Cereal, milk, gummy vitamin. Toast, OJ, vitamins, Prozac.
As I laid out our respective breakfasts, my inquisitive 4-year-old glanced at the pile of pills on my placemat.
“What’s that one?” she asked, her mouth full of Cheerios.
“Vitamin D. It helps keep me healthy, especially in winter.”
“And that one?”
“Fish oil. It’s good for my hair, my nails, and my brain.”
“What about the little white one?” She pointed to the tiny anti-depressant. I paused.
“That’s also for my brain. It … it helps me.”
What I couldn’t say to my daughter – yet – was that that little anti-depressant has made it possible for me to love being a stay-at-home mother.
I have been fortunate enough to be a SAHM for almost five years. During that time I’ve struggled with many common SAHM identity crises: Who am I if I’m not employed? Will I be able to get a job when my kids don’t need me so much? What legacy will I leave behind besides my children? And then, last year, I added a new one: Am I depressed because I am a stay-at-home mother? And if that’s true, what are my options?
When I made the decision to stay home with my first daughter over five years ago, it felt like the only right decision for me. But last year, five years into being a SAHM, there I was, depressed. Getting a job – something I plan on doing when my children are older – seemed like an obvious solution. I seriously considered it, having done it before, when my first child was a toddler. But I didn’t want to miss this time with my kids, and I feared it would lead to having the worst of both worlds – straddling home and work and not excelling in either.
Other times I wondered if all I really needed was respect for what I do. If at-home motherhood was an esteemed profession, surely I would feel great about my choice, right? But in my suburban bubble, where privileged mothers expend enormous energy trying to be worthy of their precious children, elevation of motherhood to a profession is a double-edged sword. Of course we deserve respect for all we do, as there can be few jobs as relentless, demanding, messy, and important as stay-at-home motherhood. But by making it a profession are we placing too much pressure on ourselves – not to mention our children – to excel at something that is implicitly riddled with imperfection?
For me, the fractured nature of primary caregiving – with its constant interruptions, the inherent inability to focus on one’s own needs, and numerous demands often made by two screaming little people – was the perfect recipe for depression. Or maybe it just revealed how perilously close to the edge I’ve always been.
On good days, I dreamed up crafts, constructed obstacle courses, researched behavior issues, cooked healthy meals, and spent lots of time on the floor, just being with my children. I felt honored and so very fortunate to be their first teacher, their best advocate, their primary everything. On bad days, and there were many in the last year, I barely played with my kids, sneaked excessive amounts of reading and chocolate, and basically felt like the entire day was a race to the solace of bedtime.
Admittedly, the last few years have been unusually stressful: we lost two family members suddenly, moved across the country for my husband’s career, had a second child, and watched my dad battle through arduous cancer treatments. Though I’ve always required extra emotional care during times of stress, I’ve also always been able to pull myself through dark moods, until this past year when I tipped over some invisible edge into Not Coping. I began to lose my temper with my children with terrifying intensity and regularity. At night, I wept with defeat and lashed out at my husband when he tried to help. I experimented with every remedy that worked for me in the past – weekly talk therapy and extra fish oil, more sleep and less sugar, calming yoga and purifying cardio – before I finally turned to something I never thought I’d need: Prozac.
I am the type of person who drinks water and stretches my neck for a headache rather than pop a pill, and never before had I considered taking psychopharmaceuticals (which I thought were important and necessary – for other people). But for my kids, I would do, I would try, anything.
Even when I finally saw a doctor, I was hesitant to label myself “depressed,” as I didn’t want to adopt a serious diagnosis – and swallow equally serious medication – when maybe what I really needed was a room of my own for my problem that has no name. Mostly, though, I was in denial, still clinging to one-dimensional Psych 101 images of a depressed person unable to get out of bed. I thought I knew what depression was and I was sure I didn’t have it.
My doctor listened to me carefully, asked some pointed questions about my sleeping, eating, and moods before pointing out the obvious: depression doesn’t always look like my narrow imagination assumed. It isn’t always being unable to get out of bed; it can be getting out of bed muttering obscenities before the day has even begun. It can be clenched teeth and yelling too quickly and tearful apologies. My depression rendered me a very unhappy SAHM. My doctor said: “When other coping strategies aren’t working, it’s time to call in the big guns. Your family deserves it. You deserve it.”
While I’ve never really figured out what exactly brought on my depression, what I do know is this drug helps me immensely. On even the lowest dose, I am a better SAHM; my fuse is noticeably longer, my mood is buoyed and joyful, I am much calmer with my children. I still have moments of frustration, of course, but I can breathe them away, no teeth clenching, no scary yelling, no tearful apologies needed. This can only be a good thing – for all of us.