When I was sitting on the floor, sobbing, I was the worst mother in the world. When I was bailing on play dates, I was the worst mother in the world. When I was sequestered, motionless, inside my duvet for 24 hours, I was the worst mother in the world.
Or at least, that's what I thought, because postpartum depression takes every last shred of self-confidence and chucks it into the bottomless pit that is also holding hostage the spirit, courage, and rational thinking you haven't seen for a while.
My history of mental illness didn't prepare me for my first bout of postpartum depression, which took hold when my firstborn was three months old. When you're depressed and child-free, you can get away with withdrawing from the world. It's easy enough to hide the illness from other people. You just disengage. But you can't disengage from your kids. The little buggers just grab you by the hair with their grubby fingers and and do whatever they can to force you to confront the darkness. Like projectile vomiting on your face while you're lying on the floor trying to find answers on the ceiling.
By the time my son was two, I had been better, various levels of ill again, then better again, thanks to the trusty anti-depressants my doctor handed out like candy. I was off the medication the next time I locked eyes with the two stripes on the pee stick, and within days floored by antenatal depression. Back on the pills I went, only this time around I had a life growing inside me and what kind of mother takes anti-depressants during pregnancy? That's right—the worst kind.
Today, I feel differently. I'm a good mother. In fact, I'd go as far to stay I'm a better mother because of my depression. I never thought I'd have anything to thank the bottomless pit for, but as it turns out— it's not all doom and gloom.
I don't judge myself as a mother based on my kids' achievements or their grades or their table manners. I have more of a wide brushstroke approach to parenting, because for far too many years I was simultaneously anxious about things that really don't matter and depressed for no tangible reason whatsoever.
The truth is, some days I just thank fuck I'm still alive. Worldwide, depression is the biggest cause of disability. After cancer, suicide is the second leading cause of death in 15 to 29 year olds. (I was diagnosed at 19 but it had been percolating for years.) On those "thank fuck" days, my kids and I do stuff just because we can. We might stay up until midnight watching cartoons. Bath time might turn into a water fight, me chasing two slippery, bubbly, naked bodies around up and down the stairs. We might not do homework one night because I don't want my kids to think life is only about routine and orders and writing the same goddamn word over and over and over in a notebook. We're making memories out on these otherwise mundane evenings, because we can.
And we talk. About everything. We talk about sexual consent and whether there is or isn't a god and stuff other parents of 9- and 6-year olds might balk at, because I want them to be free to talk to me about anything, knowing they'll never be made to feel inappropriate or disgusting. I know how damaging it is to feel that you don't have a voice.
My depression makes me far more sensitive to my kids' moods. If they're acting up, I don't automatically assume they're just being brats. I don't let them get away with bad behavior, but I do try to look for something deeper (and it's usually there) that I can deal with in a more understanding, beneficial way.
Accepting that my terrible-mother guilt was part of my illness, and letting go of it, was a huge part of integrating my depression into my parenting. I was only able to do this when I started to talk openly about my illness and sharing my past, my anxieties and my fears with other people. "Understanding the guilt and shame is helpful," says clinical psychologist Stacey Radin. "As is surrounding yourself with others who can be objective and reflective and offer a voice of reason when you are questioning your own ability to push through and accept the circumstances surrounding the diagnosis."
Although I've reached a point where I can tentatively say I'm managing my illness, I still have rough times (despite the medication) and it's not always possible to hide those from my kids. But I've decided I don't want to do that anyway. Sometimes life sucks and if they see me cry or flip my lid or struggle to move from the sofa for hours on end, it's not the end of the world. I'm not hiding who I am from them, and in turn I'm teaching them not to hide who they are from anyone. I'm teaching them that it's okay to cry and worry about stuff and feel things you can't make sense of and ask for help.
Radin agrees that it's better to shine a light on what I once saw as my failings rather than bury them, provided we don't make them bear any of the responsibility. "Children often internalize and blame themselves for everything," she says. "Prepare them and share that if you are in a bad mood or preoccupied they should not take it personally; that you love them and care about them and are having a bad day."
Does a happy mom equal a happy child? Not necessarily. This depressed mom can vouch for that.