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Why Mother's Day Is Difficult When You Have Depression

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Writing about Mother’s Day is challenging for me, because historically it has not been a day I cared to celebrate. As a younger person I always enjoyed celebrating my mom. However, when I became a mother and experienced postpartum depression with the birth of my second child, Mother’s Day took on a different meaning.

I remember my first Mother’s Day. I was so excited to finally be “elevated” to the status of mother. Even though I was 31 years old when my first child was born, I didn’t feel like a responsible adult until the day he came into this world, so I was extremely excited to celebrate that and him. However, we did the same thing on Mother’s Day that we had done hundreds of times before. We had dinner in some crowded restaurant surrounded by hundreds of other people. Nothing about it felt like a celebration; it wasn’t personal and felt like something we should “just” do, rather than something I wanted to do.

Postpartum depression settled in with the birth of my second child. At the beginning, everything was great. My mother-in-law stayed with us for a week to help out and my family came to help after she left. My brother-in-law also lived with us specifically to help with the children, and I can’t forget how amazing my husband was during this time and continues to be.

I thought I had the “additional help” thing covered, but once the family went home the depression set in. I was on maternity leave for four months, and I kept telling myself if I just held on until I go back to work, I will be OK. In the four months of my maternity leave, my son developed colic. I wasn’t sleeping, I wasn’t eating right, and I was becoming more detached from my son.

The day came when I went back to work. I was so excited. The odds were not in my favor. I am a social worker, and at that time worked for child welfare in Washington, DC; my clients were children in foster care — mostly minorities and mostly low-income. My first case on my first day back was to remove a newborn baby from his mother, while in the back of my mind I was considering if I was going to go home that night, and if not where I would go. I spent the day trying to make contact with this mother. My supervisor instructed me to go to the hospital to interview the mother as the baby was in the NICU. While I know it was my job, I couldn’t help but think of how I would have felt if someone came to accuse me of abusing my child while he was in the NICU. I don’t remember the allegations against her. I just remember wondering if  –as a new mother–she was also experiencing postpartum depression. How could I judge her when I was struggling to be a mother myself? From that day, I was on medical leave as a result of depression.

During the next three years I found myself in a self-defeating cycle I imagine a lot of mothers can relate to. I constantly compared myself to other mothers. I had this idea of what a “good” mother was supposed to be and I wasn’t living up to it. Sometimes, this drove me into a deeper depression.

As a result of my depression, I didn’t work for two years, so we were also struggling financially, which didn’t help the situation. Because of the work I did, I was afraid to talk about my depression at the beginning because I didn’t want to lose my children. Even after I sought help from a mental health professional, I was still fearful of child protective services knocking on my door and was reluctant to share my true feelings. I was also asked to leave a postpartum depression group because I was too “depressed.” A therapist who I saw twice threatened to have me hospitalized after I refused to see her, even though I was not a danger to myself or others. If I was not a mental health professional myself, I think I would have given up on treatment at this point.

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) about one in nine women experience postpartum depression. In addition, postpartum depression symptoms are highest among mothers in certain minority groups who also experience certain risk factors — including but not limited to, being unmarried at the time of birth, having less than a high school education, having three or more stressful life events in the year before birth, giving birth to babies who require care in the neonatal intensive care unit after birth, pregnancy and birth complications, and previous history of depression.

I had some risk factors, and my doctor and I discussed my risk for postpartum depression. When I finally called his office for a referral for therapy, they provided me with the information to a great psychologist, but she did not take insurance. I saw her a few times until it became painfully obvious I was not going to be able to go back to work as a result of my depression. I couldn’t really afford to pay her before, but now that my husband was the only income source, we definitely could not afford to pay her.

So what does this have to do with Mother’s Day? Historically Mother’s Day has reminded me of my perceived failures as a mom; it reminded me of the time when I believed I was not a good mother to my children, so I had no cause to celebrate. I continued to struggle on Mother’s Day even after I got well. For many years told my husband I didn’t want to celebrate it. I continued to celebrate my own mother and my sisters, but I asked my husband not to buy gifts or flowers, or to celebrate in any traditional way.

That all changed with Mother Day, 2015. That spring Prince announced he was going on tour and he would be popping up in a few cities with little warning. His first stop was Nashville. I tried to get tickets for that concert. A few friends and I were planning to meet up if only we could get tickets. After trying for an hour and the website crashing, I was unable to get tickets. I was disappointed, but vowed that I would not give up — so for the next few weeks I kept my eye out for the next Prince concert. About two or three weeks after the Nashville concert he announced that he was coming to Baltimore. I was texting my friend when I received a message from her. As soon as the tickets went on sale we were online trying to get tickets, and we were successful.

The concert was on Mother’s Day, but I didn’t realize it when we bought the tickets. I mentioned it to my husband, as I didn’t want him to think I was a bad mother for not wanting to spend Mother’s Day with him and the boys. He reminded me that it was Mother’s Day and I should do what makes me happy, and if I wanted to do something in the morning we could, and if not that was fine too.

This was a game changer for me. Suddenly I had this realization that just as I had been stuck in this cycle of comparing myself to other mothers and holding myself to an impossible standard, I was doing the same to myself on Mother’s Day, a day that was supposed to me about me. Two years of a therapist talking to me about self-care and telling me to take time for myself had not made much of an impact, but my husband telling me it was OK made all the difference. Needless to say, the Prince concert was incredible, and as his life was cut tragically short I consider myself lucky to have seen him.

Now Mother’s Day is a day that helps me feel a connection not just with my children, but with myself. I still think about those days when I struggled, and remind myself that I am not perfect and that’s just fine. I hope by sharing my story other mothers will realize they are not alone and it will help start a conversation in the hopes of reducing the stigma. I live for my children every day of the year and it is nice to know one day can be totally about me — and I no longer have to feel guilty.

Originally published: May 11, 2018
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