Motherhood and Mental Illness: Not Always Recipe for Disaster
Motherhood and mental illness are two things that don't seem to go well together in most people's minds. The media typically paints a bleak picture by sharing tragic stories in which postpartum depression takes hold, resulting in mom and/or baby losing their lives. While, sadly, this does happen, we should also hear about the happy endings. I’m 32. I have bipolar II, severe anxiety and Crohn’s disease. I’m also a good mom and I'm managing my illnesses.
When my husband and I made the decision to start a family I was filled with excitement and then terror. I know all first-time moms are scared to a certain degree, but I had more than the first-time mom jitters. I was entering the world of pregnancy and motherhood with multiple chronic illness, all of which came with medications that I chose not to stop. I was very skeptical that I would get through the pregnancy without losing my mind; terrified that depression would make me another victim of postpartum depression and on top of that I was dealing with immense guilt and anxiety about opting to take my medication. Before getting pregnant I did attempt to stop my anxiety medicine and tried to manage it with exercise and therapy, but I progressively began going downhill. After five months I was back to having panic attacks all of the time and feeling completely unproductive because I was filled with debilitating fear 24/7 and a mind that wouldn’t stop racing. I decided that I needed my medication and that I just had to accept that.
We didn’t go into pregnancy blindly. We visited a genetic counselor, talked to a high-risk pregnancy physician, my OB-GYN and my gastroenterologist. They were all very confident that the baby and I would both be fine and that the benefits outweighed the risks when it came to taking the medication during pregnancy. However, I didn’t take their word for it so I dove into researching the topic myself. All medications are put into category A, B, C, D or X. The category indicates the likelihood that a drug will cause birth defects if used during pregnancy. Drugs are classified based on studies and documentation of the effects when used during pregnancy. The problem is there is no ethical way to test these drugs on humans, so much of the data is based on animal studies or small studies of women who opted to be followed by researchers while taking medication. My Crohn’s medication has been around for a long time and as a category B, the benefits outweighed the risks. However, my psychiatric medications were both category C, which was basically a gamble in my mind. Some small studies showed adverse reactions, while other studies showed no harm. After combing the research and speaking with all of my doctors, I followed my instinct and took the medication because I didn’t feel mood swings and panic attacks would be good for the baby.
When I found out I was pregnant, that’s when the fear really set in. I wasn’t worried about losing my mind anymore. Instead I was totally consumed by fear that I was hurting my unborn baby with every pill I swallowed. I tried to keep calm, but I counted the days until my next ultrasound so I could hear the heartbeat. That gave me relief for a short time. The one thing I was most worried about was the anatomy scan at 20 weeks. I knew the biggest risks associated with my medication were cleft palates, club feet and, sometimes, spinal deformities. When that day came and the technician began the exam, I immediately heard the heartbeat and it sounded strong to me (phew!). Soon she took a look at the spine; in my opinion it looked normal (yay!). Then we saw the feet with little toes (no club feet!). She got towards the end of the exam and she told us we were having a boy, but all I remember hearing was “everything looks perfect!” I had never felt so relieved in my life. Of course I knew nothing is ever guaranteed, but I felt like we cleared a major hurdle.
For the most part, my pregnancy was surprisingly smooth. I did hit some bumps along the way that required medication adjustments to level out my moods, but overall I actually felt better than I ever had before. I think a big part of that was due to the fact that I had a little boy that needed me to take care of him. I was no longer living my life just for me. I did everything I could do to keep my anxiety level low because I wanted to bring him into the world in a calm, peaceful manner. I took prenatal yoga classes, I went to my therapist weekly and took hypnobirthing classes because I knew I wanted an unmedicated, natural birth since the thought of an epidural terrifies me. By the end, I felt fully prepared. I was confident that I would be able to give birth and take on motherhood.
On November 22, 2014, with my husband and doula by my side, Daniel entered the world; 7 pounds, 15 ounces, 19 ½ inches long and 100% healthy. His eyes were wide open, taking in the world from the moment he was born. As his little hand grabbed my finger and he looked up at me, I finally realized I am on the planet for a reason.
Before he was born I made a promise to him that I would never give up; I vowed to always fight through the tough days and weeks.
After being his mom for over two years now, I know that I can get through anything as long as I have him. I will never say being a mom is easy because it’s really hard sometimes, but his smile and laugh are one of the most powerful antidepressants I have come across. He always reminds me of what's important in life. I know life will continue to throw curveballs, as I was reminded last year, but I can say with all of my heart that he has saved me.
No woman’s journey will be the same, but I hope all who have a mental illness and want to have a child, find the education and support needed to get through pregnancy and motherhood. I found out firsthand that you need to do a lot of your own research and become an advocate for yourself and your baby. There should never be a one-size fits all approach to managing mental illness. Every situation is different and nobody should ever make a woman feel guilty about their decisions regarding treatment.