Thursday, March 29, 2012

Depression in Motherland

This month's blog post is a draft of a much larger project, as yet unwritten. I have been gestating my third "child"—an essay on motherhood—for six years now. I've had many stops and starts, and much frustration about my inability to put words to this diffuse and all-encompassing experience.

I've told myself many times that my ideas are, after all, nothing new. Nothing that more succinct and skillful writers haven't covered. There are billions of mothers in this world, wiping butts and stanching tears just like me. So why does the world need my essay?

Well, the world doesn't need it. I do. I need to say what this has been like for me, a person prone to depression. And I know it's possible that my words could help someone out there. Someone whose responsibilities as a mother have driven her to dismiss her suffering, to hope it just goes away on its own.

So here goes.

I arrived at motherhood late and unskilled. I had my daughter at 35 and my son at 39. I'd never even thought about having kids until age 31, when I saw a Time article about the "biological clock." Honestly, for most of my life I hadn't found kids too appealing. They seemed a jumble of sticky hands, whining, and urinary emergencies. It took work to compliment a friend's baby. I thought all newborns looked like George Burns.

But one day my future husband and I got to talking, and decided we'd better just do this thing. Deep down, we had a feeling we would be missing out on something important. I got pregnant right away and cried with joy. That reaction was a relief to me—it meant I knew what I was doing, after all. I fell in love at the 12-week ultrasound, in which tiny feet kicked and perfect hands waved. Suddenly, the head-spinning nausea seemed worth it. I was even more excited when I learned the baby was a girl. The clothes were so much cuter.

At around 8 months, I started getting nervous. Not about labor and delivery, but about my mental health. I'd been scaling way back on my antidepressant, even experimenting with different meds, in the hope of breast-feeding. It had become clear that I was just not doing well on this regime. But I persisted, despite the insomnia and sense of dread. I thought my willingness to suffer was a sign of good motherly priorities.

Not too surprisingly, I made it three whole days postpartum before ending up as a weeping train wreck in the ER. Those three days had been the worst of my life. Panicking. Pacing. Not eating. Pulling the skin off my lips in sheets. Staring blankly at the baby. Growing increasingly convinced that I should die, for everyone's sake.

Needless to say, I was admitted to the psych floor. For five days, my husband and mom took care of the baby while I took pills, slept, and examined the site of the crash. I got better in the hospital, but I still wasn't well. The depression lifted only gradually, over several months, with some inexplicably horrible days mixed in. My husband worried at times that he'd never get me back.

Reliving my postpartum depression never gets old. All the themes with which I've grappled for the past six years were there at the start. The instinctual urge to take care of myself. The fear that doing so made me a bad mother. The belief that there was one effortless ideal, of which I fell short because my very nature was lacking. The self-hatred over negative feelings toward the baby: boredom, resentment, fatigue. The reluctance to compromise my ideals and adapt to the realities of exhaustion, the need for a break—even though this would have relieved some of those negative feelings.

Two kids and a lot of therapy later, I've found the maternal joy and gratitude that is the stuff of curlicued greeting cards. I love being a mostly-at-home mother. I feel a giddy, lovesick surge inside when I get an unexpected hug, hear a new word, or witness a new breakthrough. 

 I now know the greeting cards aren't corny—but they tell an incomplete story. The price I've paid for this joy is the willingness to slog through the dark parts of motherhood with a forehead lamp and an open curiosity. Even the parts I find truly repulsive: my infantile rage, my failure to empathize, my wish to control and suppress, my urge to flee just when I am most needed. At one time, a mere glimpse of those parts would send me into a depression in which nothing could be clearly seen. I had never before realized that depression served that function.

Motherhood, for me, has been a messy healing. It's been a draining of abscesses, a re-setting of bones. It's been a call to quit hiding from my own childhood. To grow up much faster than is comfortable. It's been the realization that children are people, not products or projects or objects. That what they need is me, not some improved or sanitized version thereof. That we're in an intimate but often mundane relationship, one in which flexibility, boundaries, and good horse sense are paramount. (Bye-bye, parenting manuals that made Mommy crazy. All gone!)

I think the biggest lie out there is that motherhood means a painless death to the self, that it requires real sainthood. I remember telling my therapist about my image of the ideal mother—she sacrifices to the point of fatigue and beyond, letting her children's needs and feelings obliterate her own. My therapist replied, "That is a caricature, and would be very insulting to any actual mother."

I saw her point. Mothers, like children, aren't objects. No mother I know is endlessly sympathetic or perfectly domestic. In fact, we get comfort from poking fun at that ridiculous ideal. It's a sign of mental health, not failure, to reject the notion that we could (or should!) shape every aspect of our children's development. But when I was depressed, I couldn't see that. I was rigid, careworn, and overwhelmed. It worries me that many people praise mothers who've fallen into this trap, because they don't see the cost to the mother herself. Or maybe, they don't care.

