Despite an international enlightening over these last few years in mental health and depression, there remains no shortage of stigmas and judgement places on those who are struggling. So many of us go through periods of great difficulty in our lives that leave us questioning our ableness to take on the spectrum between major life events to even just getting out of bed in the morning, and the pressure to hide these doubts and deal with them alone is so high. Which is why finding someone who is able to be vocal about the same issues you yourself are struggling with can be such a huge relief.
I found this relief one day while scrolling through Instagram, on the feed of the R&B singer Kehlani:
“From not knowing anything about prenatal depression nor understanding it while it’s hitting me like a bag of bricks, to being very isolated and alone internally and externally these days, to just the normal sleep/ no appetite / anxiety. The struggle to recognize your body in the mirror, the struggle to not feel like no matter what, no one understands.”
She has since taken the post down, but its brief time on the internet got me thinking about my own emotions over the past few months of my new pregnancy. Just as Kehlani (and most others), I had been naïve to pregnancy depression, and somewhat ashamed to be experiencing it during what is popularly known to be such a happy celebratory time. I desperately wanted this second child, so acknowledging my feelings of depression almost felt like a betrayal to all of the hope and energy and love that I had poured into this outcome.
Thank to the groundbreaking honesty of outspoken women over the last two decades, the world has become more familiar with the symptoms and experiences of PPD (Postpartum Depression), and many of us spend months in fear that we will be seized by this unfamiliar and unwanted emotions after our babies are born. And while we’ve made major steps toward understanding PPD – and therefore being able to better support its victims – depression during pregnancy is still seldom discussed, and not often understood. And unlike PPD, whose main victim is the mother, pregnancy depression can have potentially harmful effects on your unborn baby.
Antenatal depression – depression suffered during pregnancy – affects up to 15 percent of expectant women. Depression can stem from life before the pregnancy (and what’s worse is many women battling depression in day-to-day life often go off their medication while pregnant), or it can occur in women who have never battled depression before and are simply chemically triggered by pregnancy. It is thought that most women who suffer from postpartum depression are actually experiencing an escalation from a previously existing, but unidentified, depression.
Besides chemical predisposition toward depression, there are many other external factors affecting mothers-to-be today. The present day financial pressures of having children, more strenuous than ever before, are often a stress factor to expectant mothers. The expectation of bringing a baby into a perfect house – big enough and in the perfect school zone – as well as income security, can dog pile onto other pressures. Even just the level of stress in our daily lives, especially for those who are high-functioning with high levels of responsibility, can errode our esteem and personal security.
The anachronistic paradigm of a “crazy pregnant woman” flying into a hormonal rage while clutching a jar of pickles in one hand and a pint of ice cream in the other, condescendingly enforced by the patriarchy, invests in seeing women as naturally feeble and unstable creatures, and keeps millions of expectant women from identifying and validating their own emotions during one of the most intense physiological experiences of their lives.
Add to this the responsibility of parenting another child whilst being pregnant with your next, and it can be difficult to differentiate everyday parental highs and lows, which are unique and intense emotions on their own, and hormonal changes triggering these emotions in your body. But generally, if you are experiencing debilitating stress or sadness that is keeping you from your daily life, it may be time to seek some external help. Some signs to look out for; sadness that seems to not go away, intrusive unusual thoughts, excessive anxiety and/or irritability, changes in appetite and insomnia.
While I am navigating these feelings myself, I have decided to see a therapist to sort through it all. One thing I have understood through this research is that if something feels a bit off, it is worth seeking the help to explore more deeply and confront the issue. While talking through some of my concerns, I am starting to realize that a large part of what I am experiencing is a time of intense adjustment. I have personally dealt with a few concurrent major life events in the last few months, and while juggling everything to keep life on an even keel, I have not effectively worked through all the mess, or really even talked about it. For many years now my go-to coping method had been internalization, but now that backup is eating at me. Psychotherapy (i.e. cognitive behavioral therapy) allows therapists to teach you new approaches to managing your thoughts and emotions. I haven’t quite figured out what I am going through, but I have started the work to figure it out.
Therapy is not the optimal solution for everyone, but a good support system is fundamental. For many mothers, lack of family support is a major contributing factor in depression. However, if you are like me and prone to internalize emotions, revealing them to your family may be a first step on the way to relief. Those around you may not even know you are suffering until you open your mouth. I personally struggle with feeling that I am burdening those around me, because I know my friends and family are not exempt from personal issues, and I find extra comfort in a sharing with an outsider, like my therapist. A trustworthy midwife or doula can give you that support you need, especially during your pregnancy. Oftentimes, having your hormones explained to you by someone who is familiar with pregnancy norms and standards can make a big difference.
If you find solace in the stories of others going through similar experiences, support groups may be invaluable in your journey. The Postpartum Resource Center of New York counsels pregnant women who are unsure of how to handle their depression. If you are having trouble finding local support, resources such as Postpartum Support International or Women’s Health Consortium can offer useful information.
In alternative medicine, acupuncture is a known mood influencer. Relaxation techniques can complement other therapies, such as yoga, massage, and meditation. Even an increase in Omega -3 essential fatty acids can be a natural mood booster. Some mothers have turned to broad spectrum light therapy, but some have found it adds to their anxiety.
If you are feeling similarly vulnerable, and especially if you are feeling ashamed of that vulnerability, please know that admitting and validating your own experience is not a sign of weakness. You should not feel judged for not having a perfect pregnancy, or for not being ecstatic 24/7 for nine straight months – life is simply not that uncomplicated. And, perhaps most importantly, please know that you are never alone.