I was alone. Don’t get me wrong, my husband was with me very much during the pregnancy. But I was alone with being pregnant and being ill. I knew no other woman who was or had been pregnant and seriously depressed to talk to, to compare notes, to help me express my feelings or to hug.
When I became pregnant, I was already a mother to a lovely little girl who was the best 4 year old in the world in my eyes. She would start school in a few months. I looked forward to the second child and hoped our family would be lucky and have another healthy child, a male this time. I gave birth to a healthy baby boy in the fall of that year. “Oh Baby,” I said, as he/she came down the birth canal, “You are born!” I am forever grateful that the birth experience of our son was beautifully wholesome and medically uneventful.
The preceding months were the hardest of my entire life.
Never again was a depression to be so deep that I planned and started to carry out my own suicide.
I have been told many times in my life by physicians, during the pregnancy and in the years following the birth of our son, that pregnancy protected women from depression. It was one of many bitter pills to swallow. It was ‘79 and the depression couldn’t be treated, except for counseling therapy. My family practitioner was quite concerned for me, but referred me to a psychiatrist with which the clinic had limited interaction. I have had many good and excellent psychiatrists over my lifetime, but this person, my first experience, was not one of those sensitive physicians. I guess he was competent. I was too depressed and just plain ignorant about what someone with a legitimate mental health problem should expect from psychiatric care to ask for a different doctor.
I was a young woman, already a mother, and I felt the expectations placed on me during the pregnancy. A smiling, happy and healthy mother-to-be. The image of motherhood is sacred to most people. Not just smiling, but talking, responding to questions and acting as a warm and wonderful woman. Happy about the pregnancy. Also looking healthy and anticipating the future. Confident. Competent. Capable.
None of which I felt.
I was happy with the pregnancy initially and then, (nothing deep or mysterious happened, nor was there any secret reason) I developed the illness called major depression in my second trimester.
I was on edge in public, constantly aware that I should live up to the motherhood image. Few people knew of my illness. If they knew I had depression, a common response was, “How can you be depressed when you are expecting a baby?” A thoughtless question/remark. I didn’t have an answer for myself.
Another bitter pill.
Joy went out of my life and consuming anxiety replaced it in along with the mantra to work as hard as I could to keep everything perfect. If I kept everything perfect then the illness would go away and the pregnancy would be normal. I longed for normal.
The pain of the depression was intense and for days at a time, ever present. Honestly, it hurt more than labor pain. It was invisible, it was unending, grind-you-down pain. In unspeakable words that were unspeakable for 35 years: I felt that my little family would be much better off without me and that life was intolerable. Never would I be able to successfully mother a newborn, parent a bright kindergartener, keep house and home together, and be a friend and partner to my husband. Never.
So there came the day I waited and planned for: my husband and daughter were long gone for the afternoon. Now was my opportunity to take my own life. ………… I was stopped in my tracks during my suicide attempt by the abrupt realization that although (I thought) my life was valueless to me and others, my unborn baby’s life was priceless. He/she must go on living.
There was nothing to do but to get through this and each succeeding day in a plodding grim sort of way.
What I really would have liked would have been another woman who had been or was in the same shoes as I. One who could see me not as evil but as a very hurting, desperate, stressed and vulnerable individual. I needed some compassion and empathy from a another woman who was going to be or who already was a mother herself.
However well intentioned, saying “How are you?” and perhaps afterword “You’ll feel better once the baby is born” is not helpful. Rather you can say “How can I help,” while putting the casserole you brought in my oven to heat. One who gives me a hug saying without preamble “If you ever feel that you can’t go on, please tell me!” is offering true support. This sort of care – which is similar to that we would offer a recently bereaved person – would have been, in my case, truly supportive.
I appeal to all of us to be open to whatever a pregnant or post-partum woman may have to really say about her pregnancy/birthing experience. Listen carefully to what they have to say and perhaps not say with an open heart and mind. And especially if you are or have been in a similar place in your life, offer that true support which respects, acknowledges and shoulders the deep struggle they are having.
It can be life-saving.