“How’s your libido?” my doctor would ask, peering at me over her glasses, her pen poised over my medical file. The question may seem odd, but it’s one that she would routinely ask at the start of my mental-health check-ins. It was always an interesting icebreaker before the more-difficult inquiries about my chronic depression.
I used to be able to laugh when asked the libido question—after all, my sex life was just fine, thank you very much. But somewhere between the birth of my second child and the decision to quit my job to become a stay-at-home mom, I couldn’t say everything was fine—because it wasn’t. The antidepressants that had worked for me previously suddenly weren’t helpful anymore. And, despite having the “best job in the world,” I was absolutely miserable as a stay-at-home mom, and there was nothing that could take the edge off my anger and sadness. The pressure I put on myself to keep my house clean, make home-cooked meals and keep my kids happy was suffocating.
I’m a stay-at-home mom and, for the first five years of my kids’ lives, I was depressed.
There are a lot of assumptions made about you when you become a mother, and one of them is that your happiness is automatic. I believed that a baby would equal bliss. Well, it wasn’t true, and it was a tough lesson I learned during my two pregnancies and subsequent postpartum depression. Thankfully, society is finally coming to accept that this isn’t always the case as the stigma surrounding postpartum depression softens and more women courageously share their stories. But at one point, there were few conversations about the mental health of stay-at-home moms. It felt like the sort of thing you weren’t supposed to talk about—a throwback to the ’50s, when stay-at-home moms donned aprons and kept their lips zipped about the roller coaster of raising kids. These feelings were so different from those when I was a working parent, when it felt safe to complain about stress and the struggle for a work/life balance. But when you’re a stay-at-home mom, how can you complain when the imbalance is all your own doing?
There is a huge difference between generations: Today’s stay-at-home moms usually hold down full-time jobs before deciding to stay at home. After investing in your education and career, it’s only natural to feel a loss of identity when you choose to become a stay-at-home parent. I’ve mourned my career—along with the ambitious young woman I used to be—for years while simultaneously revelling in the joy of watching my two kids grow up right in front of me. For some of us, stay-at-home motherhood didn’t come easily, and sadness and depression followed. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell the two apart. When is it more than just a case of the blues?
Unfortunately, the online peanut gallery isn’t kind to stay-at-home moms grappling with mental-health issues. Believe me, I know from experience through my blog posts on Today’s Parent. Whenever I write about my plummeting self-esteem, I’m told to get a job. Whenever I share my personal feelings about my dissatisfaction as a mom, I’m told to pray more. Whenever I admit that I hate being a housewife, I’m told to divorce my husband. As someone who has been treated for chronic depression for most of her life, I can assure you that a new job, a prayer or a divorce wouldn’t solve any of my problems. They’re not helpful solutions for true chronic depression and, if anything, they only compound my sadness and guilt.
During my final psychotherapy appointment two years ago, I cried less than I normally did, even though the topic of guilt came up.
“What do you have to feel guilty about?” my therapist asked.
“I’m worried I don’t love my kids enough,” I admitted. “I yell at them too much, and my husband, too.”
“You do love them enough,” he assured me. “I know this to be true because you’re here.”
We made a decision to adjust my dosage of antidepressants and set the date for the next session. I left feeling better and, dare I say, even happy?
It’s a fine line some days, and discerning the difference between sadness, exhaustion, guilt and depression can be difficult. But believe me when I tell you that it does get easier, especially as the stigma around postpartum depression lessens with each passing year. And if taking that first step and asking for help is scary, know that you’re not alone. I’ve been there, and I’ve got your back.