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Does Depression Make Me a Terrible Mother?

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Photograph by Twenty20

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Processed with VSCOcam with hb2 preset

I can see so much of myself in my daughter. In the curve of her cheeks and her big, brown eyes. In the way she can spend an hour reading to herself, her voice sliding up and down in a parody of me. In the way she has taken to walking around the house with a tissue held up to her face, because that is what Mommy does. In the way she is slow to warm up in social settings, sitting quiet and observant before finally allowing the full brilliance of herself to flare out in the hugeness of her smile and the deep hilarity of her chortle and her kick-ass shoulder shimmy.

What else will she inherit from me? What else will we share?

The results of a study recently published in The Journal of Neuroscience show that mothers are more likely to pass their emotional patterns onto their daughters than they are to their sons. And they're also more likely to do this than fathers are in general.

The study itself focuses in on the brain's cortolimbic system, which is responsible for the regulation of emotions, and which is associated with mood disorders such as depression. This, then, is the inheritance we are said to leave for our daughters. This is the thing we should look for as our daughters leap the hurdles of childhood and become women.

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When I threw my birth control pills into the trash over five years ago, I also tossed in my half empty bottles of Lexapro and Xanax. I didn't want to have those drugs in my system when I got pregnant, and I figured I could tough it out for however long it might take. When I wrote about this decision for an online publication, however, I was berated by commenters for my selfishness. The general consensus seemed to be that women with chronic depression should not breed at all.

I was shattered by their comments, but I pushed past it. I found alternative ways to manage my mood swings. I found yoga and meditation. I immersed myself so fully in these things I stopped missing my medications, even as our attempts to start a family stretched out into three and a half years.

I worry about the additional stigma this brings to women who are already judged for their choices. I worry about the women who will be shamed for their desire to be mothers.

When Emily was born, my mood swings came back, but I saw this as a natural reaction to the ups and downs of life. To the things life asks of us, even when we feel we have nothing left to give. Whether depression or stress, my fluctuations in mood never made me less of a mother. I took her to weekly postpartum support group meetings, where she met her first friend. I made time for yoga and meditation, so I would not fall apart. I read to her and danced with her in front of mirrors so she could giggle at her reflection. I did these things even when I was crying.

At the end of 2015, when Emily was almost one and a half, I had a major depressive episode and began taking medication again for the first time in five years. This, more than anything else, made me feel like a failure, but it also instantly made me a better mother. For this I was supposed to give up my right to breed? For this lack of emotional equilibrium that is only the tiniest part of who I am? That may or may not be the tiniest part of who she becomes?

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Recently, the United States Preventive Services Task Force recommended screening for depression in the general adult population, including pregnant and postpartum women. And while I acknowledge the importance of opening up a conversation with women who may be suffering, ensuring they receive the appropriate treatment, I am also worried.

I worry about the over-medicalization of normal mood swings, which in turn leads to over-diagnosis. I worry about the additional stigma this brings to women who are already judged for their choices. I worry about the women who will be shamed for their desire to be mothers.

I worry because, if I had allowed myself to be cowed by those who would shame me, Emily wouldn't exist. And whatever lurks in her brain's cortolimbic system, Emily is perfect. Emily deserves to be here.

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