My fiancée was at work. It was the weekend and he had picked up an extra shift again. He called the overtime “baby money,” cash that could help us pay for the extra expenses the pregnancy and new baby would bring.
I was in the bathroom, my two nieces and oldest children were in the living room hanging out. I was almost 8 months pregnant and angry. I had cooked breakfast, tapping into energy I didn’t have, served it as soon as it was ready and when I finished, all the food was gone. I was starving and shaky; I was about an hour away from throwing up if I didn’t hurry and eat something, but my energy was spent. The kids ran off, oblivious. I had a mess to clean, rising nausea, and a crushing weight on my chest.
I made it to the pantry, spread jelly onto a piece of bread and ate it quickly. My body rejected the rushed breakfast and I vomited into the toilet a few minutes later. I washed my face and texted my fiancée.
I can’t do this. The kids aren’t listening. They’re so much.
He texted back. Maybe take a 10 min shower?
Once, I told him that my first son (this pregnancy was his first baby. We met when my sons were 7 and 5) was a very hard baby (read: colic). When my late husband was deployed (we were dual military, both Navy), sometimes the crying was too much and I would lay him in his crib, take a 10 minute shower to hit reset, and then went back to him. I understood why he repeated my advice to me, but the circumstances were completely different.
He just didn’t know it.
His ignorance of my situation hit me full force in the chest. I was alone. So utterly alone that it took my breath away. I had a panic attack. I ended up in the shower, feeling like I was going to die. By the time he was home, the episode was over and, aside from looking a bit fatigued, I was smiling, happy he was home to cook and take some of the chatter from the kids.
I didn't know I had prenatal depression until well after my daughter was born.
Pregnancy Symptoms vs Prenatal Depression
Mood swings in pregnancy are normal, but excessive moodiness can be a red flag. Pregnant people can have some wild mood swings. There are days when the smallest thing can set you off and other days when you feel elated. I remember crying once because my cheeseburger came out without cheese.
Hormonal shifts and the numerous changes that occur in the pregnant body create some pretty intense feelings. Most can be laughed about later (probably not until after the baby is born, but still, at some point it’s funny). However, excessive occurrences can be a sign of prenatal depression.
During my pregnancy, I had many instances of crying over silly things (see above: cheese-less cheeseburger). But I also spent many nights — my partner at work, my kids asleep — sobbing, sometimes wailing over very serious topics.
Here is where I have to pause and add a bit of history. I lost my late husband, the father of my first two children, to suicide while we were both in the Navy. I think this greatly impacted my prenatal depression. The guilt and grief built into something greater and illogical. Any happiness of my current relationship and pregnancy led to stifling guilt.
The night before we did the anatomy scan, my partner took a night shift. As I laid in bed, excited to see my baby in all her various gray hues via an ultrasound, memories of my late husband and I watching our sons kick and wiggle as the ultrasound tech pointed out body parts (there’s a foot! There’s the little spine. It’s a boy!) washed over me. I cried all night. The next day, I was happy, laughing. Difficulty sleeping is common, but pregnancy insomnia can impact or worsen depression. I had trouble sleeping in all of my pregnancies. My mind tends to race, my dreams are vivid. I dream of infidelity from my partner, that they decide to leave me, or that someone is trying to take my baby. Some dreams are benign or even playful, but they’re colorful and eventful.
Hormones and pregnancy’s affect on a person’s anxiety is usually to blame. I had a few dreams during my daughter’s pregnancy of my fiancée missing the birth. This left an impact on him and, therefore, when I called him (on his way to pick up take out) that I thought I was in labor, but that it would probably be a while and he should still get the food, he made an immediate u-turn. “Oh, no. Uh-uh. And prove your dream right? I’m not missing anything.”
Physical changes also become barriers to a good night’s sleep. As the fetus grows and places more pressure on the lungs (I’m so out of breath!), places even more pressure on the bladder (it’s always so frustrating to get your sleeping position perfect just to get the urge to pee), and makes many sleeping positions impossible, quality of sleep suffers.
Pregnant or not, lack of sleep can affect depression. Moreover, it can increase the risk of developing depression. This is important to note because of how common poor sleep is among pregnant people and parents (especially during those first several months….or years).
Pregnancy makes certain activities difficult to enjoy, but withdrawal from people and activities should be investigated.
My daughter’s pregnancy took a toll on me emotionally, but also physically. Morning sickness extended far past the usual 12 weeks. I had a short reprieve and it revisited the entire last trimester. I couldn’t complain much, though, as some people experience hyperemesis, a severe form of nausea and vomiting that can lead to hospitalization. As my belly grew, my pubic bone began to complain, my back began to ache. My midwife suggested a maternity belly band to help support my back and relieve some of the pressure on my hips. It helped some, but I couldn’t walk as long as I used to, which disappointed my children.
