I’m writing this post while holding my beautiful new baby in my lap and praying that it helps just one mama. The mama who is going through tons of emotional pain during her pregnancy and may not understand why, or worse, feels ashamed of how she feels. I wish that when I was experiencing this pain for the first time that I would have had someone to help me see the light on the other side, tell me that it was not going to stop me and that I can fight back. I wish I had someone to tell me that prenatal depression is a real thing and it can happen to any expecting mother.
Prenatal depression is common. More than 50% of pregnant women will experience some of its symptoms and for 10-15% like myself, it can become diagnostic depression. There are many factors that may play into the likelihood of experiencing it including life stressors, genetics, medical issues, lack of support, relationship problems, and many others including hormonal overload or a combination of these. Whatever the cause, I want you to know that you can feel like not only your old self again but an even stronger, more compassionate and better version of yourself for having endured. I’m writing from my experience and although yours might be different, I hope it helps you to know that you aren’t alone.
I was only in my 6th week. I wasn’t even showing yet and I was supposed to be glowing with excitement and bursting with joy over our happy little secret—we were growing our family! Instead, my pregnancy glow was more like an oily, always hot, gassy and irritable ball of nerves with no confidence. Ugh. I hate the sound of these things but this was my reality for the majority of my pregnancy. Everything I did felt hard. If you were to see me out, you would have never known. I put on a brave face and a happy smile. And yet, there I was for the third day that week, still in bed, “sleeping” late again, only I wasn’t sleeping—I was lying in bed wallowing in guilt and lethargy. I had recurring thoughts that were obsessive and suffocating—as if my brain was asking, “what are the most painful things we’ve experienced, Melissa? Got it. Now let’s ponder on those until we’re emotionally exhausted.” It felt like I was trapped inside a fog where I could only see my flaws and replay old failures and hurts. Although I could see through the fog, nothing outside of it felt like it was for me. I couldn’t get to my happy place at all and it didn’t feel like I ever would again. I’m so used to being optimistic. However, the more days like this I had, the further I felt I was moving away from being myself and the kind of Christian, wife, mother, daughter and career woman I aimed to be. To make matters worse, this “mood” engulfed me often, I didn’t know when it would reoccur, how I would ever defeat it or get anything done because of it. I felt ashamed, lazy and ungrateful for having so little energy and crying all the time at a time when I was supposed to be insanely happy. If you’ve ever felt this way while carrying a beautiful child in your womb—Congratulations on your pregnancy!—and welcome to the world of prenatal depression. You WILL get through this. Please let your doctor know your symptoms to be certain and to get the treatment and support you need. Your health and that of your unborn child can be impacted so it’s very important that you don’t keep it to yourself and just try to soldier on.
If you’ve never experienced this and it sounds pitiful to you or you wonder how anyone could ever feel this way when there are so many people struggling with infertility, waiting endlessly to get through the adoption process (or any other obstacle is standing in the way of growing their family) I understand why you’re judging. I believe wholeheartedly that pregnancy is a blessing and I pray every time I think of women who are suffering with infertility or waiting for their chance to experience the joy of motherhood. On the surface it seems very unnatural to be depressed during such a monumental time. However, here is the reality: Babies and pregnancy are absolutely wonderful AND the mood disorders they can bring on can be anything but pretty.
The symptoms of prenatal depression are any combination of the following:
- overeating or having little interest in food
- lack of energy or lethargy
- worry, anxiety or extreme irritability
- unexplained crying
- loss of interest in things you used to take pleasure in
- trouble sleeping or sleeping too much
- numbness, feelings of hopelessness, sadness or worthlessness
Here is a combination of things that I learned or did that I found helpful:
- Prenatal Depression is often hormone-triggered. Estrogen levels soar during the first trimester, increasing by more than 100 times. That’s 10,000 percent! That is staggering. If you’re especially sensitive to hormonal changes, no wonder you feel like a different creature. While estrogen is associated with energy, too much of it can cause anxiety and disturbances. Progesterone tells the muscles to relax, partially to prevent premature contractions of the uterus. Does relaxation sound amazing?! Sure, but for some of us, progesterone makes us too relaxed; resulting in extreme fatigue, teary eyes, and sadness. When I learned that the hormonal processes my body needed to go through to make a baby from scratch were effecting my emotions, it made me feel a little better. The pain I was experiencing was necessary. If my body weren’t overloaded with all of these hormones, it wouldn’t be prompted to do the next thing it needed to do to form and sustain my new blessing.
