Depression sucks. It sucks your energy. It sucks your joy. It sucks your motivation. It sucks just about every good thing you’ve ever felt, and the ability to recall every good memory you have, right out of you. It sucks like the vacuum cleaner that’s in the corner, unused, because you are too tired to drag it over your carpet a few times to pick up the crumbs from the cookie you let your toddler eat right before dinner because you were too tired to put up a fight. It sucks like the television that sucks in your preschooler because you just can’t entertain them anymore, so you say “Screw it” to the screen time limits “good” parents set. It just sucks.
Depression warps your entire outlook on yourself, your life, you future, and, yes, your parenting and your kids. That’s not a popular thing to say. Shouldn’t your kids be enough to fight your depression? Take pride in your little ones, take joy in their laughter. Your kids should make you happy no matter what you’re “feeling.”
Yeah? And this door should have a freaking window! But it doesn’t. Someone boarded and painted over where the window used to be and now it’s just a cracked, monotone, locked door that no one can open and no light can enter.
Yes, I’m using this door as a visual representation of depression.
If you’ve been following my blog, you know I got the double-whammy of environmental factors and genetics in the mental health lottery. There’s no Nature vs. Nurture debate with this gal, I’ve got a solid combination of both. For this post, though, I wanted to broaden the scope of things considered a little bit. I am currently parenting through depression, and I have many friends who have done and are doing the same. There are a lot of misconceptions out there, and there are also a lot of hard truths many people feel ashamed to voice. This post is a combination of my personal experiences and those of my friends. I will not name names or differentiate which experiences come from who, because, I suspect, there are moms and dads out there who will be able to relate to everything in this post. My guess is that those of us who are ashamed to admit these things out loud will find that our experience is not nearly as unique as we think, and, in turn, we’re not the “bad” moms and dads our depression tells us we are. So without further ado, here are Five Things Parenting Through Depression Is and Five Things it Isn’t.
Parenting Through Depression:
1) It’s locking yourself in the bathroom/ taking a shower to cry so that your child(ren) don’t see you.
Depression is not “sadness”. Hopefully, by now, we all know this. If you don’t, let me explain: sadness is situational; depression is a state of being. Your dog died and you’re crying in front of your kids? This is deemed “ok” because your tears are “justified”. Depression crying is not always “justified”. Depression is a deep loss of joy and a loss of the ability to find joy, and sometimes, the smallest thing can bring tears to your eyes. Sometimes, there’s no obvious trigger at all, you just break down and sob. When this is happening, in whatever frequency, you want to shield those little (or not so little) eyes from seeing you like that. You want to prevent those little mouths from asking “What’s wrong? Why are you sad?” Because you don’t have an answer, or, if you do, it’s far too dark and burdensome to lay at the feet of your children. You hide in the bathroom because you want to protect them from the emptiness you feel inside. Because you don’t want it to spread to them. You don’t want them worried. You don’t want them to feel obligated to try to comfort you because that is not their role. Parents comfort children, not the other way around.
2) It’s dragging yourself out of bed in the morning despite having absolutely no energy or motivation.
Let’s face it, the kids aren’t going to feed and dress themselves. (Especially the younger ones.) As a parent, you’re responsible for getting the kiddos out the door and on their way to school or daycare each day. You may be responsible for getting yourself to work as well, but let’s be honest, the thought of work in the morning is so far on the back burner when parenting with depression that it’s not even heating up until you finally get the kids off to their respective destinations first. Also in this category, sometimes it’s not getting up on time, despite your best efforts. Some mornings, you just can’t peel yourself off the mattress in time to get the kids to school (or yourself to work) on schedule. Once the kids are late to school a few mornings, teachers start mentioning it, and you feel like a complete and utter failure as a parent. You just have to try harder, you think. But you can’t try your way out of depression. You can’t will your way out, either.
3) It’s feeling detached from your life. Feeling alone even if you’re with your child(ren) and/or significant other.
