Note: After extreme depression with my first child, I discovered I was pregnant some six years later. This post reflected on the pregnancy at six months postpartum.
This week was baby Alastair’s first “half-birthday.” He is six months old and I realize that perhaps my greatest achievement (ever) is making it this far healthy and sane. With my first son Frederick, the depression began in pregnancy. I had some psychotic episodes just before the birth and in the first few months postpartum. Major down cycles continued for years. For two years I was pretty much incapacitated. From there, my mental health improved each year. In this second pregnancy and postpartum period I had one bad episode surrounding a surgery for Alastair, but I weathered the surgery well with some focus and tools. I stayed out of “the pit” as I call it here.
At this six month milestone I reflect the tools that got me here.
“The List” may be the most powerful tool I used in my pregnancy. Though my book includes “a list” of nutrient deficiencies associated with depression, “The List” is something entirely different and maybe even more important in fighting depression in pregnancy and postpartum. I mentioned the concept for the first time on this blog two years ago on Frederick’s 5th birthday reflecting on his birth. Thinking at the time that I was finished having children, I offered a suggestion to those who would go after me in pregnancy:
Try to focus on getting what you need whether it’s time to yourself, time off, certain foods, or a foot rub. I did say to Sander a couple of times, “If we have another baby and I tell you I need something, I don’t want you to ask ‘are you sure?,’ I want you to figure out how to get it.”
Later I ranted here about the problems we face trying to “do it all,” particularly in the context of managing a professional career and motherhood at an advanced maternal age. In “pregnant women closer to 40 than 20:”
Many of our perceptions of motherhood – what is possible and what is expected – is shaped by women closer to twenty than to forty. Traditionally, after all, women had their children closer to twenty than to forty.
When you see a woman with a baby at a ballgame, I can just about guarantee you that she’s closer to twenty than to forty. The women walking their babies around the block three days postpartum are closer to twenty than to forty. The women with four babies under four are closer to twenty than to forty.
How do I know this?
Well, it is just about impossible for women closer to forty than to twenty to do those things.
Should we fight it and try?
Should we be down when we cannot meet those expectations?
No. We should hire a twenty year old to walk the baby around the block.
I am here to say out loud that it is a whole lot different to be forty than to be twenty.
I provided advice for prioritizing and presented “The List,” also known as the “Future Baby Agreement,” an agreement I made with my husband even though we figured we would never have another.
This is what my husband agreed to:
Future Baby Agreement
1) If I say I need something, the correct response is:
“I will figure out how to make that happen.”
The incorrect responses are
“Are you sure?” or
“How much will that cost?”
2) Do not expect me to earn more than $XX a month (5-8 hours of work each week). I cannot be a money machine and a baby machine at the same time. If other money needs to be made, someone else needs to do it. And if my demands from item #1 on the list exceed my own earning power, that should not be my problem.
3) If we need more funds to pay for #1 on the list, reducing retirement savings is far better than me going bananas. Retirement is still decades away. The mental institution is just a few miles away.
4) If it becomes unreasonable for me to earn even $XX a month, then revert to #1 on the list.
5) Should I earn more than $XX a month, the excess will pay for additional household staff at my discretion.
6) I will not require us to move to a deserted island during my pregnancy so that you can harvest wild seafood for my dinner while I bask in the sun. Though it is my pregnancy fantasy, I won’t make it a requirement under Item #1. It would, however, make a handsome holiday gift.
“The List” worked. I knew well how important it was for me to put myself first and so did the rest of my family. My code phrase in invoking the list was “I need….” When I said, “I need…,” I got it. I asked for nothing unreasonable, just for what I needed. In one memorable moment last summer I was having difficulty with a contract and I gave it up to our financial detriment. We could have used the money but the cost was really too high. My husband never even whispered disapproval.
The focus on “what I need” has retrained my thinking. Even today during the normal rhythms of daily life, I lay next to Alastair to rest and thought to myself, “I need to rest.” This was a coded message to my brain: forget the house and work, relax your muscles and just lay here for a while.
“The List” is important and it works (if you can actually manage to put your needs first, that is).
(I really do want to add as an aside that I love the fantasy in my list about all of that household staff I was going to hire. It’s sure a good idea if you have the money. There are obviously plenty of people out there right now looking for work.)
Focus your brain on something healthy
I made a great personal discovery while I was pregnant: When my brain was focused on an analytical problem, it could not worry or feel anxious or be depressed. If I could engage in such an analytical activity in the first place (which would have been difficult if I had already been feeling pretty lousy), I was home free.
I found my activity in my pregnancy: C programming to make graphic displays of data. I do realize how absolutely obscure this is but you can find some of my graphs on the website for my data business (4point0schools.com), you will find others on various food science posts of mine. All of those graphs are programmed, not generated through a point-and-click software. Programming requires a great deal of focus which makes it difficult to worry about climate change or the economy. You might want to poke your eyes out when you cannot find a missing semicolon in your program, but if you can get past those frustrations and produce something cool, you have distracted yourself and been productive. The absolute obscurity of this example is probably evidence that our brains are so different that we need to find our own solutions.
Find out what you are deficient in and work on it
Deficiencies come in all forms. Nutritional deficiencies are a big part of my own depression story. I spent the formative years of my life on low fat diets of bagels and imitation cheeses. Nary an Omega-3 was to be found. I proceeded through life managing nonetheless until my body was charged with making an entire new person. As my first son’s brain developed in my womb, he sucked the limited Omega-3 stores out of me and I went bananas from the lack. I produced the food that grew him out of his infancy as well, a food that also required Omega-3 fatty acids and many other nutrients. It took about six years to recover from my task of producing him.
I was seriously deficient in Omega 3 fatty acids, B vitamins, and magnesium, all nutrients that can at least aggravate depression if we do not have enough in our diets. Zinc is another culprit as in iron in the postpartum case. My entire book centers around these nutrients (how to identify and correct the deficiencies) as a testament to how important they were in my case.
What is great about having a case of depression tied to nutrient deficiencies is that there is a clear solution. It is a fairly easy change to make: take a supplement or eat more food containing that nutrient.
A year ago I pondered the “deficiency” issue more and discussed my personal challenge in the post-nutrient deficiency stage of my life: correctly the deficiencies that are much harder to tackle. I expect I am fairly deficient in sleep, relaxation, and fun right now. How my life could change if I could correct those. I’m working on it.
Not a day goes by that I don’t look at Alastair in amazement that I have another baby and, to boot, another baby who looks just like my first son Frederick. Moms who had difficulties with their babies in those precious newborn days know how painful it is to look back and realize how much you missed. I felt that pain (or at least a twinge of it) just about every day for six years. Having a second chance to do it differently does not make all the pain go away, but it sure does go a long way.
I am excited to have another baby but also pleased that I have a whole lot of tools now to make it through bad times to come. Bad times have a way of just happening and life generally is pretty hard even when it’s easy. These tools will help for many years to come.
The story and research I chronicle in “The Book” were the foundation of all of this goodness. I am glad I wrote it at least for myself even though just a few people have actually gotten to read it. It really is coming into actual print form this summer I have really just been too preoccupied holding a baby. I am sorry to those who have waited for such a long time.