To say I felt depressed during my first pregnancy is an understatement. To say that my depression went untreated is also an understatement. However, considering I presented a number of risk factors for depression during pregnancy, the fact that my depression was basically ignored by those around me feels a bit like a failure of services.
As for risk factors, I could have been a poster child for Depression During Pregnancy.
- A personal history of depression or another mental illness – Check!
- A family history of depression or another mental illness – Check!
- A lack of support from family and friends – Check!
- Anxiety or negative feelings about the pregnancy – Check!
- Problems with a previous pregnancy or birth – This was my first pregnancy, so no check!
- Marriage or money problems – No marriage, no money: double check!
- Stressful life events – Check!
- Young age – Check!
- Substance abuse – No check!
Six out of eight, and add in a side of extreme pregnancy complications due to my own health, and well, it’s easy to see that I was at least at risk for antenatal depression. Yet, not one doctor or nurse ever asked me, “Are you feeling okay? Do you need to talk to someone?” The woman parading as a counselor for the adoption facilitator I began talking to never once asked, “Would you like to talk to some other mothers who also had these same fears during their pregnancies?” No one in my family sat me down and said, “Listen, Jenna. I think you’re depressed and I think it’s affecting your decision making skills regarding this pregnancy.”
Because it did.
After surgery to place a stent in my kidney at 18 weeks, my doctor placed me on Level III bed rest. I had to quit my job as I could only get out of bed to shower. I began to panic not only about my financial situation but about my perceived inabilities as a mother.
I chastised myself all day long in my bed or on the couch watching movies on VHS tapes sent by an online friend as I couldn’t afford cable. “What kind of mother cries when she finds out she’s pregnant? A bad one, that’s the kind. You can’t do this. Look at you: You can’t even do pregnancy right. You’re biologically horrible at pregnancy, so why wouldn’t you be biologically horrible at motherhood? You’re going to fail this baby. You’re going to be a failure as a mother.” The voices in my head taunted me all day long.
So I listened.
I contacted the first adoption facilitator I found in the back of a magazine. I filled out their medical history forms to the best of my knowledge, including that I had previously been on antidepressants. Still, not one person I had contact with at their office ever asked, “Have you considered that your beliefs about your lack of ability to be a mother are signs of depression?” Instead, they preyed on my anxiety, my depressed state, my lack of support, my financial problems, and my age to help me paint a negative self-portrait—one who couldn’t be a mother.
Years later, when I found myself in therapy for postpartum depression after the birth of my second child, a son, I felt anger. I felt angry not only for the young mother who slipped through the cracks, but at myself for not being able to see; not being able to see through the anxiety or depression, not being able to see through the lies and half-truths, not being able to see my child as my own. I held on to that personal anger, the anger directed at myself, for years, much longer than I held on to the anger directed at the adoption facilitator. After all, as so many willing to dismiss birth mothers and their grief say, I “signed those papers, so it’s my decision, my fault.”
It wasn’t until sometime in the past year that I’ve been able to see that young mother with a sense of compassion. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. If you ask any person who suffered from depression, they will tell you that a period of time existed during which they simply didn’t know they were depressed. I simply thought I couldn’t be a good mother, that these thoughts were proof that I lacked maternal instinct, that maybe I’d never be the motherly type.
I’ve cried many tears for the young mother that I was in the process of healing, and yes, forgiving myself. I’m still working on the forgiving part, but I now fully understand how and why I ended up on the path of adoption and eventually relinquishing my child. I firmly believe if we offered mothers considering adoption access to legitimate mental health care resources, we’d see an improvement in the numbers of mothers who both choose to parent and, should they choose to place, feel as though it was an informed decision, not coerced by people seeking to gain from their loss.
However, while we’ve made great strides in acknowledging and providing resources for mothers and families fighting postpartum depression, ethical reform in adoption remains a slow-moving process. If we admit that mothers who are single, who maybe don’t feel worthy of being a mother are worthy of being mothers, then for-profit newborn adoption begins to make less sense. And there’s the rub.
For now, I take comfort in knowing I’m not alone, in offering hope and support to other scared mothers, and in continuing the work of forgiving myself. Maybe someday I’ll get there.