that gestating parents with prenatal depression are more likely to develop postpartum depression after giving birth, and that totally freaked me out. I told my wife we would have to be super vigilant and watch out for the signs of postpartum depression once the baby was born, but still, I didn’t consider seeking out treatment for my own depression.
I saw my depression as part and parcel with my experience of being pregnant, something to be endured for nine months until the baby arrived and everything would be fine.
I told myself that what I was going through, while not great, was really quite minor. I told myself that I didn’t have the emotional energy for therapy, and that antidepressants might be bad for the baby and weren’t worth the risk. (As it turns out, a new study from the Journal of the American Medical Association indicates that the risks of taking antidepressants during pregnancy might be lower than previously thought.)
But most of all, I told myself over and over again that no matter how bad my depression was, it was just temporary. I saw my depression as part and parcel with my experience of being pregnant, something to be endured for nine months until the baby arrived and everything would be fine. I thought the best thing I could do for my child was to just wait it out.
A month after my son was born, I had my gallbladder removed due to a nasty case of gallstones. I was still overwhelmed by physical problems, and my body was totally and completely wrecked. I started to feel the first signs of depression, but I once again convinced myself that it was totally in my head. All I needed to do was wait until my body felt a little better, and then I'd be back to normal.
A week later, things got so bad that I realized it was time to admit I had a problem. I called the doctor and got a prescription for Zoloft. I believe it might have saved my life.
These days, the little baby that came into the world in the midst of all that turmoil is a growing toddler. I try very hard not to regret the choices that I made at the time, but it’s hard. I can't help but wonder how my life might have been different if I had taken the initiative to seek out help, get some counseling, or maybe even go on medication earlier. In retrospect, I feel a little bit bad that I didn’t think my feelings were important enough to address head-on.
When you're a mom, it's easy to dismiss your parenting struggles as only temporary. But the reality is that everything in life is temporary, and we can’t live our lives hoping for some imaginary future scenario when everything will magically get easier.
When I look back on my pregnancy now, my refusal to admit that I had a problem reminds me of all the ways that parents are told (and tell ourselves, and each other) that what we are going through doesn’t matter. Every time a mother mentions that her baby won't stop crying and is told only that it's just a phase and to cherish her time with him while she still can, she is being told that her feelings don't matter. Every time a mother cancels a haircut appointment or a trip to the gym because she feels silly making her self-care a priority, she is telling herself that she doesn't matter.
When you're a mom, it's easy to dismiss your parenting struggles as only temporary. But the reality is that everything in life is temporary, and we can’t live our lives hoping for some imaginary future scenario when everything will magically get easier. Whether it’s potty training or prenatal depression, it doesn't matter that the hard thing you're going through isn’t going to last forever. You are still going through it, and it can still be hard.
If I had to do it all over again, I would seek out depression treatment as soon as possible, rather than trying to just “deal with it.” Because while pregnancy is a temporary condition, life is also short, and there’s no reason to spend more of it unhappy than we have to.
If you are struggling with prenatal or postpartum depression, seek professional help or visit Postpartum International or call 1800-944-4773.