One day, we decided to go to a nearby amusement park. I thought it would be a good idea. I could sit while they rode coasters, eat snacks, and splurge on drinks. The midsummer sun and excessive walking proved to be too much. After throwing up in the busy bathroom, I shuffled to the car, my children disappointed the day had been cut short. When we arrived home, I spent more of the afternoon throwing up the rest of the contents in my stomach while my fiancée gently laid cool cloths on the back of my neck, my arms. I spent the rest of the day in bed, trying to eat something to calm the nausea.
I don’t believe that I withdrew much from friends or activities, but I do know that I reluctantly went to many events. Small talk was exhausting. We lived rural, which meant meeting up with others left me with aching legs, my calves and feet puffed up with edema. There are many other symptoms of prenatal depression. (Please note that this list is not exhaustive.)
Poor adherence to prenatal care (eg. missing appointments)
Decrease in appetite
Trouble with memory
Anxiety about health of the pregnancy
Trouble attaching to the baby / pregnancy
I felt isolated and alone, crazy even. I tried my best not to “bother" anyone. Many times I would reach out to my phone, text a paragraph to my best friend, and hit delete. The most I did was complain of the frequent fights that I had with my fiancé.
I remember after one argument, I ended up locking myself in the bathroom, sobbing. He knocked on the door. My boys asking in worried tones if I was okay. He shooed them away and I became angry. After a few minutes, I unlocked the door and sat back on the lid of the toilet. He squatted in front of me, a face full of concern. “If you don’t talk to me, we’re not going to make it.”
I’m going to die, I thought, and he’s worried we’re going to break up. “Then leave. Please leave me alone.”
The scariest day of my pregnancy was the day that I understood, really understood, why some mothers buckle their children into their cars and drive straight into a body of water. We’ve all read those articles. Mother takes life of self and children. I always felt sympathy towards them, despite the majority expressing their disdain. I didn’t understand why they chose that route, but I insisted that society had failed them. I could only wonder, where were the partners? Family? Friends? Healthcare professionals?
I remember one haunting story about a mother who texted her mother-in-law, “I feel crazy.” Later that day, her husband left to visit his mother. His wife, healing from childbirth, with a newborn and their other small children, stayed home. After I read the article I turned to my fiancée and asked, “How could he have left her like that?” He shrugged. “Maybe he needed a break for a bit. Having a newborn is hard, right?” I shook my head. “Then shouldn’t he have known it was even harder for her?”
On the scariest day, I was home, alone with the kids, and sitting in my room. I felt a heaviness so immense I could barely breathe. I wanted the world to swallow me whole. I wanted everything to end. I wasn’t suicidal. I had no plan. I didn’t want to die. I just wanted to not be. I wanted to crawl into the darkest hole and not emerge until the nightmare ended.
But, I couldn’t just disappear. My husband had taken his life; I couldn’t abandon my children. What would they do without me? The disappointment crushed me. Then, an idea: I could take them with me. We’d get into the car and figure out the plan later. The idea of all us together — gone, but together — felt warm, safe, maternal. For a second I was dizzy with relief.
Then, the realization of what I was thinking came crashing over my head. My heart pounded. I kept it together long enough to order a pizza for dinner and put on a movie. Afterwards, I went to my closet and cried.
My oldest knocked on the door when the food arrived. “Mom? Pizza guy is here. I think you have to sign for the receipt.” I shuffled out, eyes lowered, signed, and fled. If the kids noticed anything odd, they said nothing.
After that day I was terrified of myself. I felt dangerous. Insane.
I know some people are reading this wondering why I didn’t tell anyone. I have a fiancée who loves me, children who love me and need me, family, and friends. I had a midwife. I know I could have called my best friend and vented, cried, and raged over the phone (she lives several states away) and she would have empathized. She probably would have flown over to help me. I could have told my midwife and she would have provided resources. Maybe even urged me to seek emergency care.
I did none of that. (In fact, I kept my fiancée in the dark about all of this until our daughter was over 2-years-old.)
Because I was drowning. Head under water, I felt like if I were to open my mouth and ask for help, the whole ocean would have poured in.
We need to initiate this conversation more often. And by we, I mean medical professionals, partners, family, friends. I had no idea what was happening to me. I had no idea how to explain it. And that is why I am sharing. Prenatal depression affects up to 13% of pregnant people (not including those that are affected by postpartum depression). We need to talk about this, especially during times of high stress like during the Covid-19 pandemic.
You can find a follow-up article here with advice on how to help someone you feel might be experiencing issues with prenatal depression. For videos and discussions surrounding mental health, please check out my YouTube channel.
Further, I would advise you to please, please, please reach out to their healthcare provider for further assessment and advice. If you feel it’s an emergency, call 911.
If you feel like you are experiencing prenatal depression, please reach out to your healthcare provider, partner, friends, or family.
In cases of emergency — Call 911
Call the toll-free National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (Lifeline) at 1–800–273-TALK (8255), 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The deaf and hard of hearing can contact the Lifeline via TTY at 1–800–799–4889. All calls are confidential.
Contact the Crisis Text Line 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, by texting HELLO to 741741.