When Pregnancy Isn’t Joyful: A Q&A With Filmmaker Melissa Saucedo

“You try to convince yourself that you are not struggling because everyone is telling you that you shouldn’t be.” 

Between 14 to 23 percent of women will struggle with depression symptoms during pregnancy, according to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). Shutterstock

Many people associate pregnancy with joy and excitement, but that was not Melissa Saucedo’s experience. Thoughts of suicide, hallucinations, and obsessive-compulsive tendencies overshadowed any chance of an enjoyable pregnancy for her. As it turns out, she had depression during her pregnancy, which is variously called prepartum or antenatal depression.

Between 14 to 23 percent of women will struggle with depression symptoms during pregnancy, according to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). With that many affected people, you’d think the conversation about prepartum depression would be more widespread. Though some providers do screen for depression during pregnancy and a prominent health task force recommended in 2016 mental-health screening both before and after giving birth, mental health conditions are stigmatized so that many affected people find it difficult to speak out and seek help.

Recognizing the abundance of stigma and the dearth of easily accessible information, Saucedo condensed her journey with prepartum depression into a 20-minute short film titled Before David; David is her now 2-year-old son. The film is honest, intense, and eye-opening. Saucedo is currently submitting the film to festivals all over the country, but you can watch the trailer.

Despite writing, directing, and editing the short film, it’s still a challenge for Saucedo to retell the experience. While speaking with Rewire about the film via Skype, I heard the pain in her voice and sensed her anxiety and discomfort. Despite the fact that the memories of that time distressed Saucedo, she is determined to tell her story.

Rewire: Why was creating Before David important to you, and why should it be important to everyone?

Melissa Saucedo: I think it has two aspects. One is on a personal level where I needed to do this for myself. In a way, it was to forgive myself for everything that I thought of doing or wanted to do while I was pregnant. In a depressive state, it seemed normal. But once you look back, it’s not. The second level is the awareness of telling women, beforehand, of the possibility of depression not only postpartum but also during pregnancy. I was in awe of the lack of information and awareness there is.  

Rewire: Because pregnancy is seen as this happy, joyful experience, do you think it puts pressure on a woman who is struggling to not come forward and say that she is?

MS: Absolutely. It was hard on different levels. You want to say that you’re struggling, but no one believes you and no one wants to accept it. So you try to convince yourself that you are not struggling because everyone is telling you that you shouldn’t be. So right away when you want to discuss that you are not feeling well, you see that wall of rejection when people constantly remind you your pregnancy is a blessing.  

Rewire: Can we talk about misconceptions and misperceptions? What did you feel like people weren’t understanding about what you were going through?

MS: In the film, you see three characters, my mom, husband, and friend. They are the closest people to me, and I am telling them that I am not feeling well and they are still rejecting the idea. I think people think, “You’re pregnant. That’s how it is, deal with it. You’re a woman. You should know this. What were you expecting?”

There’s this misconception that as a pregnant woman you should disregard everything other than the baby. All that matters is the baby and your health in regards to the baby. There’s this belief that you should be this happy pregnant woman who is fulfilling her womanhood. You should be happy about it because you’re doing what nature intended you to do. But that’s not true for everyone.

Rewire: You had thoughts of suicide, described some very intense hallucinations, and expressed the fatigue and isolation you felt. Yet you didn’t feel comfortable asking for help.  What was your experience with your medical staff?

MS: I never told my OB-GYN. I didn’t want to be confrontational. I didn’t think she could help me. The first time I mentioned something while pregnant she said, “That’s pregnancy. You feel tired.” I didn’t want to go through that again [because] if I said something she might be dismissive. I had so many things going on.  

I wanted my OB-GYN to screen for depression during pregnancy and not just after. Why aren’t these tests given [to every pregnant person] before birth? I didn’t understand. After giving birth, I was filling out the screening test for depression that the pediatrician gave me, and when I came to the question of “Do you want to hurt yourself or the baby?” my thought was: “Well, not anymore. But I did before.”

Rewire: Although the majority of your mental health complications happened during pregnancy, did they affect the bond you had with David postpartum in any way?

MS: Yes, it did. The bond didn’t came right away. At first it felt like there wasn’t any, and I had to work to build one. I slowly allowed myself to feel again and enjoy even the smallest thing, like a half-smile or him looking at me.

Doing the film helped me let go of all the negative thoughts and feelings I had during pregnancy, and to gain some type of closure and move on into motherhood. It was a difficult step, and I imagine it must be the same for many women who never even come forward either during or after pregnancy. Once I cried in front of my husband and pediatrician, it felt like I was finally letting go of all the sadness I had felt during pregnancy. It felt like, finally, I could tell everyone I was feeling so bad because while pregnant, no one would believe me.

Rewire: Do you remember your turning point? The moment that you began to feel like you were regaining some sort of normalcy?

MS: After I had my son, my husband, who took paternity leave, and my mom, who came from Mexico, were with me most of the time. Other than breastfeeding the baby, which I actually didn’t enjoy as much as [some people] say, I was able to sleep a lot and NOT be alone with the baby. That helped me and gave me a break from any fears I had. Also, not having the baby inside me felt better. I just wanted “it” out. I didn’t have to deal with “it” anymore, and my husband and mom were taking care of “it.”

Rewire: For whatever reason, a pregnant belly seems to grant people permission to ask intrusive questions, give unsolicited advice, and so on. Is there anything you suggest avoid saying to pregnant people?

MS: Don’t make assumptions of happiness. Let them say if they are happy or not. There are so many different experiences. There’s just this lack of knowledge of society, in general, of the enormous amount of changes physically, psychologically, and emotionally that women go through in a period of ten months. So, don’t approach a pregnant woman and tell her it’s a blessing and you must be so happy. Just say: “How are you feeling?”

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.