The Black Dog in Pregnancy

I really wanted to write a positive post, but I seem to be being guided from some things I’ve seen and heard lately to write about this instead.

Pretty-much everyone has heard about post-natal depression. It even has its own initials – PND. There are websites and support services geared towards helping women through this after the birth of their child. But although antenatal depression is a real thing, it seems not many people have heard about it, and thus don’t understand what’s happening.

Depressing during pregnancy is not selective. It doesn’t just go for women who accidentally find themselves pregnant and are unsure about it. Your hormones are running wild, and so it can even happen to women who have dreamed of motherhood for years. They might have an image ingrained in their minds of how they will feel when they first see a positive line, how fulfilled and happy they’ll be going nursery shopping. But if that dream finally happens, and those little hormones kick in and turn everything upside-down, they feel confused and start to wonder, are they a horrible person? Other pregnant women are beside themselves with joy, picking baby names already, talking about what prams to buy, saying they are too excited to wait to announce but have to do it now. The woman with antenatal depression feels unnatural for feeling the opposite way or for not feeling an instant bond; she retreats into herself, fakes excitement, spirals further down. She worries she will be a bad mother, that she is even now damaging her baby psychologically with these feelings. She may even feel the baby will be better off without her.

There is a lack of conversation around antenatal depression that makes things so much harder. The stigma around depression in general has lessened a lot over the years, due to a greater understanding and more openness. However, antenatal depression is still a different ballgame. Why?

I’d never even heard of it when I fell pregnant with my first, and when it hit, I had no idea what was happening. I was probably a fairly good candidate – I was already prone to depression; I was helping one family member who was recovering from cancer and another from a stroke; I’d had plans to move overseas which had already been put on hold, and were now totally impractical; I succumbed to such extreme vomiting and tiredness that I had to quit work, volunteering, and my social life; I was in a new relationship that was now rocketed into a whole new sphere, and then moved further away from friends and family to an area that was the complete opposite of what I’d wanted. Actually, I don’t regret any of this – my little girl means everything to me; I love her and my partner, and wouldn’t change the way things turned out. But it was a lot of life changes at once. And then crippling depression hit on top.

It was the kind of depression where you stay in bed all day, not wanting to move, knowing you’re just making it worse really, but seem unable to help yourself. (Actually, the vomiting and tiredness meant I really couldn’t move some days.) I had no idea what was happening with me emotionally. I felt awful for not feeling a bond with the baby. At the five-week dating ultrasound, I hoped and hoped for a feeling of reality, but it was like the little dark blob on the screen that was the gestational sac belonged to someone else. I then secretly hoped the 11-week ultrasound would be It – the moment I looked at the forming baby on the screen, and realised this was mine. But again, I felt nothing; it was like just watching a movie on the screen.

I felt pretty low. What kind of woman doesn’t bond with their unborn child?!

I tried to speak to others about it, but realised that for most people, it was like a big taboo. Even people that are okay with speaking about general depression seem to feel incredibly uncomfortable when faced with antenatal depression. They really just want to be able to squee over your tummy and say, “Congratulations!” and move onto what you’ll call it and if you’re going to find out the gender and will you have a baby shower. If you don’t participate with enthusiasm, you can kinda hear the crickets. There’s a feeling that you’re actually pretty ungrateful for not giving thanks for your functioning ovaries. Even some medical professionals can sort-of be douches about it, which is just fantastic for women who already feel they have nobody to talk to about their feelings.

Finally I Googled depression in pregnancy, and was surprised to find it is actually a thing. I actually burst into hysterical sobs, because I was so incredibly relieved to know I wasn’t the only one.

And you know, the feelings passed. It happened suddenly, somewhere towards the end of four months. One day, I was vomiting and tired and depressed, and the next day I wasn’t. I still didn’t quite feel a sense of reality about the pregnancy until I felt my girl moving, but I realised that actually I’d loved her all along, just hadn’t known it because of those damn hormones. But every decision I’d made since falling pregnant had been to protect her.

Even with this second pregnancy, although I didn’t have the same severe depression, I did have moments of sheer terror. Personally, I thought that was understandable – I hadn’t wanted any more children, but now found I was going to have two babies fairly close together. It’s pretty daunting. But again, I discovered it was taboo to share my fears. Apparently I should have been grateful that my ovaries functioned not once, but twice.

Regarding gratitude, there’s a blog post I adore, from Boganette (“I Am Grateful, Now Fuck Off“), which expresses my feelings in a much more eloquent way than I possibly can. Boganette points out that telling people to be grateful can actually be dangerous. Yes, dangerous. It “leads to those parents shutting down and never sharing how they truly feel. It leads to parents not having support networks. It leads to parents walking into parenthood without any idea of how hard some moments, some days, can be. It leads to such unfair expectations on parents – enjoy every minute or you’re a fucking monster. It leads to feeling like you’re doing it all wrong.

We need to allow pregnant women to talk about how they feel. We need to not assume every pregnancy announcement is a joy-filled moment, that every woman is only thinking about whether the nursery should be pink, blue, or unisex. Would you tell a paraplegic, “Be grateful you’ve still got use of your arms”? Would you tell a blind person, “Be grateful you’re not deaf”? Would you tell someone who lost their home, “Be grateful you’re not in a third-world country”? Okay, growing a life is a different issue. But how come it’s okay to defend a woman’s right to a termination, yet when she opts to keep her baby despite misgivings, she gets no kudos for that? Why do women struggling with antenatal depression have to ask questions anonymously online, even creating separate profiles?

To those struggling with antenatal depression, be kind on yourselves. Your body is doing one of the toughest jobs it will ever do. Women raising a baby these days are taking on the job of what used to belong to a whole village, sometimes also working and even studying at the same time. You’re not alone and you’re definitely amazing. I just wish more people would say it to you.

The Black Dog in Pregnancy