What it's Really Like to Feel Depressed During Pregnancy

I wanted so much to feel happy, to feel joyous and lucky because I knew I was all of those things, yet I couldn't quite get a hold of the emotions.

Sad Depressed Pregnant Woman Sitting on Couch Hand on Stomach Holding Tissue
Photo: Lopolo/Shutterstock

When I found myself pregnant for the second time, with a baby my husband and I very much wanted, I couldn't feel excited. It all happened so quickly that it caught me off-guard—I'd expected months of trying to the point that I'd be desperate, so sure and clear of what I wanted, the way it had been the first time around.

This time, I felt lonely and scared. My life felt uncertain. Having left full-time employment after the birth of my daughter, I had been working on a freelance career as a novelist and journalist, but now that new career already felt like it was over.

And then there was my other job—motherhood. How would I cope with that when this new baby came? I was getting the hang of this motherhood business with one, but would two push me over the edge? Undo me? I'd thought of this before, hypothetically, but now it was real, it was suddenly a lot more daunting. All this, of course, was mixed with the fact that I could now no longer enjoy a glass of wine, and that I couldn't tell anyone how bad I was feeling without first telling them the happy secret that was currently making me so very unhappy. I didn't want to share my news too far and wide for fear of suffering a miscarriage and having to go back to everyone and tell them the bad news.

My body was heavy, tired from the insomnia that kept me awake from three until seven in the morning, exhausted from the constant vomiting, and bloated from all the eating, which fended off the unrelenting nausea. It also felt invaded, bruised, and bombarded, from all the appointments with hematologists, gynecologists, midwives, doctors, and nurses. I felt sick all day and woke up to be sick or eat during the night. I vomited in public on street corners, at roundabouts, beside parked cars, in the bin, in basins, in the toilet, in the sink. No wonder then, that emotionally I was even worse; delicate, jumpy, tearful. I wanted so much to feel happy, to feel joyous and lucky because I knew I was all of those things, yet I couldn't quite get a hold of the emotions.

The uncertainty of my own life, my body, my future, was a burden. So too was the worry for this precious life I was carrying, so fragile and delicate in its early weeks, and for which I needed to inject myself with a blood-thinning medication in the stomach every day to avoid a clot, in myself and in the baby. It's confusing when the very thing you feel most protective of, is also a thing you fear.

During my first semester scan, they took my blood pressure three times because it was so high. For three months I had been preparing myself for the worst, and for the best. When I found out my little baby was alive and saw its small head, arms, and legs, the tiny, pulsing dot of a beating heart, I finally felt joy, albeit briefly, before it was crowded out by so many other emotions. Emotions I had to hide from my husband, from myself even. It was only the next day, at a painful glucose test when the needle caught the vein, that the tears began to flow, unstoppable. In the bathroom, they dripped onto my beige shoes, making splashes of brown.

I was raw with relief and spent emotionally and physically. I imagined telling my children about what I might have been, as if I would now not get the chance because in my mind, I would never work again. I wouldn't be who I wanted to be, because I had taken the path of motherhood. It seemed final; a done deal.

Professor Susan Ayers, a health psychologist and cognitive behavior therapist leading the Center for Maternal and Child Health Research at City University of London, describes mental health in a paper co-written with Amy Delicate called Recognizing and acting on perinatal mental health: 'Mental health and illness are not categorical but more like a continuum from positive mental health to severe illness.'

I don't know where I was on that continuum, but I know I was on it.

Signs of Prenatal Depression

Depression during pregnancy can be hard to pin down because symptoms often cross over with hormone and mood changes that also take place. The American Pregnancy Association lists the suffering of the following symptoms for two weeks or more as flags for antenatal, or prenatal, depression: persistent sadness; difficulty concentrating; sleeping too little or too much; loss of interest in activities that usually bring you joy; anxiety; feelings of guilt or worthlessness; change in eating habits; recurring thoughts of hopeless, suicide, or death.

Thankfully, I didn't suffer from my symptoms for too long. I edged forward. I decided to tell people I was pregnant ahead of the cautionary twelve-week mark, and I told them what I was going through. Sharing made me feel better; lighter. I educated myself on perinatal depression—depression that is experienced both pre- and post-partum, and I knew I wasn't alone. I wrote about it, and I was gentle with myself, the way I would be with a friend; kind. I allowed space for this huge mixture of emotions. I also let my husband take care of me. I let him wrap me in love and care, and I took all the cuddles my daughter offered, because she, too, could see I wasn't well. I exercised and signed up for Pilates. I went to therapy.

I have learned to appreciate what I have right now, not to worry so much about the what ifs, about tomorrow, about next year. I've adopted the phrase, 'We'll cross that bridge when we come to it'. No point lying awake working out what I'll do in two years when it's still two years away. I have delicate days, when I have fewer spoons—to borrow from Christine Miserandino's spoon metaphor on depression, which describes the reduced amount of mental and physical energy available for activities of living and productive tasks that may result from disability or chronic illness (though I don't pretend to suffer from either).

On those days I take extra special care of myself. And I know tomorrow will be another day.

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