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Depression in motherhood is a feminist issue

It’s June of 2017. I’m holed up in my bedroom trying to catch my breath while pandemonium reigns outside my door. It’s 4:15 p.m. and I’m in my pajamas, unshowered and unkempt with a hole in my pants. I’m covered in dog hair and possibly vomit somewhere, as I spent last night by my 6-year-old son’s side as he projectile vomited across the room. But back to the bedroom door …

One of my 3-year-old twins is in the hallway weeping and wailing as though someone is sawing off her arm. It has something to do with the fact that she “doesn’t want to be alone,” I discern through her screams — despite that fact that I was just with her 30 seconds ago and her sister is a mere foot or two away, banging on my door and shouting that she doesn’t want to hear her sister scream. They are both clad only in underwear and their hair is woefully unwashed and unless they’ve been playing with the toothpaste again, I’m almost certain their teeth are unbrushed.

This is the stuff that mommy blogs are made of, and that’s why this scenario cuts me to the quick. This is really not a big deal. I know this, at least intellectually. I know that this too shall pass, and that my worst days are still infinitely better than the best days of the majority of people on this planet. And yet … despite it all … this still doesn’t feel like not a big deal. It feels unbearable. Suffocating. Eternal. Because it carries with it the weight of the depression I’ve struggled to get out from underneath for more than 2 decades. And that is really what’s at issue here: the depression that, by all accounts, shouldn’t be there but that persists against all logic and reason. It’s the depression that seems to come hand in hand with modern motherhood.

All too often, this chaotic life-in-the-trenches scene is exactly the kind of thing that brings mothers like me to our knees — though objectively, it shouldn’t. It’s stressful, yes, and unpleasant to say the least. But not equal to the agony felt in its wake. Especially, I keep telling myself, for “someone like me.” I am not oppressed or disadvantaged in any tangible way. I know the inherent privilege I live with and how good I really do have it. And I am not some hapless young evangelical blogging mama just trying to figure this whole mommyhood thing out while reciting the old threadbare trope that “it’s so hard but so worth it.” I am a driven, accomplished 35-year-old woman who has fought to overcome a lifetime of depression and mental illness by diving deep into my shadow side and embracing the ugliness of my darkest emotions, discovering along the way profound truths that I now teach others whom the psychiatric community and society at large don’t have solutions for. Year after year I’ve put myself together again and again, and when I find myself falling apart once more, I start all over again. That’s part of the process — the beautiful, heartbreaking, life-giving process of accepting yourself in ways that no one ever could in an effort to reintegrate the broken pieces of your soul into one harmonious work of art. It’s what I do. And it’s the greatest thing I have to offer the world. And I am damn good at it.

And yet … I’m not. Because I can’t actually find the time to do my work anymore. Ever. And that’s what’s really at the heart of my depression these days — the depression that no amount of privilege can save you from, that indeed is deepened by the shame of knowing that you have it so good but yet you still can’t get out of your pit, get ahead, and stay there.

In the year and a half that I’ve been in business as a healer and coach, I’ve closed down healing services a dozen times because I just can’t make it all work out. I can’t be mom and homemaker and a chef and do yoga and meditate and spend quality time with my family and do laundry and be sexy for my husband and serve in my community and volunteer at my kids’ school and advocate for marginalized peoples and declutter my office and finish reading an entire book in less time than it takes to gestate a human child, AND do those pesky little things like “pay the bills” and “pursue my life purpose.” I can’t do it all, even if I wanted to.

That’s why lately I find myself slipping back into my depressive ways more often than not despite being proudly unmedicated since 2009, seven years after my diagnosis of bipolar disorder and one year before the birth of my first child — because what I really want to do, what I feel in my deepest soul I was put here on this earth to do, I can’t make the time for. And I worry that I won’t be able to, even after the children are grown and gone and at long last my time belongs to me. Because after all that must be done in a day — after the gargantuan pile of “shoulds” and “musts” heaped on top of modern women and mothers in particular — there is nothing left. No time, no energy, no support, no passion. In every stage and phase of life, the deck is stacked against women in this world, still.

It’s at this point that I remember that depression isn’t a chemical imbalance; it’s a feminist issue. As is time, as Brigid Schulte has so beautifully expressed. As is weight gain, because our culture has such laughably unrealistic expectations of women that we’ve waged a heinous battle against our beautiful bodies and lost the ability to give ourselves the nutrition, care, and love that we need. As are so-called “abundance blocks,” because when it is financially unfeasible to afford child care outside the home, the mother must find ways to support herself or fuel her professional dreams with any number of small children clinging to her legs. And on and on it goes.

All the while I’m being led to believe it’s MY fault that I just can’t keep the weight off, because I don’t get up at 5 a.m. to hit the gym, or because I’m just too damn tired to make the nutritious meals I used to love because I now have 3 kids who are ready to implode by 4 p.m., and it’s all I can do to keep the train moving before we can put everyone to bed as early as possible without also ensuring that they won’t wake up before the sun rises, thereby repeating the cycle the following day. It’s MY fault if I don’t just cherish every moment of motherhood, probably because I can’t create the right kind of boundaries for my children or orchestrate the joy-filled experiences that would help my kids make magical memories of a lifetime on the daily. It’s MY fault that I’ve had to continually walk away from my career and my passions because I couldn’t find someone to affordably and adequately care for my children while I pursued those paths, which must be because I didn’t want it enough or didn’t “do the work” to clear blocks and manifest solutions or because my standards are too high or because it probably isn’t meant to be after all, otherwise the doors would have opened and the path forward would have been made clear.

Are you out of breath reading that? Good. This is what it feels like to be a woman in today’s world. Always out of breath. Rarely at rest. Never at peace.

So here I am, back at home again eking out a living while I care for my children, where countless generations before me have labored uncompensated, under-supported, and overwhelmed, yet they carried on because they believed (as so many women today still consciously or unconsciously do) that a woman’s place is in the home — or because they could find no quarter elsewhere. Sitting here now, as my children scream like they’re meeting the executioner outside my door, I can’t help but feel that things really would be much better for me if I truly believed that; if I felt that this is where I belonged, where I could do the most good in the world, where the energy and time and care that I consciously choose to keep on giving — despite the frustrations, the isolation, and the hollow sense of mockery I feel playing a well-worn role in an outdated way I can’t for the life of me escape — that all of the goodness I do my damndest to keep sending out would be coming back to me in equal measure. That it would really be, at long last, so worth it. That everything would be OK.

But it isn’t. And I’m not. I’m huddled on the bed smelling of vomit and sweat, furiously tapping these words into a smartphone that’s about to give out on me any day now. But all this immediate-situational stuff aside, there is a greater pattern at play, one that affects far too many women to count — women whose own dreams of comfortable, safe, middle-class life are either an unattainable fantasy or a waking nightmare, riddled with much deeper, darker problems than the stress of job loss and the unshakeable feeling of inevitable, perpetual failure.

It’s that depression and all its myriad causes is ultimately a feminist issue, because if someone like me, with all of the privilege and advantages of this modern Western world — and with all of the knowledge of emotional health and happiness at my disposal after decades spent receiving mental health care, five years as a health-and-wellness journalist, and nearly two years as a spiritual healer — if even I can’t stay out of this pit of agony that threatens to consume me every time one of my children has a meltdown, then something much larger is at work here. And no amount of fighting riotously, or stoically soldiering on, or angelically beaming at the great big pile of blessings at my feet will solve it.

Because even women like me know that to survive as a woman and mother in today’s world is never a given and requires sacrifices we don’t know if we can make … because after all is said and done, after everything we’ve already given or had forcibly taken from us, what do we have left to give?

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