As I was deep in the third trimester of my first pregnancy (with twins) I couldn’t rid myself of the visions I had of the future. I pictured myself at a few months postpartum, holding both babies, sweat pouring down my face, and uncontrollably bawling my eyes out.
“Get ready,” I told my husband.
It’s an odd feeling, calmly preparing for depression. But how could there be any other way? As many as 30-50% of new mothers experience mild to severe depression. For mothers of multiples, that number goes up. Already doctors were having me fill out forms: on a scale of 1-5, how much did I feel like hurting myself today?
Yet, when the babies were born, and our routine was established, I found myself dealing with motherhood surprisingly well. Sure, it was a lifestyle change. And sure, there were tears. But collectively I felt happier, more supported, and more loved than I had at any other point in my life.
Though unlike the average new mother, I had already experienced postpartum depression once before, four years earlier, when I first met my five-year-old stepdaughter.
My stepdaughter and I have a strong bond, and a solid friendship. She accepted me as a trusted adult from essentially day one. It was by all accounts an easy transition. But, like for any parent, it was still a transition.
I had been with my boyfriend (now husband) for six months before I met his daughter. We wanted to make sure our relationship was serious before we were introduced. In my naiveness, I thought his daughter would just be an accessory to our lives. A piece of it, but not an all-consuming entity. But when we were together: me, my new boyfriend, and his daughter, she did not feel like the accessory at all. I did. The child is, as it should be, the focal point. From the day she entered my life, my responsibilities changed. The trajectory of my life was now tethered to a child. A child that was not mine.
A month after I became a stepparent I found myself crying uncontrollably for reasons I could not put into words. Breathing became difficult. I would lie awake at night counting my breaths, wondering if I was breathing too much or too little. I didn’t know what was wrong with me. I didn’t know there was a word for what I was experiencing. I went to the doctor three times that fall, and each time they sent me away.
When the twins were three months old, I went to a “New Moms Group,” where mothers with babies under six-months gathered to discuss, compare, and commiserate. I was the only one with twins. I was the only stepparent. When I mentioned to the other women that I thought I had experienced postpartum depression before as a stepparent, they seemed interested, but bristled at the comparison.
“Postpartum depression is hormonal,” they said.
So the conversation ended. Biology always wins.
But depression isn’t born simply out of a physical response. Fathers have postpartum depression. Adoptive parents have postpartum depression. And I had it too, as a stepparent.
When you become a mother your body has to move into new shapes, has to fit new identities. This dance is hard and challenging, and can cause depression and anxiety. Stepparents have to move their bodies in this way too, but for them the dance is often partnerless. There aren’t community support systems for stepparents. Rarely are they invited into the arena with the other mothers.
The argument of course, is that stepparents have a choice. They can leave. The child is not their legal dependent. But that doesn’t mean they did not experience real anxiety surrounding parenthood. How many relationships have ended due to undiagnosed postpartum depression in stepparents?
There has been a recent surge of information about the postpartum period, and for that I am grateful. Anything that de-stigmatizes mental health and brings self care into the limelight is a win for all. Celebrities like Chrissy Teigen and Serena Williams have come forward to talk about their own post-baby blues. This strong vulnerability is helpful to mothers everywhere. But what isn’t mentioned is that managing depression is tied to support. And support is one thing stepparents don’t have.
With my twins, I had doctors, nurses, doulas, community centers, family, friends, and moms groups. As a stepparent, I had none of that. Even close friends, friends who met and liked my new partner, would question me.
“Is he really worth it?” they would ask.
Sometimes I wasn’t sure.
When you fall in love with someone who has a child from another marriage, you become a piece of a family that has been shattered. Even if you did not cause that shattering yourself. Mothers are allowed to feel joy. Mothers are allowed to feel sadness. Society does not allow stepparents to feel either of these things. If you are joyful and in love with your stepchildren, you are over-crossing boundaries. If you are frustrated and angry with them, you are evil.
As Lisa Doodson, the author of How to be a Happy Stepmum, writes in HuffPost, “I interviewed 250 stepmothers and discovered they had significantly higher anxiety levels and depression than biological mothers and they also had poorer support than biological families.”
Many stepparents meet their “children” when their relationship with the biological parent is still relatively new. They may sense a longevity, as I did in my relationship, but it remains unsolidified. When a woman gives birth, she is a mother from that day forward for forever. For a stepparent that road is unclear. Is she a mother the day she first meets her partner’s child? Is she a mother once they are married? Is she still a mother if the relationship with the biological parent ends? Is she a mother at all? Should she be required to fill a maternal roll? Is it wrong if she does? Is it wrong if she doesn’t? These are the questions that remain unanswered.
My own anxiety subsided as I gained confidence in my new role, developed my own personal relationship with my stepdaughter, and made choices to improve my life as an individual. It took about a year, but after a while I no longer felt like an accessory. Some days I still struggle. I feel sadness, resentment, jealousy, and the occasional rage. But I also feel joy, contentment, real happiness and gratitude. Doesn’t every parent?
Wednesday Martin, author of the book, Stepmonster, eloquently said in the Dear Sugar podcast on stepparenting: “You want to fall somewhere between an aunt and an ally.”
With my step-daughter, a fun kid who willingly accepted me in her life, this was easy for me to accomplish. For many it is a struggle.
My twins are three now. They love their big sister, and she loves them. I am at peace with my roles: mother and stetepmother. I have survived the postpartum period of all for my children, stepchild included. Our society needs more resources for all forms of depression, including postpartum depression, and those postpartum resources should include those who fall out of the traditional biological parent spectrum.