I had the same experience as 14–23% of pregnant women: I got depressed.
And not just a little depressed. Panic-attack, suicidal-thoughts, desire-to-self-harm, hours-long-crying-jags depressed. Sure, I’d struggled with mental health issues my whole life, but this was something more frightening, something made bigger by the belly I was growing.
I was given drugs, first a mild anti-anxiety pill, then the real deal, the SSRI Zoloft. I didn’t want to take a drug during pregnancy — who does? I knew the risks, but the risks for my baby were outweighed by the risk of untreated depression for both of us.
Already, like so many moms, I was dependent on a drug to parent. As of 2010, 1 in 4 women are taking an antidepressant. If we extrapolate that to moms, 25% of us are on some kind of antidepressant medication, and that doesn’t touch anti-anxiety meds like Xanax. So I’m not alone. You’re not alone. There are millions of us who need a leg up to parent — a leg up we need because we’re suffering from a mental illness.
There’s a lot of shame there. I feel a lot of shame. We sense that if we were better people (i.e., not mentally ill, because we associate sanity with virtue) we wouldn’t need help with the basic parenting skills our peers demonstrate effortlessly. (The drugs can help, of course. The drugs can work wonders. But the drugs can’t fix everything.)
We wouldn’t melt down when our toddler does. We wouldn’t freak out when we forget to bring a lunch or take a present to a no-present party. We wouldn’t think all the others moms hated us and take that out on our kids in snaps and sharp words. These things happen because we have no patience. We have no patience because we’re at the end of our metaphorical rope. And then we feel horrible because other people have a far, far higher stress threshold than us.
And this doesn’t touch the worry. We fear for so many things. We may have panic attacks. We may worry we’ll drive our car off a bridge even though we don’t want to drive our car off a bridge. We are practiced players of the what-if game: What if the baby gets sick? What if the pediatrician’s office makes him sicker? What if he has a vaccine reaction? What if he gets measles? What if my spouse never comes home? These thoughts send you scrambling for life insurance policies at 2 a.m. Because you have to make sure the kids are taken care of.
It’s hard to tell how many mothers suffer from mental illness, other than the 1-in-4 statistic of antidepressant use. The UK’s Joint Commissioning Panel for Mental Health estimates that 3% of mothers will suffer from serious depression. Mild-moderate depressive illness and anxiety states will impact 10–15% of moms, 3% will have PTSD, 15–30% will experience adjustment disorders and distress, and 0.2% will suffer from chronic severe mental illness.
I am the 0.2%. After my third son, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, treatment-resistant depression, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), and ADHD. So I am not dependent on that single SSRI anymore. I am dependent on a pharmacopoeia: a medication for depression, a stronger medication for depression, one for bipolar disorder, and two for ADHD, one (strong) one for anxiety that I have no plans on discontinuing. And I need to take that medication in particular. If I don’t, in an hour or so, I’ll find myself snapping at my kids, huffing at their basic requests, bitching at the messy house. I need that Klonopin to parent decently. I sometimes feel guilty. I sometimes feel sad. But I pop that med and 15 minutes later, I’m a stellar mom flipping bacon and organizing craft activities.
I know some people see this as a moral failing, that if I were just a stronger, better person, I could toss the drugs. That I don’t really need them. That they’re a crutch. @shay_guy, who has autism, talks about a version of this on his blog Real Social Skills: Pejoratively, he argues, people snark that “medication is a crutch.” However, he asks, “Why is ‘crutch’ an insult? What do people think is so terrible about using crutches?” He explains that this is because people don’t understand disability, and they instead assume people with disabilities are lazy and trying to get away with something. I’d argue that they also assume people on psychiatric medications, especially parents, are morally deficient. @shay_guy continues, “When they see […] medications or whatever, they are terrified that we are getting permission to be lazy.” A crutch, he says, “is a tool.” And they aren’t actually “bad things. We all find the ones we need.”
And mental illness is a disability. Take a second for that to sink in.
Reframe your thinking. You are parenting with a disability — a difficult, arduous task. No one would ever tell me to throw out my diabetes medication. Yet I’m bombarded by messages that my psychiatric medications are unnecessary, a function of my laziness and moral laxity. I feel shame about that sometimes. I feel anger about that sometimes. I worry about my kids: How will they come out?
Come out they will, and come out fine. I apologize when I get angry. I explain when I cry. I tell them there’s something wrong with the way the chemicals work in my brain, and sometimes she does and says things she doesn’t mean. Do I worry sometimes? Yes. Do I stress that they’ll remember me as mentally ill rather than as the great mom I try to be? Yes. But most importantly, I am a better parent when I’m medicated.
I do my best to mitigate my illness’s effects. I go to therapy. I take time for myself. I exercise and get outside and do things that I love. But most importantly, I take my medicine. I need those drugs to parent. And it’s no different than if I needed a crutch to get around.