My son Charlie was born right on time. He arrived on his due date and has managed to be intensely punctual ever since. Charlie likes to stick to the rules. So does his mother, it seems. I am a teacher, and we teachers like our rules. Before I became a mom, I figured one basic rule of parenting is that we unreservedly adore our children all the time and always enjoy the process of parenting.
I broke that rule from the very beginning.
In my early days with Charlie, I found myself deeply submerged in postpartum depression. It was so acute that Charlie, in all his newborn adorableness, engendered in me a feeling of anxiety and numb dread instead of adoration—which I wasn’t prepared for. After all the joyous descriptions I had heard about motherhood, I felt confused and shortchanged. My parenting gig was not blissful. I did not experience adoration and glowy feelings. I felt fear and total dread. And I knew that what I felt was all very against the rules.
After about two weeks, I managed to tell my husband. And he is my hero because, right away, he made the doctor’s appointments and therapy appointments, and as time passed I found myself feeling more human and more like a mom.
Oh, how I wish I could say, “And now I’m all better!” But that is not the case. Some eight years later, depression still comes knocking. Perhaps it’s hormones. Perhaps it’s my past. I still do what I need to do. I pray. I exercise. I seek therapy and read lots of books on the subject. I try to eat right most of the time. And I take a prescribed medication for my depression, and it helps. I do all the right things, and I have learned to lean in to the depression and not fear it so much. Dealing with depression is hard, though. And there are some days when I have to be extra gentle with myself. There’s only one problem with that plan: I have children.
Here is how it should all go down. I’m having one of those events that Winston Churchill, fellow depression haver, used to call his “black-dog days.”
I figure I just need to hunker down. A nap, some soft music, and some Scripture will help. I tell both the boys, “Guys? Mom needs to have the afternoon off, okay?”
They both nod and smile and say, “Okay, Mama. We will play here quietly. Later, we’ll bring you a cup of tea and perhaps help clean the bathrooms.”
I’m still waiting for them to offer this response. If it ever arrived, I’d no longer be depressed—the shock alone would kill me!
Initially when my black-dog days came, I figured I would just suffer through them with my children in tow. I gritted my teeth and got through the day, bedtime arrived early for all of us, and we all had a lot of tears in between. Maybe this tactic works for childbirth—and for getting through episodes of Caillou—but I don’t think it is a good fit for parenting while dealing with depression. I found my days unbearable, and my children found their mother to be distant, cold, and equally unbearable. Depression is hard enough without piling a bunch of motherly guilt onto it. I had to find a better way. I simply could not check out on my bad days.
So how does a parent, parent during depression? Here are a few tips I have learned through the years:
1. Believe that this, too, shall pass. I can’t speak for the experiences of others; there are many different ways that depression manifests in people and even more ways to treat it. My own waves of depression tend to ebb and flow. I have proof of this because I keep a calendar and track its visits. So it’s helpful to give myself a pep talk that I can get through this latest wave, just like I’ve managed to get through all the ones that preceded it.
2. Celebrate the good days. When the cloud lifts, I make sure to stop at multiple points during my day to thank God for the peace in my heart. I practice thanking God for every little thing, from a fragrant cup of coffee to a smooth bedtime routine to licks from my dog. If I experience an uplift in my heart, practicing intentional gratitude is my way of embedding a talisman in my memory for the next time the gloom descends.
3. Communicate. Depression is hard to explain to those who aren’t diagnosed with it. One of my best plans of attack has been finding a prayer partner who understands this disease and can pray with me. Just reaching out, even with a quick text—“Help. Bad day. Pray?”—has made a huge difference. The other piece of the puzzle here is to be honest with my kids on the days I struggle. I don’t need to burden them, but a simple, statement along the lines of, “Sorry, guys, I’m kinda quiet today, ” paired with hugs, can help a lot.
4. Plan ahead. One of my biggest mistakes on these hard times was simply to shut down and think, Movies and popcorn for everyone, all day! There is nothing wrong with pajamas and cuddles on the couch, but a bit of structure helps. When we binge-watch Netflix for hours, the entire household starts to feel grumpy and lazy, which pretty much makes things worse. I have some easy activities on standby that always seem to lift our spirits: a walk to the coffee shop for a cookie, listening to Toby Mac’s “Move” on repeat, or reading my favorite magazines while the kids play Wii Rock Band—with headphones.
5. See the blessings. The best thing I ever did for my depression was allow it to sit with me, instead of trying to kick it out. I have learned that depression has helped me with my empathy and my stamina. Also, where I used to regard my children as an extra challenge to “deal with” during the tough days, I now see both boys as little levers I can use to pull myself out of my gloom. They are very effective mental-health partners.
6. Pray. Well, obviously. But pray like it’s a breath. Inhale and exhale with words like, “Help. Please. I hurt.” Tell God you are so, so sad. Tell God you don’t know why you are sad, and it’s making you so, so angry. Just tell God all of it. Then say, “I love you. Oh, I love you. Thank you for being with me.”
This past month I had a few hard days. I generally do. I made note of them on my handy calendar and paid attention to nutrition, hormones, and sleep to see if I could gauge the patterns. Sometimes my notes illuminate a rhythm or pattern. Sometimes not. But when those hard days came, I was gentle with myself, and I parented—all at the same time. We had popcorn and apples for dinner and watched The Secret Life of Pets. Twice. We all went to bed early. I made sure to get some quiet time in every morning. And we all got through.
God wants so much more for us than just getting through. But when the hard days come and wash over me (and they will come), God knows. Not all days are spent on the wings of eagles. Sometimes a slow walk is the best I can do. At these times, I am extra grateful for my children because their company is both a comfort and a command. My children will not let me sit alone, or still, for long. They are my chorus and my marching orders: “Move. Keep walking. Soldier, keep moving on.”