I’ve always adored kids. Considering I was the oldest of five, my upbringing definitely gave me a healthy awareness of just how simultaneously delightful and trying kids, especially younger ones, can be. I took my older-sister responsibilities very seriously, from helping change diapers to taking the younger kids for a walk to the park. Even seeing how chaotic motherhood can be, I still always wanted my own (although perhaps not until I was much older and in a stable place in life).
As I got older, that realistic and healthy awareness about kids gave way to intense anxiety. I started college and began to experience mental health problems. Adjusting to a new city and holding down two jobs while in school shook me emotionally in ways I didn’t know were possible. For weeks, I stared at walls. When not working or in class, I slept constantly. The simplest of problems turned me into a weepy mess. On my darkest days, I didn’t want to exist.
It wasn’t until I was close to graduation that I took advantage of the counseling services my university offered, where I was diagnosed with depression. As I began to work toward getting myself to a better place — seeking help, talking with friends, and figuring out what sent me into emotional spirals — I started thinking about how my life would look in the longterm with the mental health issues I was experiencing. I had been dating my boyfriend for over a year at that point. We were confident about our future together, knowing we both wanted to get married and have a family some day. He eagerly dreamt of the day when we would have kids, even telling me he wanted to be a stay-at-home dad, if possible. Even back then, he was no stranger to my struggles either. I can’t count the number of times I called him just to weep on the phone because of the stress of putting myself through college, or how many times he held me when I just needed to let myself feel everything that I was going through.
I had no doubt my partner would be an incredible husband and father. I just wasn’t as confident about my own future as a mom.
I became convinced that my depression would all but ensure that I get postpartum depression later. Learning that women who have experience with depression before getting pregnant are more likely to suffer from PPD only worsened my fears. I recognized the challenges I faced daily just taking care of myself. The thought of one day becoming a mother now frightened me beyond the basic fatigue and difficulties every mom experiences — I now feared my depression could render me fully incapable of taking care of children. The cards seemed stacked against me.
There is nothing I want more than to spend my life with my boyfriend, but I felt overwhelmingly underprepared for a family. Worse, I felt guilty that I couldn’t imagine our future together without wanting to crawl under a rock and cry. I knew that if I wanted to do right by him, and by my future family, I was going to need to face my fears before things progressed.
At first, the stories I heard confirmed my anxieties. Verily’s own special projects manager, Sophie Caldecott, told me she felt like something was wrong with her after she gave birth to her child. “I didn’t immediately want to jump out of bed to be with her,” Sophie says. “I didn’t want to hold her and coo over her straight away. I kind of just wanted to take a breather and enjoy the fact that she wasn’t inside my body anymore.”
Knowing my views on parenting were largely shaped by my own childhood, I decided I needed to talk to my mom. Married at 18 and pregnant at 20, she left my father for reasons I won’t discuss in length. Suffice to say it was bad enough for a 21-year-old woman to pack up her things and take her infant daughter and go. She spent the next few years trying to get her life back together, going back to school, and being on welfare for a while.
Several years later, she was diagnosed with delayed-onset PTSD, residual from the effects of leaving my father. She became beset with panic attacks and nightmares. As a child, I didn’t realize my mom was struggling, but years later when I learned what she had been through, I had to ask her about it. How did she find the strength to continue when her whole world had crashed around her? How did she not give up in the face of what I now knew was traumatic?
She made it clear to me that her children were never a source of pain. “You came into all this drama, and trauma, and chaos,” my mother told me. But despite her challenges, she says, it was ultimately her children who saved her.
“Motherhood is what pulled me out of it,” she told me. “I’ve never regretted becoming a mom. Y’all made the trauma worth it.”
After her diagnosis, she said, she started going to therapy and learned what her triggers were. She got through it one day at a time. Still, the fearful part of me wanted to know how. How, when faced with such heavy mental anguish, were moms able to care for this precious human life before them? “You’re not going to just wake up tomorrow with an infant,” my mom reminded me. “Awareness comes with a plan, and when the time comes, you have a lot of lead-up.”
I admire my mother for how she handled herself during what I can only imagine was one of the hardest times of her life. More than that, I’m inspired to push through my own struggles. These women had gone through hell — and came out the other side. It reminded me of something important: I was so concerned about how I would be able to handle being a parent alone, that I forgot I won’t, in fact, be alone.
Going forward, I plan to work with my OB-GYN to manage my fears and watch for signs of PPD when the time comes. My mother reminded me that having a support structure is a big help, too. When she was struggling as a single mother, my mom lived her with parents for a time. Sophie similarly noted that she was grateful for her own mother’s presence after her daughter was born. Others I’ve spoken to who suffered with PPD shared that the support of family, friends, and professional help them on their paths toward healing.
Some fears are rooted in irrationality, even when they seem to come from a rational place. I don’t think myself silly for being concerned about PPD, or my mental health, and how it almost certainly will affect my future family — I now know these fears are quite normal. My partner and I will face our life together, and I know he’ll be there for me (he once joked he’d be so eager to help with everything, from being pregnant to the actual child-raising, that I might have to tell him off every once in a while). And I know my mother will be there in a heartbeat if I say I need it.
The truth is, I don’t know what it will be like when the day comes to have children. I used to seek some perfect solution that would prevent me from the sinking feeling I had in college — something I could hold in my hand and say “Look! I found it! This is how you do it; this is how to be the perfect mother.”
I still may not have the golden answer, but I do know I am not alone. Just that knowledge has strengthened my resolve to work on my mental health today — long before kids enter the picture. I am working to set healthy limits and know when I need to take it easy. I’ve started good self-care habits like writing in a journal and exercising regularly. I’m still learning the importance of reaching out to loved ones. Yes, there are still days when I struggle. And I know that after children, I may still need a specific treatment plan to help me take care of myself. If there’s one thing I do know about mental health, it’s that even doing all the “right” things, like creating support structures and communicating your needs, doesn’t disqualify you from mental-health troubles. But it sure does help in overcoming them — what’s more, it reminds me that family is bigger than fear.
This was originally published at Verily Magazine