This Thanksgiving, I expect most parents I know will be filling my social media feeds with pictures of their little ones with messages of gratitude and love. Although I was one of those parents last year, this Sunday I’m not going to do that.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being thankful for your children, but I want to give myself props for coming so far in my parenting journey. So, this Thanksgiving, I’m not thankful for my first and only child, I’m thankful for my mental health.
Going into the birth of my baby last year, I knew I would most likely have some form of postpartum depression (PPD) after he arrived. When I found out I was pregnant, hovering over the toilet with my hand covered in pee, I immediately started bawling, not because I was happy, but because I was terrified. What had I done?
Even though my husband and I planned to get pregnant, I was wholly unprepared for those two pink lines indicating a positive pregnancy test, barely two months after I went off birth control. The next few weeks were a blur as I alternated between excitement and terror, on top of throwing up every morning (and afternoon).
Most days, I would wake up bawling, so scared about the way my life was about to change. I would go through the days numb, letting work take over my mind until I had to go home in the evening to deal with the fact that there would be a human bursting out of me in a few months.
“Most days, I would wake up bawling, so scared about the way my life was about to change.”
Two months into my first trimester, I made the decision to have an abortion, a week before Christmas. We had already told family members that we were expecting, so I figured I could let people down slowly by saying I had a miscarriage. I was terrified what people would think if I told them I actually had an abortion.
I sought out a quiet room at work and dialled the number of a women’s clinic in Toronto. The woman on the phone was brusque but kind as I nervously stuttered, “I would like an abortion, please.” After settling on a date, I asked her what the cancellation policy was.
There was none, she told me. If people started cancelling, it would mean there would be less space for people who really needed an abortion.
I felt bad — I still wasn’t 100 per cent sure whether this was the right decision and I didn’t want to take away a spot from someone who truly needed it.
So, I didn’t go through with it.
Eight months later, I had a baby boy. Seven weeks after that, I was diagnosed with postpartum depression.
The first time I realized something was off was when I pictured throwing my then-three-week-old son into the wall. Eventually, I had intrusive, negative thoughts every day, every hour: thoughts of me getting hit by a car so I could spend a month in the hospital sleeping instead of nursing my baby; thoughts of dropping my baby down the stairs; thoughts of running away and never returning.
Every morning, after getting maybe an hour of sleep the previous night, I would desperately Google, “How to give up my baby for adoption.”
“The first time I realized something was off was when I pictured throwing my then-three-week-old son into the wall.”
A week after my husband went back to work, I was alone with a wailing baby when I felt like I was suddenly going crazy. I raced to bed with the baby, my heart pounding, my mind racing, trying to decide whether I should call 911 on myself. I felt like I couldn’t be alone with him, that something terrible would happen.
A few days prior, I had a breakdown and was so scared that I would do something terrible, so I reached out to a maternal health program at a local hospital and they give me the contact information for a social worker. I texted her asking for help. She told me I had three options: 1. Check myself into the emergency room 2) Call 911 or 3) See my doctor asap.
The next morning, while my mom was babysitting the baby, my husband drove me to the clinic, where I tested a 28 out of a possible 30 on the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale (EPDS) — a series of questions used by doctors that can indicate whether a parent has symptoms of postpartum depression and anxiety.
I was given a prescription for sertraline, an antidepressant that goes by the street name Zoloft. Since it can take a few weeks for the drug to kick in and I needed relief right away, I reached out to a postpartum psychologist, whom I would see twice a month for my whole maternity leave; and I started going to a free weekly support group for moms.
That extra support was key to feeling better. Being able to talk to not just a professional but other women who were going through similar situations, who never judged you, was such a relief. Listening to their stories and advice, which included cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), relaxation techniques, and anxiety busters (such as speaking out loud what you can see, hear, feel, and taste), helped me heal.
The week I started taking Zoloft, we also started sleep training our baby, as we figured out that my sleep exhaustion was a contributor to my PPD.
My husband was able to work from home for a couple months while I recovered; my mom and mother-in-law came in several times a week to help, giving me time to rest and heal.
“I felt like I couldn’t be alone with him, that something terrible would happen.”
Two months after I nearly checked myself into the hospital, I felt like a different person. Parenting was still a little hard, but, thanks to the antidepressants, coping mechanisms I learned from my therapist, and a new support group of wonderful moms I saw regularly, I felt like I could manage it.
I no longer had frightening thoughts, I no longer wanted to give my baby away, and most importantly, I no longer felt like I had to call 911 on myself.
I’ve now been back at work for a couple weeks and my son is 14 months old and in daycare. Although I still have anxiety — what parent doesn’t? — I feel like myself again, and that’s directly because of the care I received from my support system and the work I put into myself so I could heal.
Prioritizing myself and my mental health has been crucial to me being a good parent to my son, but often, there are not enough mental health services and resources to help parents — and it’s mostly still up to the person who has the mental illness to advocate for themselves, something not everyone who is in the throes of PPD or postpartum anxiety can do.
Marginalized parents, including those from racialized communities, Indigenous Peoples, LGBTQ+ people, and those who have precarious income or housing, face more barriers to accessing proper maternal or parental care than those who aren’t marginalized.
“For many Indigenous communities, the issue is around accessibility — or accessing culturally secure and safe care,” Dr. Mary-Ann Etiebet, executive director of the Merck for Mothers program, told CBC News. Factors that can affect an Indigenous woman’s maternal care include “a lack of housing, access to transportation, or mental-health issues,” reports CBC News.
“Perinatal depression may be more common among lesbian and bisexual women than among straight women.”
A 2018 study that looked at the barriers LGBTQ+ people assigned female at birth found that many faced challenges getting their needs met. Many of the study participants said their primary provider lacked “LGBTQ health competency relevant to reproductive health priorities and treatment” and that they received discriminatory comments and treatment.
A Centre for Addiction and Mental Health project, Mothering on the Margins, released a study that noted “lesbian and bisexual women face significant barriers in accessing pre- and postnatal care,” and perinatal depression may be more common among lesbian and bisexual women than among straight women.
I only got better because I forced myself to reach out for help and I live in a dense city where there a lot a lot of resources, but not everyone can do that.
Maternal health, even for straight, cisgender women, is still woefully lacking, in part because women’s health still isn’t taken as seriously as men’s health.
“Women are not well-represented in research, and when they are included, the information isn’t reported in such a way that we can distinguish important data differences between the sexes, ” wrote Jaimie Roebuck, a communications specialist at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto, Dr. Robin Mason, a scientist at Women’s College Research Institute, and Dr. Paula Rochon, vice-president of research at Women’s College Hospital in the Globe and Mail.
“Sex and gender play an important role in affecting a patient’s health, their risk factors, how they experience health care and how health-care professionals provide care,” they explained.
Until we decide to take women’s health more seriously, there are going to be a lot of women who won’t get the help they need. Everyone, men included, should demand better health care for women.
If I hadn’t gotten the help I needed, I’m scared to think of what could have happened to me, and it makes me so sad and angry that many parents don’t get that help. If you are someone, or you know someone, who is showing signs of PPD, please get help if it’s available, and know that you are not alone.
Are you in a crisis? If you need help, contact Crisis Services Canada at their website or by calling 1-833-456-4566. If you know someone who may be having thoughts of suicide, read this guide from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) to learn how to talk about suicide with the person you’re worried about.
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