Will becoming a mother improve my mental health?

I’ve been thinking about the relationship between mental health and motherhood ever since I realised nine years ago that what I was experiencing was depression.

I’ve worried that depression would make me an unsupportive friend and wife, and a frightening mother. But I’ve also known I don’t want it to determine how I’ll live my life.

These fears surfaced again when I had my first appointment with a midwife who asked about my mental health history, including what meds I’d been on and for how long. She reassured me that it was just routine and that women who’ve suffered from depression do not necessarily develop postnatal depression. I wasn’t that concerned about postnatal depression though. I just wondered about my depression in general.

motherhood-depression

For the last nine years, I’ve experienced at least one extended bout of depression each year except the last. The greatest change has been that I got married. I can’t say whether this would have been a time of mood stability for me anyway but marriage has been a powerful motivator for me to address my swings.

Knowing that someone else depends on me and desperately wanting to be fair to him, I’ve been a lot more watchful – quicker to take a step back from life, rather than characteristically waiting for crashes.

Whether it’s coincidence or improved coping, the absence of long months of debilitation has decreased my fears about what my depression might mean for my children.

Yet, this issue always lingers somewhere towards the back of the closet. So I found it refreshing to read Viv Groskop’s article Having children helped my depression in the Guardian when @imperfectpages tweeted about it.

I loved someone taking a positive view of the relationship between motherhood and mental health. And, because I do think that marriage has helped me on some level (at least for now), I was encouraged by the idea that having children might improve one’s sanity.

I do worry, though, that Groskop may be writing from the perspective of mild depression, without making the distinction. When I’ve been in the depths of depression, it’s not been a matter of not wanting to get out of bed in some purely self-indulgent way but of literally losing the grip that enables me to.

I’ve forgotten how to use the washing machine, lost track of where I’m walking and found that conversations don’t make sense anymore. I’ve kept the lights on all night because I’ve been convinced that there were malicious spirits lurking in my bedroom.

Depression last hit me in 2009, almost challenging our engagement and nearly wrecking my MA thesis. Though I’ve experienced low moods, especially in times when work has been hard to come by, it’s been nothing like that since.

While I appreciate the optimism in Groskop’s article and am glad she’s found being a mother has helped her, I can’t help but find it a little unrealistic. How does she know depression won’t hit her again? Not that I wish it on her and, perhaps, it won’t.

But I can’t blindly hold on to that optimism for me. While I do think that the role of mother will help motivate me to self-manage better, just as the role of wife has, I just can’t imagine that the creature will automatically fix things for me – and I don’t think I should put that kind of expectation on her, anyway.

Obviously, I can only speak from the perspective of someone waiting to have a baby. Perhaps things will radically change. As far as I can see, though, motherhood will mainly ‘help’ in the sense that the intense responsibility will remind me that I am not just pursuing wellness for me but for my family.

Image: Laurence Jarrett-Kerr


8 Comments

  1. imperfectpages
    March 5, 2011 / 4:28 pm

    This is a really open and interesting post. I think given what you say about marriage having motivated you to monitor and regulate your moods and behaviour better, there’s a good chance that motherhood could have the same effect.

    Personally, I considered myself at risk for postnatal depression: ‘high achiever’, perfectionist tendencies, mild depressive tendencies – but actually I found that I was a very relaxed mother, willing to let my children take the lead with their development. I’d definitely say I’m happier now than I’ve ever been – I don’t want to start trotting our cliches, but having children has been very life-affirming and has certainly helped me appreciate the little things.

    Best wishes for the upcoming birth – I’ll keep an eye on your blog to see how you’re getting on. 🙂

    • March 6, 2011 / 11:13 pm

      Thanks, imperfectpages. It’s great hearing that having children has been so positive for you. I can identify with the perfectionist tendencies and it’s encouraging to hear that your children helped you to let them go.

  2. H Chicou
    March 5, 2011 / 11:38 pm

    for me your depression has never made you a bad friend, on the contrary a better friend for it has made you very understanding of other peoples inner problems
    never change and stay the same,
    your friend

  3. mama-andmore
    March 17, 2011 / 2:58 pm

    I am much like imperfectpages, and in some ways felt like I have been staving off post-natal depression (although, 2 years hence, it surely can’t still be called post-natal?) just from the gigantic life change and feeling as though the ground has moved beneath my feet and I am not quite stable any longer. However, having my daughter has meant that while in the past I would either quite literally pick up and run – get on a plane, train, drive for days or weeks to get away and “find” me again – or go on autopilot to work, impersonate someone uber-capable, and then turn into a zombie at home until my husband forced me to shout, scream, cry, release, now, this delicate little spirit is in my life, and I can no longer be selfish and let myself lose the fight, even temporarily. And while she is formidable in many ways, she is precious and delicate and untainted, and I want to keep the demons away from her as much as possible. They are still there, but I keep them at bay, and if there is one thing that becoming a mother has taught me it is that we have the most incredible reserves of strength within us that surge up to help when we need it. Keep finding an outlet, and I am sure that you will continue to manage yourself and your emotions, and you will win the battle. You seem like a strong lady to me!

    • March 17, 2011 / 5:48 pm

      That makes sense that your desire to protect her kicks in and overrides the instinct to pull all your resources into yourself. By the way, you always write the most encouraging comments!

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