“I’m not such a bad mom to have,” I think to myself as I cuddle with my three-year-old daughter in her bed while my husband sings to her, “You Are My Sunshine.” She nuzzles my head, her curly hair falling into my face. But today was another bad day, so even this happy thought makes me begin to cry quietly, my face hidden against her fleece pajama-covered belly so she doesn’t notice.
For about two hours today, I didn’t speak to my daughter. I didn’t even notice until the clock said 6 pm and I looked down at where she was on the floor, playing and talking quietly to herself, having long given up on getting me to play along with her favorite activity: feeding me lines. “Mommy, you say, ‘That’s a beautiful outfit, Angelina Ballerina,” or “Mommy, say, ‘Don’t cry, Angelina.”
A simple request and an easy way to keep her happy, but today, I can’t play. The trigger this time was naptime. Instead of sleeping, she wouldn’t stop talking, so I didn’t get a break from the constant noise of her sweet but incessant three-year-old voice. Then her baby brother was fussy, she threw something at him, the dirty diapers were endless, I hadn’t had a break in days…
On and on until I was so far down that the best I could do was to numb myself. I could be angry or I could cry or I could just shut down. To talk would be to fall apart. I didn’t want to cry, I didn’t want to yell at her, so I just didn’t speak.
But how much better is that, really? To have a silent mother? To be three and feel alone and ignored? Instead of a stay-at-home mom, I began to feel like a bad babysitter, just keeping the kids alive until the real parent gets home.
I have struggled with mild depression and generalized anxiety for years, if not most of my life. Like many people with mild depression, there are periodic episodes when things get much worse. Antidepressants have helped immensely for the last five years, but I stopped taking medication while pregnant with and nursing both of my children. During both pregnancies, I felt happy and managed well without my medication—maybe the hormonal changes helped, maybe I was just really happy to be pregnant, I don’t know.
With my first baby, nursing was also protective. Until she began to wean herself around one year, I felt fine without the drugs. As she nursed less, I did less well, until I stopped nursing at 15 months and went back on my medication. By most measures, quite nursing success.
With my son, it’s a different story. Nursing doesn’t have an anti-depressant effect. He’s just four months old and it’s been a long four months. Maybe the hormones are different, maybe it’s something else, but I’m struggling so much more this time.
When I would nurse my daughter, I remember feeling a deep calm wash over me. I was happy, like what I was doing was the best thing in the world and I could just focus on nurturing this beautiful baby. When I nurse my son, I just wish he would hurry. I feel like I have other things to do and his needs are getting in the way. My daughter needs me. I need time to myself. In the beginning, he felt like a tiny little stranger who was keeping me away from my beautiful child. As I developed a bond with my son and a deep love for every little thing about him, this has faded some. I no longer want to cry every time I nurse. Just sometimes.
I have come to hate nursing… until I think about not nursing. I gave my daughter over a year of the best nutrition, the best nurturing, the best of everything I could. How could I give my son some fraction of that? What if I stop and he gets sick more often than my daughter? Has more allergies? Isn’t as smart? I practice my new mantra: Formula isn’t poison. Formula isn’t poison.
And then there’s the financial aspect of it… I know I would want to buy the best, most expensive organic formula available and estimates I’ve read put the cost of formula-feeding at as much as $4,000 a year. So, even if I make it to six months, we’d have to spend about $2,000 on not-nursing. Just think of all of the things I could buy with that much money, things to make me feel just a little happier. Like up to 200 hours of babysitting help. Twenty-five deep-tissue massages. Eighty pedicures. Maybe those would keep me sane enough to keep nursing?
My son’s pediatrician won’t advocate continued nursing while I’m taking an antidepressant, but she won’t tell me to stop nursing either. What she does unequivocally advocate is that I get back on my medication if I’m not doing well. It’s not good for children to have a depressed mother. As for nursing, it’s up to me. Take the risk of exposing him to medication or switch to formula.
But how well do I need to be? How depressed can I be without being a bad mother? Is one bad day a week too much? Two? What if the other days are fine or even good? How much longer can I make it? What bad thing needs to happen before I know I can’t wait any longer?
According to Thomas Hale’s Medications and Mothers' Milk, the best medication for me does go into the breast milk. One six-month-old breastfed baby whose mother took it seems to have had a seizure. Chances are slim that would happen to my baby, but slim enough? Maybe I should try one of the anti-depressants that’s cleared for breastfeeding, even if it’s not the best one for me. Maybe that would get us to six months with fewer bad days.
Not that there’s any medication that can make easy the overwhelming job of being the mother of an infant and a preschooler. All moms—stay-at-home, working, depressed, perfectly healthy—have bad days. My daughter will still talk nonstop, refuse naps, throw toys. My son will still cry, have three dirty diapers in a row, wake up at night. But I need a longer fuse. I need to be less depressed if I can be. For me and for them.
I want to nurse as long as I can. I do my best to balance my needs with what’s best for my son. For now, I’ll do all I can to be as happy as I can without medication—exercise, sleep, get more help with childcare, take breaks, use all the cheating parenting short cuts to happy days that I’ve learned in three years of motherhood.
And still the day will come when I will call my psychiatrist with an urgent plea, “Today is the last day I can be without medication. Actually, it was yesterday, but I just realized it today.”
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