- Prenatal Depression can’t be “shaken off” but there are ways you can feel better by getting some exercise, choosing healthy food and spending time with loved ones. Don’t beat yourself up for not being strong enough to snap out of it. Imagine having a chemical imbalance or a physical ailment and berating yourself for not being able to “just get over it”. That wouldn’t be fair. So be kind to yourself. Focus on doing things you enjoyed prior to pregnancy. Even if you don’t feel motivated to keep up with or explore new hobbies, doing so can make you feel more in control and like your real self. Find some time in your schedule to spend with your partner and friends, spend some time outdoors getting some fresh air and vitamin D. Exercise as often as you’re able. These things are important to lift your mood and provide much needed endorphins. If the depression persists to the point that you can’t imagine anything that brings you happiness or relief, please seek help. There are counselors who specialize in prenatal and postpartum depression and many are covered by health plans.
- Focus on the health of your growing baby over everything else. Dealing with depression of any kind can really make it hard to prioritize and stay focused. It may be difficult to think about self- improvement, advancing your career or to simply keep up the many things on your plate as you prepare for your new baby. I know there are tons of things on your daily to-do list as an expecting mom and even more so if you have other children! When you can’t motivate yourself to do all the things, remind yourself that your main focus is on the health of the beautiful baby you will soon be holding in your arms. Remember that every time you choose a healthy meal, go for a walk, take the stairs, spend time in prayer, seek help through counseling or your healthcare provider, you are taking care of your baby and already being the loving mother you were created to be. Every single thing else is secondary.
- Prenatal Depression can lead to Postpartum Depression but it is not inevitable. I can’t stress enough the importance of talking to your doctor about what you are experiencing. Since prenatal depression can predict postpartum depression, your doctor will take extra precaution to look out for its symptoms after you have your baby. However, you shouldn’t assume that it will happen to you. Some women who experience prenatal depression will go on to shed the disorder once they’ve given birth or soon after. I have experienced prenatal depression with all three of my children but have never gone through postpartum depression.
- Prayer, worship music, reading and journaling were my lifelines. During my hardest days, sometimes prayer and crying were the only things I accomplished and that was okay. Some of my best days were the days I spent time praying, worshiping and just crying out to God to get me through and help me to see some light. God ALWAYS came through with a message, song, strength, courage and sometimes just something to make me laugh, smile or feel excited again. He lead me to the book Silent Seasons by Heather Lindsey and I found that listening to it on Audible was very soothing and it was a major source of encouragement and strength. Top Gospel Worship by Sozo Playlists on Apple Music was often playing in the background during my prayer time or in the car. Worship helped me to take the focus off of myself and what I was feeling and put my focus on how magnificent and powerful God is. Find whatever books, songs or resources are helpful to you and your unique experience. I knew these things came directly from Him as gifts to me and looking back on the experience, I can only smile at how well my Savior loved and carried my unborn child and me through the experience unscathed! I gave birth to the happiest babies!!! While carrying them, I got really close to God and learned to rely on Him to be my strength on the many days when I felt completely powerless to what was taking over my body and mind. Don’t be afraid to slow down and feed your spirit and mind before starting your day.
My prayer is that you face prenatal depression with courage and some strategies to help you get through it. I pray that you seek the help and support you need to fight! I pray that once you get past it, you will help another expecting mom understand that she will be more than okay because you’ve been there, done that and are stronger because of it. You are an overcomer and already have the unmatched strength, power and love that comes from becoming a mother. I encourage you to keep moving forward and show yourself some extra love with your pregnant, blessed and beautiful self!