I felt like a horrible mother, and my baby wasn’t even born yet. I can remember crying in bed at night, unable to sleep, my head pounding. I felt helpless, as though the anguish would never go away.
My troubles had started soon after I decided to accept my pregnancy, at the age of 26. Something felt off.
During visits to my obstetrician, I would look at the other soon-to-be-moms sitting around the office. They all had a glow about them, seeming to nod at one another in solidarity as they gently patted their too-big bellies. They had baby names picked out and ornate nurseries ready to go, months before their due dates. Instead of affinity, I felt frustration and isolation.
I was never suicidal, but I can remember thinking that everyone would be better off without me. I thought about running away. I avoided my friends. And to top it off, I had immense anxiety and guilt about feeling the way I did.
What I didn’t realize then was that I was experiencing a mood disorder, called prenatal depression—and that I wasn’t alone.
While most moms have probably heard about postpartum depression—a mood disorder that manifests after childbirth—far fewer are likely to be aware of prenatal depression. Yet studies suggest the disorder is widespread: Between 14-23% of women experience symptoms of depression during pregnancy, according to The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
Prenatal depression is triggered by hormone changes during pregnancy that can produce chemicals in the brain that cause depression and anxiety. Symptoms of prenatal depression include things like insomnia, difficulty concentrating or making decisions, changes in eating habits, periods of anger or rage, sadness and crying, a constant feeling of being overwhelmed, and even thoughts of harming oneself, or running away and escaping.
Every once in awhile, an extreme story will come along—like the woman in Texas who drowned her children in a bathtub in 2001—or we’ll get testimonials from celebrities like Drew Barrymore and Brooke Shields, that bring some awareness to postpartum depression. But those things do little to expose the wider spectrum of pregnancy-related depression, particularly the slew of emotional and mental health issues that many women face even before their babies are born.
In my case, a general lack of awareness about prenatal depression was compounded by cultural norms. As a Latina, I didn’t tell many people about what I was going through because, for the most part, depression isn’t acknowledged as a medical condition in my community.
There hasn’t been much research done about prenatal depression among Latinas—the majority of studies appear to focus on white women—but there have been studies that include other ethnic populations that suggest women of color may be at higher risk: More than 17% of black women were found to suffer from prenatal depression, compared to less than 14% of white women, according to one study conducted at East Carolina University.
“There is a lot of stigma around getting help as a mother, and many mothers suffer alone because they are afraid to speak up about what they are feeling,” said Dr. Lisa Edwards, who provides pre- and post-partum counseling to undocumented Latinas at Marquette University. “There is a need for more bicultural and bilingual professionals so mothers can have greater access to care.”
Prenatal depression doesn’t only affect the mother. A 2011 study found that children whose mothers suffered depression during pregnancy have a greater chance of developing asthma. Approximately 70% of the women surveyed who said they experienced anxiety or depression during their pregnancy, also reported that their child had wheezed before the age of 5.
“Prenatal depression is a real thing, and it is much more common than is reported,” said Joanna Boles Whitlow, a doula and the founder of About Families Inc., a non-profit in Indio, CA that offers free education and support services to new and expecting parents. “In fact, it is rare for a woman, especially a soon-to-be-mother, not to experience emotional shifts.”
It was Whitlow, in fact, who helped me deal with my own depression. She was my doula during pregnancy and was the first person to explain to me in clinical terms what I was going through, and that it wasn’t something to feel guilty about.
“It’s almost like it is more understandable to be depressed when you are up with a crying baby—you are not sleeping, you can't have sex or dates with your partner, you have a postpartum body,” said Whitlow. “There is just more stigma associated with depression during pregnancy because pregnancy is supposed to be glamorous and sexy, you are supposed to be excited about having a baby.”
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, suicide deaths and attempts account for up to 20% of prenatal deaths of mothers.
Support groups can bring much-needed relief to Latina mothers-to-be.
Adella Gonzalez* was four months pregnant with her fifth child when she reached out to Susie Del Toro, a program manager at El Sol Neighborhood Educational Center’s Mamás y Bebes program in Riverside County.
She found herself deeply depressed, an affliction only made worse by the domestic abuse she faced at home.
“I used to cry myself to sleep. I felt so much sadness, anxiety, and disconnect about my coming baby,” said Gonzalez in Spanish. “Before attending a support group at El Sol, I had no idea this was normal. Sometimes all these women need is someone to talk to, someone who is going through the same things, experiencing the same emotions they are.”
Thanks to my doula, who directed me to a therapist who was able to treat and diagnose me, I now know the most important thing you can do for an expectant mother suffering from depression is let her know that she is not alone. I plan on sharing my story with as many as I can to lift the stigma because unlike many others, I had support to get me through the toughest days.
Eventually my gloom lifted, and in its place I was filled with the sweetest kind of joy: owning and embracing motherhood unconditionally. My daughter is now a one-year-old who brings joy to everyone we meet. She squeals with delight at the smallest things. People literally stop me on the street to say hello, and tell me how beautiful she is. I am so lucky to be her mom.
*Name was changed to respect privacy, at the request of the individual
This content was made possible by a grant from The California Endowment and produced independently by Fusion’s Rise Up: Be Heard Journalism Fellowship.
Esperanza Mendez is a blogger and community advocate in Coachella, CA.