From Mrs. Frugalwoods: I don’t publish posts written by other people, so today is an exception. When my friend Emma told me about her struggles with prenatal depression and anxiety, I begged her to write about it. Last year, I shared my raw experience of being diagnosed with postpartum depression and received hundreds–if not thousands–of responses saying a version of: “I went through the same thing” or “Reading this gave me the courage to call my doctor” or “I’m going to start taking the medication I was prescribed for my PPD,” and crucially: “I thought I was a terrible mother and the only person who felt this way.” You are not alone. We are not alone.
Trigger warning: this post contains information about depression and suicidal thoughts, which may be triggering for some people.
Here’s the first moment I knew I was not okay: I was hiking in the forest with my close friend. My stomach was heavy with dread but I knew I couldn’t put off telling her any longer.
“I have some news,” I said, “I’m six weeks pregnant.”
My friend started yelling and jumping up and down. Her face was awash with joy and she was clapping her hands. Just smile, I told myself. My teeth were clenched so tightly together that I could tell it didn’t look right. Instead I just kept hugging her so that she couldn’t see my face and know that something was wrong.
“This is amazing!” she screamed. “I’m so happy!” People hiking nearby stopped to stare.
“I know,” I said, “Me too.” I forced myself to give one limp clap.
I didn’t know why I wasn’t jumping for joy and clapping my hands. I didn’t know why I was so unhappy. I had all the ingredients for happiness: a strong marriage, a fulfilling career, financial stability, friends and family, a healthy body… and now, a planned pregnancy.
All I knew was that I was six weeks pregnant and didn’t want to be.
Here’s what’s scary about prenatal depression: it’s very common and yet, nobody has heard of it. It’s estimated that as many as 23% of pregnant women might suffer from prenatal depression, but I wasn’t asked about it in any prenatal appointments, by my OBGYN, by my therapist, by my midwife, by friends or family, or by my doula. I didn’t read about prenatal depression in any of my pregnancy books.
I was well-versed on attachment parenting, birthing options, prenatal yoga, whether or not I could get in a hot tub, and if I should drink that glass of wine or not… but the idea that pregnancy might cause me to get deeply depressed or incredibly anxious? Never crossed my mind.
At first, I was very, very tired. Before I found out I was pregnant, my writing career was starting to take off. I had an article picked up by the New York Times, I’d been accepted into a program for emerging writers,and I was starting to work on a novel. I was focused, energized, excited.
And then I got pregnant.
Within a few days of finding out, I was so foggy I couldn’t remember why I’d ever been excited about anything. I spent an hour trying to get out of bed before a phone call, I canceled plans and spent afternoons curled up on the couch or the floor. I stopped answering emails and checking my phone.
I stopped caring about anything that I’d cared about before. My work, my friends, my writing, my plans for the next year… it all seemed like a movie I’d seen years ago, vaguely familiar but I couldn’t quite place it.
- Grad school? Out the window.
- Officiating my friend’s wedding? Sorry, no can do.
- That trip backpacking around the world that I had always planned on taking? Gone. Destroyed.
- Burning Man, finally!? Off the table.
- Finishing my novel? Ha! In my dreams.
It was all gone. I started thinking that if I had this baby, I was going to be trapped forever as zombie Emma, and the formerly excited energetic joyful Emma would be erased off the face of the earth.
I would lie in bed in the morning and think, why am I even awake? And then, why am I even alive?
Then at eight weeks, the morning sickness started.
Except that it was all-day sickness. Which meant I could only eat toast and couldn’t wear anything that touched my stomach. I threw up at holiday parties and in the middle of the night. My entire life became a long, winding car ride that wouldn’t end. And I was supposed to be happy… Because everybody I told was happy! Like so visibly and overwhelming happy. I’d try to shift my face and mouth around and wonder, “do I look happy now?” I’d repeat the word “yay” over and over while they clapped and hugged.
I didn’t know how to talk to my husband about how I felt. So I just stopped talking. Instead, I blamed everything on the nausea. He was so happy: singing to the baby and making plans and thinking of names. His happiness only highlighted how miserable I was.