Oh! You wanted to actually enjoy family game night? You wanted to engage in that art project your 5 year old is so excited about? You wanted to laugh at that funny family movie you’re all watching together? Tough luck! Depression has a way of taking the fun out of everything. Sure, sometimes you can muster up the energy to go through the motions, you know, roll the dice, hold the paintbrush, push the play button on Netflix, but in reality, you’re so drained emotionally that that’s just about all you can do. Your biggest fear is that your child(ren) will notice this and internalize it as “Mommy/Daddy isn’t really interested in what I have to say/ want to do”, feel rejected, feel hurt, and then stop wanting to do things with you at all. And then depression convinces you that this is already the case and that you’ve failed as a parent and you are screwing up your kid(s) for life.
4) It’s phoning it in on dinner some nights.
If you’re at all like me, you prefer your child(ren) to eat at least mostly healthy things. You know, 3 meals a day, hitting ideal nutritional values, not having too much sugar or junk… But there are some nights that I honestly cannot muster the energy to cook anything at all, to say nothing of a meal consisting of meat, starch, and veggies. Some nights, we have PB&J’s for dinner, some nights it’s cereal, and some nights it’s Spaghetti-O’s. Am I proud of this? Absolutely not. But sometimes “it is what it is.” Bellies are full and I’m not condemning my kid(s) to a lifetime of health struggles if we have an unhealthy dinner occasionally.
5) It’s pulling the energy to make sure your children are clean, warm, and loved when you can barely find the energy for any of that yourself.
Depression has a way of attacking you in sometimes unexpected and not often discussed areas of life. One is hygiene. Now, look, this is the conversation no parent (or any adult) really wants to cop to, but the fact of the matter is, on the really bad days in your battle with depression, if you can manage to take a shower, you pat yourself on the back for it. If you can manage to put on clean clothes, that’s a freaking gold star moment. If you can manage to care enough to actually brush your teeth and hair, you’re officially winning for the day. Because you have that little energy. But your kids? They need to be bathed, they need clean clothes, and they need brushed teeth and hair. It’s your responsibility as a parent. Not doing so constitutes Child Neglect. So, you’ve got to drag that energy from somewhere. Honestly, most nights, I don’t know where it comes from. But I do know, despite being exhausted, despite having zero patience, despite not being able to find a single ounce of energy to care for myself, I have to take care of my kid(s), so I do.
That’s my completely non-comprehensive list of what it is to parent through depression. Now, let’s take a look at what it isn’t.
1) It isn’t laziness, and it’s not a reflection of your love for your child(ren).
We all have ideas of what it means to be a “good” parent. Depression, and the lack of energy, enjoyment of life, and engagement that comes with it, is not in anyone’s definition of “good parenting.” But please be gentle with yourself. It’s not something you can “snap out of”. It’s not something you can wish away. It does sometimes impact the way you interact with your kid(s). (As seen above.) But it does not make you a bad parent. Depression tells you you’re failing. It tells you you are dropping every ball in your life. It tells you you are worthless. But you’re not. And your kids don’t think you are either. We all love our kid(s). Our depression doesn’t change that.
2) It’s not you scarring your child(ren) for life.
So, your kid(s) had “too much” screen time this week (or month), so they ate canned or frozen food for dinner more times than you would have liked, so they wore mismatched socks or clashing clothes because you didn’t have the energy to wash, dry, fold, and sort laundry. Your child(ren) love you, and you love them. They will not be permanently affected by your hard time. As parents, we have a way of showing up for our kids even when we can’t manage to show up for ourselves. Even if we’re doing “less” than we think we should, if your kids are clean, fed, and clothed and they know you love them, you’re doing just fine. I promise.
3) It’s not easy. Forgive yourself.