I think all mothers suffer to some degree from belief systems and public policies that objectify us, while offering us little actual support.  I once heard someone say that motherhood is both sentimentalized and devalued, and I think that's spot-on. The same politicians who want to see women pregnant don't give a crap about subsidized childcare or family leave. The same pediatricians who exalt "natural parenting" don't care that most of the work—laundering diapers, nursing until preschool, staying home with the children—falls on Mom. They also seem not to notice that some mothers need, or simply want, to work.

No matter the childrearing philosophy-du-jour, there's an insidious pressure on mothers to make everything we do look easy and rewarding, because that's our "nature." It's as if children couldn't possibly be a sublime joy and a pain in the butt, all at once. No wonder it's so hard for mothers to accept our darker side.

Similarly, it's ironic that as much as we know about the impact of stress on physical and mental health, mothers seem exempt from this concern. If Mom has to stay up until 2 a.m. to keep the house running, never has time to exercise, and pops pills or eats junk food  to get through the day, well, that's just part of her job. Maybe she can take care of herself when the kids are older. (Or maybe that will be too late.)

I've become aware of how hard it is to say "no" to things that really are rewarding and beneficial to the kids, but are just too much work for me. But I do say "no," because I need sleep and time to myself. That in itself improves the quality of my parenting.

But what about sacrifice? Isn't that an inescapable part of motherhood? Yes, but it's important to differentiate sacrifice from martyrdom. Some sacrifices are universal—new-baby sleep deprivation; changing one's spending priorities; an opening of one's life to the rhythms and needs of children. Other sacrifices are a choice, made willingly and leading in the end to mutual satisfaction and growth. There are times when I have set aside convenience, sleep, and personal preferences in order to be there in a significant way for my kids. But note: These sacrifices were made willingly, because I was not depressed. Depression causes one's self to be compromised, and from that standpoint, it is very hard to give willingly to another. It's giving what you don't have, which can lead to a sense of tortured martyrdom. That's hard on mothers and on their children, who even at a young age can feel inexplicably guilty. What concerns me is that some mothers feel that their mental health is expendable. Hell, society feels that way. No wonder there is often an undercurrent of competitive suffering in public conversations about "good motherhood." This undercurrent is highly toxic to a depressed woman. Trust me on that.

It's not my job to fix society, but it is my job to reject anything that doesn't work for me. I've found that I do best to avoid extremes. I pick my battles with discipline. I aim for a balance between fostering attachment and encouraging independence. I often get it wrong. I serve homemade food when I can, and convenience food when I can't. I sleep-trained my son when I just couldn't take one more day of exhaustion and bad hygiene. I yell too much, but I'm working on that.

Above all, I insist on being myself. I have a daughter and a son who need to see this modeled in daily life. Pursuing perfection actually makes me a sucky mother: resentful, guilty, and profoundly self-centered. Oh—and depressed. That's a price I can't pay. I'm glad to have that built-in limit.

I feel scared thinking about the mothers who aren't so lucky. I've met some of them while working in the ER, and been amazed that they'd been able to persist so long, in such pain, without getting treatment. Maternal depression often does go undetected and untreated. Depression happens for many reasons—genetic predisposition, the financial and emotional strain of raising kids, isolation, lack of support. It is a significant factor in child abuse, which is how research on maternal mental health occasionally gets on the public radar. But what's the use of pointing out how depression hurts kids, if there is no universal mental healthcare? And most mothers with depression don't abuse their kids—isn't their suffering still important in its own right?

These are questions that cost a lot to ignore. Yet our culture is set up in such a way that they continue to be ignored. It used to take a village to raise a child; now, increasingly, mothers are left alone to figure it all out. Our magical hormone-driven powers are valorized, which can be a real trap as well as a compliment. It means that mothers shouldn't need help, whether practical or emotional. It's an excuse for not making ours a more nurturing and just society.

Children really are wonderful. Motherhood really can be transformative. But every mother deserves to enjoy those benefits. Every child deserves a mother who is fully present and taking care of herself. I don't have any easy answers, but I do know that my journey of healing was possible because of the resources and support I got. Because I had help placing my intensely private experiences into the universal context of mothering, so I could see that I wasn't a monster. If only that would happen for every mother who hates herself for feeling the way she does. I wish I could hug it all away, just as I do for my kids. But in the meantime, if a mother in crisis lands in the ER on a night I'm working, she's going to get my full respect—and understanding.


Lisa Sniderman, LCSW received her M.S.W. from the University of Chicago in 2003 and has been a licensed clinical social worker since 2005. She is a past member of ETD's Mental Health Advisory Board and one of our storytellers. Click here to check out Lisa's posts.

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