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Maternal depression: ‘If there’s no mama, there’s no baby’

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Recently, New York City health officials set a goal to screen every pregnant woman and new mother for maternal depression. It’s estimated that 1 in 10 New York women suffer from it, and making screening part of routine care has power to save lives. When I was pregnant, I suffered in silence, until it was almost too late.

“Come on, Vamanos,” Dora the Explorer sang to my toddler, plopped in front of the TV, hoping she wouldn’t notice her pregnant mommy couldn’t stop sobbing. As a 30-year-old mom, in Queens, six months pregnant with a second child, I should have been happy. I should have been able to sit cross-legged with my daughter, building block towers and reading stories. Instead, I spent my time throwing up, pulling out clumps of hair and cutting my arm with a knife. My husband traveled regularly, working long hours and I was often alone with my toddler.

As Dora blared, I felt the baby kick, walked over to the window and violently pulled it open. We never had the required window guard installed, so I was able to pull it open wide enough to crawl, or dive, out.  Then I heard a still small voice say, “Jump.” I stared at the storm outside, matching the storm within, and finally for the first time in six months, felt peace. I looked over at my daughter, and I knew she needed to come with me. This voice, not a voice I could hear, but one I could feel in my heart, told me that the only way to save us was to bury us. Put her in the Ergo and jump. “Come on, Vamanos.”

I had struggled with my mood during my first pregnancy, but nothing like this. When I first felt myself slipping, I reached for my bag of Happy Tricks. I posted cheery pictures to our family blog. I went for walks outside, cooked dinner, kept a gratitude journal and drank kale smoothies. None of it helped. Although my husband adored me, and was a terrific father, he had no idea what to do. He brought home cupcakes and took care of bedtime, waiting for these (anything but) normal mood swings to pass.

I couldn’t sleep. I felt anxious all day and sick from the pregnancy. Every time I looked at my daughter I felt overwhelmed by guilt that I wasn’t the kind of mother she deserved. I was convinced I had ruined her beyond repair.

It was difficult to talk about what was happening, but I didn’t want to suffer alone. I called my sister who told me, “Motherhood is all about sacrifice. You can do it! It’s only nine months.” I knew she was right. I should be able to do it! But I couldn’t. I felt sick, alone and afraid. I stopped talking.

“Come On Vamanos,” I heard Dora sing again. Two minutes from strapping my baby girl to my chest and jumping out the window, something caught in my chest.

“Help,” I heard myself say.

I ran to the phone and called my doctor. Within the hour I had a referral for a prenatal psychiatrist. She was the only person in the universe who seemed to have any idea what I was going through. She prescribed medication and while I worried about what might happen to my baby if I took it, I knew what would happen if I didn’t. She assured me that she was going to work in tandem with my OBGYN to take care of the baby growing inside me. Then she looked me in the eye, “But right now, someone needs to take care of you.” Those words stopped me cold. “Because if there’s no Mama, there’s no baby.”

Up to that moment, I was determined to march my way through hell, thinking only of the baby, because I thought that was the sacrifice motherhood required. I trembled as I lifted the pills to my lips, took a deep breath, and chose to live.

I saw a therapist, a psychiatrist, or my regular OBGYN every week. I didn’t feel good or even remotely like myself until the day my son was born, a perfect eight and a half pounds, three months after my breakdown. I felt instant relief and we nicknamed our little boy The Happiest Baby Alive. I stayed on my medication and in the hospital they screened me for postpartum depression, while I smiled through the questions no one ever thought to ask while I was pregnant.

I know a woman who got sick with breast cancer when she was pregnant. Before she started chemotherapy people crowded around her, not just with food, but to hold her hand while she cried and worried about having to make such a gut wrenching decision. “Can you imagine?” a mutual acquaintance asked. “Yes, “I can.”

“But you had a choice,” the woman told me. “She didn’t.”

No one brings you casseroles and holds your hand when your brain gets sick, or calls you a survivor if you come out on the other side. But I am also a mother who made some harrowing decisions and fought desperately to take care of myself and my kids. I’m not ashamed that I took medication when I was pregnant. It saved my life. My only regret is that I didn’t have the wisdom to take care better care of myself sooner.

Gabriel is a mother and writer living in New York.

For help: Go to Postpartum Support International

To learn more visit the MGH Center for Women’s Mental Health

If you are in the Washington D.C. region, check out this resource guide

And in Virginia, try Postpartum Support Virginia

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