I felt completely alone. And ashamed.
What kind of a person intentionally has unprotected sex with their husband specifically to have a baby and then gets pregnant and decides they don’t want that baby?! I kept thinking of how many women struggle to conceive and here I was, a heartless, extremely-fertile-monster who was like, “yeah, I don’t know about this whole baby thing anymore…” Then I would think, what kind of pregnant mother can have another living being inside of her and think, I don’t care about this thing inside of me?
I was about ten seconds pregnant and I already felt like the worst mother who’d ever lived.
I was also worried all the time: about the birth, genetic defects, the earthquake that everyone says is going to hit Portland any day now, a house fire caused by a candle. I spent hours going over possible scenarios: What if my husband died? What if the earthquake hit while I was en route to deliver the baby? What if I had to drive alone to the hospital and I was so pregnant that I couldn’t fit behind the wheel of the car? What if I died in childbirth? What if the baby had fetal alcohol syndrome? What if somebody stole it?
If my husband was thirty minutes late coming home from work, I would call his phone over and over, crying, convinced he was burning in a fiery car crash. I would sit up in bed at night listening to the smallest sounds. Was that a window opening? A footstep? A door creaking open?
When I talked to people about these fears, they would counter with logic: intruders are fairly rare, the smoke alarm would alert me to a house fire, my husband was probably on a work call, etc. And I would sit there nodding, ashamed and frustrated. Why couldn’t anybody see how scared I was? That everything could go wrong in a split second?
What Is Wrong With Me?
At about twelve weeks, my husband finally said, “you don’t seem very happy about being pregnant.”
I nodded and stared out the living room window.
“What’s going on?” he asked.
I tried to tell him, not the whole thing, but a taste of it: the exhaustion, the darkness, the fear, the lack of connection with the baby, the regret that I hadn’t lived enough.
“I haven’t even tried ecstasy yet,” I said, crying.
“But you don’t even want to do ecstasy,” he said.
“That’s not the point!”
He didn’t understand. How I could feel so weighed down when he felt so ecstatic. How I could say I wanted a baby, and talk about it for years, and now say that maybe I didn’t want a baby. How I could be so unhappy at a time when we should both be so happy.
I had no answers, so we just stopped talking. One day I was driving home and thought, I don’t want to kill myself but I wouldn’t be bummed if I was in a car accident and never woke up.
I tried to remember the feeling of joy–a long coffee date with a friend, a movie night in bed, a massage, a hike in the forest–all the things I used to love to do. But I couldn’t remember why I’d ever enjoyed them. Is hiking fun? Why would I sit in bed and watch a movie? Do I even have friends?
I would stare at babies in cafes, or on the sidewalk, and wonder why I’d ever wanted one of those weird little loud things. Why had I longed so much to smell a small fuzzy head? A friend asked me to hold her baby so she could eat and I felt myself shrinking back. The baby was so heavy. My arms started to hurt. I just wanted to hand him back to his mother.
The worst part was that I knew I should be experiencing all these feelings of joy and happiness, and I felt cheated out of them.
I became jealous of other women who were pregnant and excited. I felt like somebody had stolen my happiness and left me in the dark. And every glowing pregnant woman, and every baby gift that my husband brought home from work, was a reminder that everybody was getting to experience something that I wasn’t.
One day I was at my friend’s house and she asked how I was doing, and I was so scared that I decided to tell her the truth: I didn’t want a baby and I was so depressed that I was thinking I might want to die.
She listened to me talk and then said, “This doesn’t sound like you. You’ve wanted a baby since you were eight years old.”
“I know!” I said. “Now I can’t remember why. Why would anyone want a baby?!”
She looked and me and said, “I’m just gonna say this. It’s okay if you want to get an abortion.”
I responded, “I think it already has toenails.”
I knew I wasn’t going to get an abortion (even if, at that moment, the idea of being not pregnant was very tempting). The fact that she said it out loud, that she would look at me in all my messiness, all my complete-opposite-of-Instagram-life-ness and not turn away, shifted something inside of me.
