Did postpartum depression damage the early bond between my son and I, predisposing him to future mental health issues? Will my babies inherit my tendency towards depression and anxiety? Does the time I take for self-care mean I’m missing out on precious time with my kids?
These are all questions I’ve asked myself in the eight years since becoming a parent.
I’ve been dealing with bouts of depression for more than half of my life, and I’ve often wondered how my mental health impacts my children. At my most anxious, I’ve even wondered if it was irresponsible to decide to become a parent—both for my children’s sake, and my own. Besides opening myself up to the hormonal hurricane of pregnancy and postpartum, parenthood breaks us open with its expansive, muscular, love, and the equally proportioned potential for loss, anxiety, and heartache.
Before we even started trying to create a family, I tried to gradually taper off of the antidepressants I was taking. Already, I wanted to protect the babies we didn’t yet have. But depression is stubborn and slick, and I slid down into one of the worst bouts I’ve had. My skin went electric, icy, my heart fast but dull, and I cried all the time. Thoughts of death flickered at the edges of my mind. “I don’t want to hurt myself,” I said to my husband. “But I understand how people get to the point where they don’t want to live.” He looked pale and frightened, and he urged me to call my doctor.
After trying another antidepressant that’s considered more suitable for pregnancy, and quickly finding it made my anxiety skyrocket, I ended up back on my old medication. When I eventually became pregnant with my son, I weaned down to a sub-therapeutic dose, and my anxiety ramped up again.
Since then, I’ve worried when I’ve seen studies indicating that taking antidepressants during pregnancy and breastfeeding might have a negative impact on my kids’ health in the future. And I’ve worried when I’ve seen studies that conclude having untreated depression and anxiety while pregnant can hurt them. When it comes to depression and mothering, I’ve worried about it all.
But lately, I’ve been considering another perspective.
My depression and anxiety are well-managed. But on the occasions when I’ve started to feel the familiar downward tug of hopelessness, I’ve acted more quickly than ever to take care of myself. Usually this means upping my exercise and calling my therapist and my doctor to adjust my meds if necessary. It’s not only me I’m looking out for now—my kids need a healthy mom.
Because I’ve been learning how to manage my depression and anxiety for years, wellness is a top priority in our house. I approach treatment holistically, with exercise, yoga and meditation, therapy, and medication. I talk to my kids about how important it is to take care of ourselves, and as they get older, I’ll tell them more. In the meantime, they’re watching their parents take good care of their bodies, spirits and minds.
Let them be safe and happy and healthy, I whisper every night while I’m putting my kids to bed. I pray for them to be spared from the ticker tape of anxious thoughts and the bleakness of depression, because life is just easier without them. Because they’re dangerous diseases to have. Because they’re my babies, and seeing them suffer feels like a fist clenched around my heart. But if they do end up inheriting these tendencies, they’ll have a supportive family who gets it. They’ve got resources, knowledge and compassion that I couldn’t have imagined 20 years ago, when I was first diagnosed.
While sometimes disabling, and often inconvenient, depression, at least in our household, will be something we talk about like any other physical issue—it’s just part of the overall package of me. Just like the asthma that rears its head from time to time, or the piercing migraines that occasionally descend. I’m starting to think that maybe my mental health issues don’t make me a crappy mom, but instead a strong, messy, imperfect, and compassionate one. One who would do anything for her children, including taking exquisite care of their mom.