I seem like an unlikely candidate for depression. When I was 13, I wrote in my journal that when I grew up, I wanted to be married with two daughters, and I wanted to work as a reporter.
Turns out, by those standards, I have the perfect life! Somehow, I managed to marry an incredibly thoughtful man and we have two daughters (7 and 10), two cats, a dog and a house in the ’burbs. I’m even a reporter.
Of course, depression doesn’t care where you live or what job you have. And it definitely doesn’t care how many children you have to take care of.
When one of my daughters was in the second grade, she started vomiting every night. Doctors couldn’t figure out why she was constantly nauseated, why her stomach always hurt, why her adorable 6-year-old face started to break out like a teenager. She was constantly crying. They even gave her ultrasounds and an MRI to look for a possible brain tumor that could be causing her to have so many seemingly odd health issues.
As I Googled “child vomits daily, no fever” (don’t play the Dr. Google game if your child is sick), I slowly started feeling sick myself. I wasn’t hungry. Ever. In fact, I started wondering how people could eat as much as they did, as often as they did. Simply packing school lunches was getting so tiresome. And making dinner? It was scrambled eggs every night. I couldn’t fathom the thought of cooking.
I started shrinking. I went from 125 pounds to 109 pounds within 2 months. It didn’t look pretty and I was embarrassed by my skeletal frame, but I just didn’t want to eat.
Then came the naps. I hadn’t been a napper ever ― my to-do list was always too long to allow for a nap ― but I was just so tired. So I snuck in a nap one day. It felt so nice to fast-forward my day via the nap, that I started doing it daily.
The kids were at school and I worked from home as a freelance writer, so technically my naps weren’t really disturbing anyone. Until they began creeping past the 3 p.m. hour when my children were released to me after school. As soon as they began arguing, or if they were too loud, I just wanted to sleep it away. So I did, while my kids entertained themselves with YouTube.
Even after the doctors confirmed that my daughter’s odd health problems were simply a minor issue that would resolve itself (and it has since happened), I couldn’t seem to feel better.
Nothing interested me ― not vacations (too much effort to plan them), not my dogs (walking took too much energy), not even my children (their endless chatter began to feel like a form of torture).
Depression can make tasks as basic as getting out of bed or showering feel overwhelming. And parenting, even without depression, is a difficult job, requiring endless, often monotonous labor; it can be hard to muster enthusiasm for this on the best of days. So parenting with depression can feel almost impossible.
From the outside, I began to look like a neglectful parent. One who didn’t care. I did care, but parenting had become so exhausting. It was hard enough remembering to wash the kids (I scaled that back to twice a week), but I couldn’t also remember to wash myself. I was crying over the tiniest things ― I literally cried over spilled milk.
Then, I stopped wanting to leave the house, which is a problem if you have two young children.
My husband is the most patient person I’ve ever met, but even he was getting frustrated. He was working full-time, and he was arriving home to find a home resembling a junkyard, hungry kids and a wife napping on the couch. He understood that I was having problems, but when you’re a parent, you can’t simply disappear and take a break from life.
Two small children depended on me, yet I felt unable to be there for them. I felt guilty, but I was too busy trying to get through the day to muster up any energy to play or even to read them a book before bed. I tried not to think about the ways I was being a totally neglectful parent. Because if I couldn’t take care of myself and if I couldn’t take care of my children, then what use was I to anyone?
My poor husband tried everything. He took me out to fancy dinners. He sent me out for spa days. He took the children out of the house so I could fully have time on my own. No matter what he tried, I just wanted to disappear.
If parenting with depression is hard, getting help for depression when you’re a parent can be even harder. When you’re a full-time caretaker for someone else, it can be difficult to find time for basic self-care like getting your hair cut ― or some days, taking a shower. So where do you find the time and energy to take the steps necessary to fix your mental health?
Fortunately, I knew enough about depression to know that I had to do something. I scheduled an appointment with a therapist, and talking about my feelings helped ... for the hour that I was there, but it didn’t seem to have lasting effects from week-to-week.
Next, I met with a psychiatrist, who told me that my anxiety was off the charts (who knew that you could be anxious yet so sleepy simultaneously?) and that I was clinically depressed.
After being depressed for months-on-end, I was relieved to let someone else take over and help me. And I strongly believe that medication helps with just about everything. (I’ve been taking migraine meds for years, and they’ve saved me from a truly tortured life.)
After 10 mg of Prozac, I began to feel like I didn’t need to nap as much. An additional 20 mg, and I could eat again and help my children with their homework. Life didn’t seem so difficult. It was when I wanted to cook dinner for the kids ― a real dinner, like a real mom ― that I realized I was actually feeling better. I actually looked up a recipe that didn’t involve eggs, I bought the ingredients and I cooked it. I even ate some of it with them, for a family meal.
Today I’m back to my old self, except for the fear that I could go back to that bad place again.
Sometimes, when I feel tired in the middle of the day or I decide to serve the kids eggs for dinner (yes, I still do this because remember, parenting is difficult whether you’re depressed or not) and I get flashbacks to that time. But for now, I’m OK and today is what matters. Plus, my children are incredibly forgiving (or possibly forgetful).
When you’re a parent struggling with mental health issues, you may feel like you need to take care of your children first. The simple but hard-to-remember truth is that if you don’t take care of yourself, you can’t be there to take care of your children. Whether you’re battling postpartum depression or any kind of depression, there is help. And the help really works, if you just reach out for it.