Depression and parenting a child with special needs

Oct 22, 2013 at 2:00 p.m. ET

It’s natural to feel hormonal, tired, overwhelmed and even sad after having a baby (especially your first) and discovering he or she has a disability.

Maureen Wallace and Charlie

But when I burst into tears as my obstetrician entered the room, six weeks after my son was born, she knew something else was going on.

This is my story of learning to identify postpartum depression and treat it during the first year of marriage and the first year of having a child with Down syndrome.

I always get perturbed when a physician refers to “feelings of sadness” instead of just saying “depression.” The former sounds so manageable, like a pouting child. The latter, well, that better describes the damp, moldy wool blanket that hangs over my head and drags down my shoulders.

My first “feelings of sadness” (The Blanket) coincided with a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome for our first child, Charlie. Such a diagnosis is unexpected, so it’s not uncommon for new parents to spend a period of time mourning the child of their fantasies, never understanding that this “real” child will become their heart, pride and joy.

When Charlie arrived seven weeks early, I spent day after day by his bedside in the NICU for four weeks; it seemed understandable that I would feel stressed, hormonal and overwhelmed. Then he came home with a heart monitor and periodic episodes of bradycardia. Tethered to either the electrical outlet in our bedroom or the electrical outlet 30 feet away in the living room, well, who wouldn’t feel down?

But then I found myself crying. And crying. And crying. Sure, life can be hard — but crying around the clock should be a signal to get help.

Does talking really help?

Honestly, I recoiled at the idea of talking to a therapist to get over what was (now, quite clearly) postpartum depression. Was talking to a so-called expert really going to help? I first attended a group session, intended to introduce new moms experiencing those “feelings of sadness” with other moms going through the same thing. When only one other mom showed up, I found myself playing co-counselor, empathetically nodding and offering advice.

Charlie and Maureen Wallace

My next effort was one-on-one... and actually helped. Over time, my therapist coaxed me into admitting I was beating myself up for giving my husband a “less-than-perfect child.” We hadn’t been married a year when we had Charlie, so I still felt insecure about many things. Now we had a child with special needs whose future was unknown. I felt guilty and overwhelmed, and yes, I had tremendous feelings of sadness.

Over several months, one-on-one therapy helped me realize my thoughts could be managed and turned, and my reality was an incredibly supportive husband who loved his son, and me, endlessly. By the time I returned to work, I felt stronger. I felt better.

Occasionally, I would experience a minor relapse. Juggling a full-time job, being a new mom and learning how to properly support a child with Down syndrome could start to pull me under water. I had days when I returned to the office and snapped at someone or huddled in my cube in tears because I felt so helpless to give my son what he needed or to give my job the focus it required. But I never let myself go back to therapy because I wanted The Blanket period to be over. I know now that denial set me back.

The Blanket returns

Charlie meets Emma

When our daughter arrived, more than a year later, I knew depression was in my rearview mirror. I felt The Blanket watching, creeping and waiting. But this time, I was prepared. I knew what to expect, and I had a doctor who didn’t want to wait to address the monster.

I left the hospital with multiple prescriptions. But I didn’t realize I was missing the one for an anti-depressant. Over the weekend, depression realized its opportunity and struck. By Monday, I was barely functioning.

The biggest challenge with depression, for me, is its ability to muffle, stifle and suffocate. From the outside, now, clearly I can see I needed to call the doctor immediately and pick up a prescription that day. But when depression strikes, it’s like a foggy dream where I struggle to see but can’t. I struggle to run, but can’t. I struggle to speak, but am left tongue-tied. It took me a week to make one phone call.

Preparing for No. 3 

Today, I’m expecting our third child, a boy. We’re ecstatic and nervous about being outnumbered, making the switch from man-to-man to zone defense. Going through diapers like a kindergarten teacher goes through tissues.

And I’m nervous about The Blanket. The unwelcome shroud will arrive, perhaps in the hospital, more likely once we’re home. I’ve taken an anti-depressant throughout this pregnancy and battled with days, here and there, where The Blanket wins. My husband has learned to recognize The Blanket and does his best to cheer me up; he still has trouble understanding that it’s not just a bad mood.

Giving myself a break

I’ve also come a long way in realizing I’m doing the best I can for my son. He just began preschool and will have speech, physical and occupational therapy each week. He’s getting stronger, and he’s starting to mimic sounds more often. His unbreakable spirit is my inspiration. Nothing keeps him down.

Are we ready for Child No. 3? We’re as prepared as we’re going to be. I know we have more Blanket periods ahead of us, but each experience strengthens my resolve, my husband’s support and my knowledge that we can break through to the other side.

It’s the only option, and getting help is the best first step toward any solution.

Image credit: Maureen Wallace

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