That night, lying awake while my husband slept beside me, I googled Pregnancy Depression, and found a forum where pregnant women post about how miserable they are, and how they’re thinking they don’t want their babies. Or that they’re so sad they can’t stop crying and don’t know why. And even some posts from women pregnant with their second children who were thinking they only wanted one child. And other moms telling them that this was pretty normal and would pass.
I laid there with my laptop open, crying with relief that I wasn’t the only person who felt this way.
I put my hand on my stomach – on my growing baby with his or her tiny toenails – and whispered something that I would whisper again and again over the next few months: we are going to get through this.
The next day, I started to read everything I could about prenatal depression and anxiety. As I was reading, I stumbled across this fact: When you’re in your first trimester, you are getting the progesterone equivalent of 400 birth control pills a day. By the time you give birth, you are ingesting the equivalent of 1,000 pills a day. One thousand.
When I read that, I called my husband and said, “remember when I was taking birth control pills?”
“Oh god.” he said. “You were totally nuts. That was horrible.” He was right. It was horrible. I was anxious, exhausted, volatile, depressed, manic. I lasted about a month and then decided I would never go on birth control again.
“Well my body is producing like 400 of those pills for the past three months.” Look, I wanted to say, I’m not losing my mind. I’m not a bad mom. I’m just on a hormonal drug trip.
It was the first moment that I understood that during pregnancy, your mind is not your mind. I could not will myself to feel differently, or rationalize my way into sanity. But I also didn’t need to take my hormone-induced feelings as evidence that I didn’t want a baby, or that I was a bad mom. My prenatal depression and anxiety didn’t magically disappear once I understood what it was.
No, it stuck around. I stopped throwing up, and I got some energy back, but even as I sit writing this–at 31 weeks pregnant–I’m still in the trenches with my depression. I may not lay awake listening for intruders, but only because my husband changed all the locks and bought dowels to hold the windows shut.
What helps is that I can now talk openly about it: to my midwife, my doula, my therapist, my friends and family, and my husband. I’ve found the language to explain what’s happening to me: I have prenatal anxiety and depression. Yes, I am happy to be having a child. But I’m also enduring a hormonal imbalance that makes it hard to experience that happiness.
Medication can be an option for treating prenatal depression. Had I known what was happening earlier in my pregnancy, I probably would have started some kind of treatment. I decided not to take medication because by the time it was offered to me, my symptoms had lessened significantly and I didn’t want to spend the last few months of my pregnancy adjusting to medication.
Talking about it has helped me see how common it is. Friends have started to tell me their experiences with doubting their pregnancies, or having intense anxiety while pregnant, or struggling with postpartum depression. Being vulnerable about my struggles has given me a look behind the Instagram curtain that so many of us hide behind. I now know a group of mothers who are right there with me, living their messy, confusing, hard-to-caption real lives the best way they can.
I’ve stopped doubting that I will be a good mom, or if I want to have a kid. I’ve learned to find evidence of my love in smaller things: standing up for myself and my baby with healthcare providers, taking my prenatal vitamins, the rush of anxiety I feel when they search for the heartbeat, not letting the dog stand on the baby bump (as she loves to do).
And some days I see a baby in a cafe, or in a cart at Target, and she reaches her tiny little finger out, and I realize, I’m gonna have one of those and it’s gonna have tiny little fingers, and I feel my throat getting tight and my ears ringing and my whole body starts to tingle, and I think: what is this feeling?
And then I realize, it’s joy.
Prenatal anxiety and depression is complicated, and this is not a researched or medically factual article about it. This is just my personal experience. If you think you or a friend might be dealing with prenatal anxiety and depression, here are some resources:
- Baby Blues Connection
- Depression in Pregnancy
- Mayo Clinic: Depression During Pregnancy
- Pregnancy and Prenatal Depression: Why didn’t anyone warn me I would feel so bad?
- I’m Embarrassed by My Prenatal Depression. Here’s Why I Talk About It Anyway.
- Open Path Collective: information about affordable therapy options. You can also check with your local college or university to see if their graduate program in counseling offers discounted sessions.
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
- Crisis Text Line: text HOME to 741741