Depression makes parenting (which is already a job of work) much harder. It tends to not only decrease your levels of interest and enjoyment, but also increase your irritability. There will be days that your fuse is short. Sometimes, a mess left in a room you just spent all day (and all your energy) managing to get clean is going to cause you to lose your temper. You may snap at your child(ren) for things that, on a good day, would not be a problem at all. Forgive yourself, but also ask your child(ren) for forgiveness. It’s ok to have age appropriate conversations with your children about what you’re facing. In fact, I’d encourage it, because there may be a time in their life that they struggle with depression or anxiety or some other form of mental health issue. Though no parent would wish that on their child(ren), having an open, honest dialogue about it may give them the foundational understanding to seek support in the future without feeling the shame and stigma so many of us feel.
4) It’s not permanent.
Even if you’ve struggled with depression for your whole life, you know it comes in waves. The “bad days” are not everyday. You are not doomed to a life of half-hearted engagement with your child(ren), you are not doomed to live in this darkness forever. You will feel joy and connection again. Depression tells us that it will never leave, and for many (myself included) it is a life-long struggle. But there is a certain ebb and flow to it. Remind yourself of that on the bad days, if you can.
5) It’s not weakness to ask for help.
Be it from your natural supports (friends and family) or from a professional, depression is a battle you do not have to fight alone. Everyone needs help sometimes. If a friend of yours had cancer and needed help managing the responsibilities of parenting while they were receiving treatment and recovering, would you deem them a “bad” parent? No? I didn’t think so. So why do so many of us hesitate to reach out for support while we’re struggling? Why do so many of us feel that no one will be around to help if we do need treatment? Of course, the answer to this is the stigma placed on mental health issues. People are taught not to view mental health the way that they view physical health. The distinction is a fallacy. Whether it’s clinical depression or cancer, generalized anxiety disorder or diabetes, you’ve got a medical condition that sometimes requires medical intervention. So many of us believe that reaching out and getting help will somehow paint us as “weak,” or as a “bad” parent. But that’s the depression talking! If you need help, or if you just need to talk, reach out! I promise you, good friends will be there, good family will be there, and they won’t judge you.
That last one is deeply personal to me, although it was initially offered up by one of the friends with whom I connected. If you’ve been following my story, I had to spend a week at inpatient care on a psychiatric unit in January, which meant not seeing my baby girl for the duration of that time.
I cannot stress enough how much I did not want to admit myself to the hospital. I cannot stress enough how much I feared the implications of my stay at the hospital on the perception of my parenting ability, especially having recently separated from my husband. I thought for sure my stay in the hospital would be all the fodder needed to ensure that I’d lose any shot at equal custody of this beautiful girl. I thought that my family and friends would abandon me. I thought that no one would help. I thought that leaving her for a week was the absolute worst thing I could do as a parent. I thought that I should be able to push through and carry on with my daily responsibilities as a mom. I thought, for a long time, that I had no choice in the matter. Moms can’t take “time off”, right? In my mind, “taking a break” was tantamount to neglecting my daughter. I thought getting help meant I was a complete and utter failure at the one thing in my life that mattered most.
In truth, it was the exact opposite. If you’re struggling with depression and parenting, the absolute best thing you can do for yourself and your child(ren) is reach out for the support and help you need.
It may be just telling a few close friends and getting help with the day to day stuff so that life is a little less overwhelming for you until you get through your depressive episode. It may be seeking out a therapist and/or psychiatrist, and finding child care to allow you to go to those appointments. If you’re really struggling, yes, it may mean utilizing more intensive supports, such as hospitalization, partial hospitalization, or intensive outpatient treatment. Wherever you’re at, and whatever level of care you need, reaching out for help does not make you a bad parent. In fact, it makes you an even better one. (And you’re already a pretty good one if you’re raising a child through the fog and darkness of depression, believe me!)
IF YOU’RE REALLY STRUGGLING AND HAVING THOUGHTS OF HURTING YOURSELF, PLEASE CALL 911 OR THE NATIONAL SUICIDE HOTLINE AT 1-800-273-8255.