I was at the grocery store once when I saw a young mom, looking pretty harassed, take her two children outside to lecture them. I found myself wondering about her and how she was doing, not just as a mom but as a woman. It made me remember another mom in this same grocery store, ten years earlier. That mom was not OK but she didn’t know.
To most people, she probably looked just like this mom, a little tired and otherwise fine. But there were so many subtle signs that her anxiety and depression were getting the best of her. If I could see her today, this is what I’d say.
Dear struggling mom at the grocery store,
I see you there, whisper-yelling at your two older children, who are happily ignoring you. They’re crawling around in the cart — and onto you — like the world is their own personal jungle gym on wheels. Your sweet little baby is wailing, she’s hot and tired and her brother just stepped on her. As you frantically leap to catch your son before he crashes head-first onto the floor, your anxiety goes into overdrive. In seconds you’ve imagined rushing him to the hospital, figured out who will take care of the girls, and told your husband it was all your fault.
And then, like a cobra striking its unsuspecting prey, an elderly woman pops up in front of you. She complains loudly about how “disruptive” your family is and demands that you tell the baby to stop crying, immediately! You open and close your mouth like a goldfish trying to tell this old bat to mind her own business but no words come out. You press your lips together and will yourself not to cry. But I see your chin quivering, I know how hard you’re trying to keep it together. And I know that inside, you’ve already cracked.
I’m not here to judge you, mama. I am you.
And I wish I could go back in time to let you know that life doesn’t really suck, it sucks because you’re depressed. Sure, you’re taking a low dose of antidepressants but they’re not working. You assume your doctor knows what he’s doing but he’s not a specialist and while family doctors are happy to prescribe antidepressants (maybe even too happy in Canada) they’re often too little to make a difference.
Deep in the trenches of motherhood, there’s not a lot of time for introspection, to notice the subtle signs that your mental health is suffering. You just think you’re tired — and you are, you stay up at night worrying about, well, everything. You don’t have the energy to assess your mood, it took so much energy just to get here; getting everyone dressed and buckled in their car seats. You tell yourself that if you were a good mom, you’d do what all those parenting books on your bedside table advise, you’d leave the store immediately.
Good moms don’t let their children behave like this. But there’s no way you’re leaving here without the milk because you don’t think you can do this again.
There’s so much you can’t do lately, you haven’t even been up to calling your sister. You don’t notice that you’ve withdrawn from your family and friends or that you haven’t cooked anything better than grilled cheese. You haven’t worked out either or even had sex. Basically, all the things you used to enjoy aren’t much fun right now.
But you think you’re fine. You might have gained some weight but you’ve had three babies, right? Besides, you still look pretty good when you go out with your friends and put on makeup. You can get out of bed. You don’t cry all the time. So you must be OK, right?
Wrong. You are not okay.
You, Mama, have high functioning depression.
It’s true that on good days you cuddle your babies, sniff their delicious little heads and burn all the precious moments into your memory so you’ll never forget how sweet they are. But it’s also true that on bad days, like today, you can’t bear the thought of showering. And there are so many bad days.
You tell yourself you’d feel much better if you weren’t so tired. Hey, should you be driving? Who knows? Not you, you don’t feel like you know much of anything right now. The career woman who had her shit together is gone, replaced by this shadow who can’t think clearly, concentrate or remember appointments. You feel so numb, like a slower version of who you used to be.
How I wish I could help.
I’d pack up your groceries so you don’t scream at your kids again while you struggled to get your bags in the cart. You’re so angry and irritable that you yell a lot lately. It makes you feel guilty. You berate yourself over and over again, asking how can you dislike your life so much when so many people want exactly what you have: a family, a husband, a nice house.
I’d let you know that depression is the reason you feel so guilty and also why you sometimes cry a bit too hard for a bit too long about nothing in particular. Depression is the reason your husband drives you up the wall and you pick fights with him. After all, he works a lot and most of the time you’re at home with these tiny tyrants, feeling lonely and unsupported.
Sweet mama, while I walked you to your car, I’d reassure you that you’re not a bad mom. The other moms, the ones you’re always comparing yourself to, probably feel just as overwhelmed as you — because in Canada, almost one-quarter of new moms suffer from anxiety or depression.
If I were there, I’d try my hardest to make your life easier, so you didn’t fantasize about checking into a hotel where no one could find you, just so you could sleep for a few days. I’d hug you goodbye and let you know that I’m so thankful we make it through this. I’m so glad you don’t want to die. Suicide may have crossed your mind once or twice but I’m so glad your depression never got so bad you couldn’t see a way out.
I’m going to share our story so others know what depression looks like.
If I were there, I’d tell you that I’m going to remember today because it was hard. But you’re going to be OK and I’m going to share our story so others know what depression looks like. It’s not always uncontrollable crying and staying in bed for days, sometimes it’s a bunch of subtle symptoms that we miss.
I’m going to share our story so other moms know life can get better. Ours did.