On a Friday morning in early November, I got up with my then twenty-two-month-old twin daughters, Elsa and Clio, as usual. My husband watches them most of the week while I’m at work, so on Fridays I always let him sleep in. But that morning I’d barely finished giving the girls their breakfast when I made my way back to the bedroom, curled up next to him and said, on the verge of tears, “I need you to take care of the girls. I can’t do it.”
I spent most of that day—and the next—in bed.
For more than a month, I’d been struggling with an episode of clinical depression. Until that point, I’d been able to muddle through at work, take care of the girls—with difficulty—and keep up with essential everyday tasks. But on that dark Friday, even just sitting on the sofa while Elsa and Clio watched Sesame Street hurt too much. I felt empty and detached from reality. I could barely bring myself to do or say anything. My whole body throbbed with unfocused dread. I had no thoughts of suicide, but I was lower than I’d ever felt before—low enough that I simply couldn’t handle taking care of my children. And it scared me.
My thoughts were panicked and pessimistic: What if I didn’t get better this time? What if I ended up having to be hospitalized? What if this was the way I was going to feel for the rest of my life? What kind of mother could I be?
When my husband and I decided to start a family, we never gave a moment’s thought to my depression. Ever since I’d been diagnosed, at the age of twenty-three, I’d been able to effectively manage my condition with medication. When I did have depressive dips, they were short-lived, and not debilitating. Throughout my pregnancy and over a year of nursing, I never had any major depressive episodes, with the exception of a tough week or two postpartum. I never gave much thought to what it would be like to try to deal with parenting while depressed, because I was convinced it wasn’t going to be an issue.
I was wrong.
In the past year, I’ve had three bouts of depression, each more severe than the last. And each time, I’ve had to wrestle with the sadness and guilt of not being able to be the kind of mother I want to be—engaged, energetic, patient. My depression makes me irritable, lethargic, and unable to take pleasure in anything—symptoms that don’t go particularly well with running around after a pair of toddlers. Of course, childcare is always challenging. But when you’re depressed you don’t have the inner resources or perspective to deal with those challenges. They can feel overwhelming.
Depression affects approximately nineteen million Americans, or 9.5% of the population in any given one-year period. It’s twice as common in women as it is in men. While awareness and understanding of postpartum depression has increased in recent years, there’s little public discussion about ongoing clinical depression in mothers, and the repercussions it can have on their families.
This is probably due to the fact that depression still carries a significant stigma. Lots of people still believe it’s not a “real” illness but a weakness or a personality flaw—something that sufferers should be able to talk, exercise or vitamin-supplement their way out of (right, Mr. Cruise?). Even women like me, who know that their depression is a very real, biological condition, can internalize that stigma and feel guilty as a result. During my last depression, I found myself wondering: What does it say about me as a mother if I can handle going to work, but can’t handle a morning at home with my toddlers? Couldn’t I push myself just a little bit harder?
I’m lucky to have a spouse who is extremely understanding and sympathetic about my situation, having experienced depression himself. “You’re sick today,” he says when I’m down and feeling guilty about not being able to do all the things I normally can. “So treat yourself like you’re sick. Take it easy.”
I try very hard to remember this, to ignore the little super-mom on my left shoulder telling me to buck up and deal. Because while I do believe in pushing myself to stay active and functioning when I’m depressed, I’ve also come to realize that it’s important not to push too hard. If that means hiring a sitter, or asking a friend for help, or even just letting the kids watch back-to-back episodes of Curious George for awhile, it’s okay. It’s also okay to let things like housework, meal preparation and social obligations slip. Our favorite pizza place got a lot more business from us when I was depressed this year, and our floor stayed a lot dirtier. Miraculously, the earth did not stop turning as a result.