Think mental health affects only the parents? Depression can cast a dark shadow on your entire family.
By Jennifer Pinarski
Updated Mar 29, 2017
Isaac and Gillian. But the irony of the photo is my dark and long shadow.
I remember sitting in my doctor’s office when our firstborn was 10 weeks old. Tears and snot streaming down my face, I was desperately trying to describe the crushing anxiety I felt when I tried to leave the house. I was worried that he’d cry, need to be breastfed, get hit by a train or that someone would try to take him from me. I hadn’t showered in a week and only the day before had gone to a walk-in hair salon and asked for my dirty and tangled long hair to be lopped of into a pixie cut. Despite working with my doctor and OB/GYN throughout my pregnancy to keep my clinical depression and anxiety in check, here I was — a nearly bald, puffy-faced wreck. Sleeplessness and hormonal changes had sent me over the edge and had me questioning whether or not I was even fit to be a parent.
My doctor touched my shoulder and told me it would take time to feel better. “And don’t forget to tell your son that you’re sad,” she added. “It’s good to let him know that you won’t always be happy.” While I don’t think I have ever straight-out told my son that I’m prone to episodes of depression, I do remember times when I’d be paralyzed by fear and just sit quietly with him. I do think this is why he is as sensitive as he is.
Four years and another baby later, I’m back in that same awful place. Once again, fatigue and hormones have contributed to feeling about as awful as I can remember. But now, as a stay-at-home mom, I feel as though my game face needs to be on 24/7. There’s no time for tears while trying to manage my daughter’s "terrible twos" or helping serve food during breakfast club at my son’s school. And who wants a "Negative Nancy" at playgroup?
This all came to a head last Sunday, a perfect fall day — warm enough for the kids to be outside in short sleeve shirts while confused ladybugs to come out of hibernation. We’d planned on having a campfire and fishing trip on our waterfront. Instead, I found myself inside, doing the ugly cry alone while my family played outside. Crying for no other reason than that I truly felt like I didn’t belong to such happy people and that I couldn't remember the last time I showered. At one point, my toddler daughter came inside and saw me sitting on the ground.
What she said made me feel so sad: “I’m sorry.”
My perfect daughter, apologizing to me for something that wasn’t her fault, but nonetheless, thinking it was. She’s clever and sensitive and, for the last few months, has very likely been dialed into my misery. It made me wonder if I’d taken the time when I started feeling unwell to sit with her and tell her I was sad and that it wasn’t her fault. I could have reached out to my doctor and support network sooner. And while I know she may not remember that sunny autumn afternoon, I know I will.
*** Yesterday, I took Isaac out of school for an early morning eye exam. Afterward, as I was buckling both children into their car seats, I asked them if they wanted to learn a new word. Naturally they did. The word was "hookie." We spent the day singing songs at playgroup, shopping for Christmas decorations, eating at their favourite restaurant, going for ice cream and playing tag, which is when I snapped this picture (above). What I wanted to capture was my children playing well together on a lovely day, but the irony of the photo is my dark and long shadow.
I believe that is the real story. That, as a parent, depression never affects just you but your whole family. Even for myself, a mental health advocate, asking for help from family or health care providers is not easy. But it has to be done. Moms, dads and children are much happier and healthier when we support each other and stop raising our families in isolation. We need to start caring more about each other.
This weekend, I’d love for you to reach out to a parent you know is struggling. Take them for coffee, take their kids to the park or bring them a homemade meal. Tell us about it on Twitter or here in the comments.
This article was originally published on Nov 16, 2012