Prenatal Depression + Responding to Trolls

I wrote this series on prenatal depression for Slate. Here are parts 1 and 2. This was in many ways the most difficult project I’ve ever worked on. Not because the actual writing was hard. But because it was such a painful and personal period, and I worried about perpetuating stereotypes that pregnant women are crazy or incompetent. I also worried about prejudice I would potentially face after outing myself as someone who has a history of depression (even in New York City where it seems like everyone is on antidepressants, this still exists). However, prenatal depression is so common, and it’s so under discussed, that I did feel like it was important to share my story, in a second wave 70s consciousness raising way, even!

I never read the comments when I write personal essay, because at this point in my writing career I know better. But some people close to me made the mistake of reading the comments and it hurt them. When they told me what the cruel commenters said, I did not get hurt. I got furious. I usually refuse to answer trolls at all—it generally devolves into an unproductive flame war—but I wanted to say something here about their comments on this issue. Part of why it’s still difficult for women to talk about being depressed during pregnancy is because of attitudes like these, and I’m going to address three of them:

1. Depression is all in your self-pitying head. Bootstraps, etc.

Depression, like many other diseases, is a complicated combination of environment, genes and biochemistry. Especially during pregnancy, there can be a hormonal component to depression, because you are truly getting a bananas amount of hormones that, especially if you’ve never been pregnant before, are new for your body. It’s not your fault if you get depressed, any more than it’s a diabetic’s fault for not being able to process insulin.

2. Women who are depressed shouldn’t have children.

This is the most infuriating one. Around 15 percent of people—not just women—have depression at some point in their lives. Should all those people get sterilized? Furthermore, depression can strike at any time. Many women who have prenatal depression have no history of depression. Should they be psychics and know ahead of time that pregnancy will trigger a depression? Should you, jerkface commenter, be in charge of forced abortions on these women? Sure, some depressed women are not great moms. Lots of NOT depressed people are also not great moms! The notion that depression is unmanagable, or periodic bouts of depression render a life not worth living, is galling.

3. You are a privileged white lady and your depression is just a pathetic rich lady whine.

It’s true that I’m a privileged white lady. I am incredibly lucky, and I make a point of saying this in the first part of the series. I was able to quit a new job that I was unable to do at the precise moment I took it on (I won’t get into the fact that, as a pregnant women at a job for less than 12 months, I had almost zero job protection. That’s an issue for another day). I also have a career that can easily be a freelance one. This was a tremendous blessing that I don’t want to downplay.

However, prenatal depression is MORE prevalent among underprivileged women than it is among privileged women like myself. I talk about this in the second part of the series. Among low income women, one study showed that depression in the second trimester is as high as 47 percent (the estimate for the general population is about 10-15 percent).

I also included an interview with a woman who was working as a nanny when her prenatal depression hit. Her husband was out of work at the time. They didn’t have health insurance. She ended up having to quit her job, too, because her level of depression rendered her unable to function. Sadly, there was much much less support for her than there was for me. She didn’t have the funds for a psychiatrist or psychologist, so she ended up getting counseling from her pastor. It helped, but it was not true medical care.

Anyway. I really hope that this series raises more awareness about this issue, which can be so devastating and isolating. I’ve been depressed pregnant and I’ve been depressed not pregnant. Depression at any time is a difficult, debilitating, scary thing. In my case, being depressed while pregnant was even more terrifying. I was so afraid that my unhappiness would hurt the baby in some way. Getting the help I needed helped quell those fears, and allowed me to actually enjoy my second (and with any luck, third!) trimesters, instead of having nine months of total misery. All women deserve that.

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