“Postpartum depression,” “baby blues,” “the weepies.” I had heard of this phenomenon before; how new mothers often struggled to regain mental balance after their children were born. I had prepared myself knowing this was a possibility. What nobody prepared me for was depression during pregnancy and when it came, it took me a while to recognize it for what it was.
Even before having children I suspected that my pregnancies would be difficult. I am naturally uncomfortable with smells, I have never had a strong stomach, even monthly hormonal changes used to treat me badly, and I knew that my mother’s pregnancies had been difficult. Despite all this, nothing could have prepared me for just how bad it would be.
You see, I'm one of those unfortunate mothers who suffer from the most extreme form of morning sickness: hyperemesis gravidarum. Regular morning sickness is horrible; hyperemesis is its vicious diabolical twin sister. Mothers suffering from morning sickness suffer from nausea, vomiting and food aversions usually in the first trimester. In my case it was extreme and uncontrollable. I vomited every time I ate or drank something to the point where my body was in clear starvation. I lost 15 kilograms in my first trimester and never made it back to my pre-pregnancy weight until after giving birth. It was months and months of literal starvation and being bound to the house because everything in the world would trigger bouts of uncontrollable vomiting, even the smell of grass and the tree right outside my door.
Suffering like this inevitably brought on a sense of sadness and hopelessness. With my first pregnancy after finally finding the appropriate medication to control the hyperemesis, I was able to shake off the sadness by my third trimester but with my second pregnancy it never went away. My daily life felt like walking around with a blanket over my head. Nothing brought me joy; I could not read, music is my life and now it just irritated me, I could not sing, not even in church. My hands were always trembling, I was afraid of falling asleep and when I finally fell asleep, I was afraid to wake up and begin my day.
I wasn’t simply occasionally sad or having “on and off” days. It was a constant, consistent and persistent gloom that corrupted everything. I could talk to and play with my son and generally go through the motions but it was like my life was in black and white. I did not understand how other pregnant women had the mental energy to do basic tasks like combing their hair or taking a bath let alone showing up for work or doing baby showers and photo-shoots.
Moreover, I was put on medication to manage the extreme vomiting and one of its side effects was anxiety and panicking. So now I found myself living with two monsters. Any tiny thing could throw me off balance either on one side into an overwhelming sadness accompanied by uncontrollable crying or on the other side into a ridiculous panic attack. When I realized the side effects of the medication, I had a choice, either stay on it and live in this alternate reality or get off it and vomit my guts out and possibly starve my baby. You can guess which one I chose.
Around the 5th month of pregnancy, I was talking to my friend about my pregnancy struggles and she said, “That sounds like what I am going through with mental anxiety, I am actually seeing a professional for it and they have given me some medication to cope.” She was not pregnant and her experiences were from another context but her words turned on a light in my head and made me fully aware that I had a problem that I needed to manage. Now that I was no longer confused about what was happening to me, I started to be more mindful about coping with it.
Therapy was not an option; my health insurance and personal budget could not allow it. There was nothing I could do about the waves of sadness, when they hit, I would just cry it out and wait for it to pass.
For the extreme anxiety, I tried to find ways to keep myself stable and grounded. I put myself on a strict sleep and meal schedule. I also distracted myself by watching my favorite TV shows. I couldn't allow my mind to get active because that would just spiral into hyperactive panicking.
I also started the habit of reminding myself of what was going on. I would literally say out loud to myself "You are pregnant, this is happening because you are pregnant, soon you won’t be pregnant and it won’t be happening anymore". This helped me counteract the unrealistic drama that my brain would conjure up.
Most importantly I recited scripture to myself and talked with God. I was unable to actually sit down and read the bible so all the scripture I had spent a lifetime memorizing came in handy. I also kept one friend close who I could frequently talked to.
There are two resources however that I did not properly utilize. First was my husband. I honestly did not know how to talk to him about what I was going through. He witnessed some of my episodes of uncontrollable crying and he tried to be there for me as much as he could, but other than that I was just unable to involve him.
Second was my doctor. She asked me once if I was feeling any kind of sadness and I said no. I did not want to appear weak in front of a stranger. Maybe if I had given up this pride, or if she had pressed the issue, things would have been a little better.
So, for 9 months I lived in this foggy reality and then my baby girl came. The depression transitioned into baby blues for the first two weeks and then thankfully I got better and better. By the time my C-section wounds had healed, I found that my mind had healed along with it. One day I was cooking dinner and realized I was singing while chopping onions.The fog had lifted and now I'm just enjoying the jolliest four-month-old in all the world, almost like nothing ever happened.
I am still amazed at how much pregnancy radically altered my reality and how despite all the books and advice and professional involvement in my life, I still was unprepared for my experiences. Pregnancy for most of my friends is simply an uncomfortable experience but it does not stop them from functioning or managing their lives. However, I know there are mothers like me where pregnancy will break the body and the mind along with it. If you happen to be like me, please look for help and hang in there. Before you know it, you will be holding your tiny treasure in your arms and it will all be worth it.
About the author
Grace Kabushenga Manafa is a mother of two wonderful babies; Daudi Tenda (2 years old) and Siima Kirabo (4 months old). She has been married to Yosam Manafa for five years and they currently live in Pasadena California where she is pursuing her Master of Arts in Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. She is passionate about making the Love of God known to all people through the study of scripture. She is also passionate about teaching and learning from African mothers like herself and finding ways to make the scriptures more effective and relatable to their unique experiences and context.