What Happens When Depression Looks Like Being a Mother?

By Amanda Olson

I wrote this in December 2008 as I was adjusting to being a full-time, stay-at-home mom to two toddlers and moving back to the place I grew up after a long time away. I found myself living in a house down the street from my old junior high with a spouse who worked too many hours at a job he loathed. I saw my old self in the old, familiar places and wondered what she’d think of the grown-up me. I wanted to understand how I came to live a life that felt like nothing and everything all at the same time.

This piece still captures the confusion and loneliness and awe that can level me — even on medication, even with a therapist, even when things are going well.

* * *

I’m pretty certain I’m depressed.

This is different than the way we used the word when I was in junior high, the kind of tongue-in-cheek (and kind of not) “he-used-to-talk-to-me-last-semester-in-French-class-and-now-he-doesn’t-plus-I-failed-my-chemistry-quiz-and-my-Fruit-Zaps-got-stuck-in-the-machine” depressed.

No, this is, I think, real depression, where I hope every night before it’s time to make dinner that I’ll somehow disappear, but that I won’t leave a mess for everybody to clean up and that it won’t frighten my children.

This is real depression complete with post-miscarriage hormones that have required me to begin all my interactions with some sort of disclaimer that might cover the wake of my inevitable social regret. (e.g., “I’d love to speak to you during this phone conversation, but I have recently been saying particularly uncharacteristic things that are alarming even to myself and so …”)

This is real depression that might be seasonally affected, but even if it’s balmy outside, I now have friends whose children have died and whose marriages have ended. This is hopelessness that comes after professionals have told me hard things about my son.

I spend weeks in a literal haze where my spouse’s face is sometimes the only thing in focus and I cannot form complete sentences and I approach my own children with an awkward mix of kid gloves and guilt.

This is real disconnect. 

* * *

I’m doing dishes when something happens.

IPod blaring, the shuffle setting brings up a collection of music I gathered years ago (I made my sister download from Napster). Every schmaltzy pop song is perfect. It only takes the first three bars echoing their way through my earphones, and I feel different. I don’t feel better, necessarily, but I feel immediately like I did when my sister’s illegal compilation was the soundtrack to my new, post-graduate school life.

Suddenly, at the dark end of December, it’s July and I’m driving down the back roads of Maryland, passing cornfields in a borrowed, purple 1992 Ford Taurus and accompanied by a litany of sing-it-like-you-mean-it country music. I am hopeful. There are no weights on my shoulders, just feathers of possibilities that feel more like wings than anything else. With every book, every window, every door flung wide open for me — finally — I’m pretty certain I can fly, even if I’m only driving down Old Gunpowder Road as fast as a 1992 Taurus can go.

* * *

Between two of the songs I hear my son calling for me. His voice is frantic.

“Mommy, I was calling to you and you did not come. Where did you go?” he asks. My eyes are adjusting to the darkness of his bedroom, but I’m certain he looks earnest and beautiful. Like always.

I close my eyes and sigh. Should I apologize? Am I sorry? Do I tell him that I am not certain where I’ve been, that I do not know where that winged girl went? How do I begin to tell him that I used to be a girl who actually had wings?

He rustles around, entangling his fingers in his crocheted blanket and starting to suck his thumb. He’s looking at me.

“Well,” I say, sighing some more. He’ll ask again if I don’t answer. I speak slowly. “Well I’m sorry. I was lost. But look — I’m not lost right now. I’m here. With you. Will that be all right?”

I wait. We both wait as the question hangs itself in the air above us, wondering about the answer, too.

“Sure, Mom,” says my son.

He settles his almost four year-old body down into his pillow. He asks for a song. I sing one. He asks for another one, thumb still in mouth. I sing again, this time more slowly than the first. I tell him I love him; I tuck him; I kiss him.

“I love you, Mom,” he says. “I like it when you stay.”

“Me too.”

As I stand to leave, he pats my arm. (My children are patters. It’s glorious, this pure comfort coming rhythmically through fleshy, taut, little hands.)

I pause. It is the end of the year and in truth, I am still a little bit missing.

But I am smiling at another truth that is now gleaming here in the quiet darkness: my boy’s fingers feel like a feather.

Amanda Olson is a co-founder of Lives Unencumbered and still a mom to two children. Only they’re no longer toddlers. And her husband now works too many hours at a job he likes.


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