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Jessica on depression and anxiety during pregnancy

mom holding a baby for the camera - an essay on depression and anxiety during pregnancy

Content warning: Discussion of postpartum depression, birth trauma, domestic abuse or other tough topics ahead. If you or someone you know is struggling with a postpartum mental health challenge, including postpartum depression or anxiety, call 1-833-9-HELP4MOMS (tel:18009435746)—The National Maternal Mental Health Hotline This free, confidential service provides access to trained counselors and resources 24 hours a day, 7 days a week in English, Spanish, and more than 60 other languages. They can offer support and information related to before, during, and after pregnancy.

Prenatal depression and anxiety. Three words I didn’t know went together until they found me a little over a year ago.

I’ve wanted a child my entire life and was thrilled when I got pregnant. At first, slowly, though, fears crept in—the sleepless nights, the social isolation, the non-stop crying. And two weeks later, things got very dark. I would wake in the night filled with terror and I’d cry most of the day. I had made a drastic mistake and no longer wanted to have a baby. 

 I felt trapped, my identity slipping away. I thought I might die from how badly I felt. 

Imagining the future, I could only see the difficult parts of parenting. In addition, I only saw the inevitable loss of a romantic relationship with my husband—the inability to sail, travel, and backpack (things that are essential parts of my life), and a career I had worked so hard to advance would now surely be given up (even though I planned to return to work). My life was as good as over. 

Why did I ever want children? 

I exhausted my sick and vacation leave, avoided my friends and didn’t call my family. I spent days desperately trying to convince my husband that we should not become parents. As test results came back, I didn’t want to know the sex of the fetus. I kept calling it an “it” rather than a “her.” 

I was disconnected from the baby and her kicking made me furious. Isolation and shame overwhelmed me. Where was this pregnancy glow I had been promised?   

Related: How to foster deeper connections with your baby

I prayed daily for miscarriage and for horrible, unthinkable things to happen to me.

I looked into abortion, thought about adoption and didn’t share my “great news” with anyone because you’re supposed to be thrilled to be pregnant, yet I felt only dread. 

My midwives didn’t recognize what was going on. When I began sobbing at my first appointment after a simple, “how are you doing today,” her response was, “Welcome to parenthood— this won’t be the last time you worry. Do you want me to continue this appointment or not?” 

Because my feelings were such a drastic change from my “pre-preggo” norm, we started to wonder if something else was going on. I exhausted internet search engines for “prenatal depression” and all variants thereof, learning that this illness does exist, and I was experiencing nearly all of the symptoms. 

Related: Prenatal depression is a thing—a very real, important thing

Unfortunately, treatment options were limited and there was very little information available. It seemed like 99.9% of resources were for postpartum depression and I was unable to find anything that resonated with me and this thing growing inside me. I became more desperate. 

It took me weeks to get into the Bay area’s one reproductive psychiatrist despite my “urgent” referral status. Those weeks were filled with tears, agony, regret and catastrophic thinking. Good Lord, I put my husband through hell. 

Eventually, I did get in, and a couple weeks later, I started medication with hopes that I could clear the depression and anxiety enough to face this decision clearly. 

Would I keep the child or not?

Related: Resources for safe abortion access and reproductive rights 

Scarier than having a child was the fear of regret I might feel for terminating a much-desired pregnancy if it turned out that the mental illness was the source of all the pain, and not the baby.

The decision to take meds was also difficult because I felt like it made me weak, and because of the conflicting evidence on the potential, but not well-studied, effects of SSRIs on a fetus. However, I learned that the risks to the fetus and mother of untreated maternal depression are far greater than the risks of medication, so I took my chances. 

It worked. I also found one support group and it helped. 

Emerging from the fog around 20 weeks pregnant, I was still reluctant to become a mother, and almost never talked about the pregnancy, but the night terror and crying were less frequent, my overwhelm subsided, and I was clear that I would keep this baby, or at the very least, I’d deliver it and make a decision about what to do with it later. 

Related: 7 ways to manage your anxiety during pregnancy—from moms who have been there

My daughter was born five weeks early in February. Healthy. She is now three times her birth weight, rolls over like a champ and when she laughs, I just melt. 

The anxiety and depression lasted through labor and until delivery. From the hospital bed, I looked up to my husband and asked him to hold the baby when she was born because I didn’t want to. I didn’t think I could love her. 

But somehow, she came out OK, as did I. The midwives put her on my chest, and everything was all right. None of the dark things I feared happened, and the intrusive thoughts disappeared. I love her despite my fear that I would not. And in these first few months, we’ve taken her camping, sailing and traveling. I have not lost my identity.

Related: How motherhood myths impacted my struggle with postpartum depression and anxiety

We named our daughter Lucia, inspired in part by my mother’s middle name, and in part by the Latin word for light, “lux”— an antidote to my darkness. 

Today, I am not depressed, but I still carry a lot of shame and regret for how I felt, and I cry when I think back to those months, not really wanting to talk about them but for the hope that others who feel this way can know they’re not alone.

I know it’s an illness just like the flu or a cold—and that it was not my fault. But I still feel terrible for dragging my husband down to such an awful place with me. I still occasionally wonder whether she’s destined to suffer as I did–and whether it will be my fault.

Not everyone is as lucky as me— some women don’t have resources for treatment or the medication doesn’t work. Others have unsupportive partners, are single moms, or their pleas are ignored by healthcare providers. 

Related: The medical community does not listen to women—and it’s killing us

Let me say it again. Their pleas for help are ignored by their healthcare providers. 

Worse, some women on medication prior to pregnancy are often erroneously encouraged to go off their antidepressants cold turkey. 

Untreated prenatal depression can become postpartum depression and some pregnant moms take their own lives. Thanks to the unconditional support from my husband and a couple of close friends who I trusted with this heavy burden, I did not become that statistic. 

Related: Therapy made me a better mom—and wife

My wish for you is that if you are struggling, know that you are not alone. Share your honest feelings with your healthcare providers and bring a loved one to speak up for you when you can’t find the words. 

Prenatal depression and anxiety are real. If you’ve never heard of them, please share my story. Check in with pregnant moms to find out how they feel—one in five of them will have my experience, but they don’t to have to suffer. Help is available. 

My illness told me that I was alone, but in reality, I wasn’t. And neither are all of you who are reading this. My anxiety told me that raising a child would be impossible and miserable, and that I was incapable. But it’s not, and I am a good mother, as are you. This darkness is not your fault—you will get through it and there will be light.