How Does Your Depression Affect Your Child?

Tracy Thompson begins her thoughtful book The Ghost in the House with two brilliant sentences: “Motherhood and depression are two countries with a long common border. The terrain is chilly and inhospitable, and when mothers speak of it at all, it is usually in guarded terms, or in euphemisms.”

If depression happened in a vacuum, it would be so much easier.

But it doesn’t. It happens in the context of a family, raising kids, being responsible for other human beings even as you can’t take care of yourself.

My Worst Fear for My Children

“Even when it is relatively mild, depression may cause subtle shifts in the interactions between mother and child, and a mother’s depression may negatively affect her child’s development and well-being,” explains Ruta Nonacs, MD, PhD, in A Deeper Shade of Blue.

This is my worst fear for my kids — that my tears, anxiety, apathy, and sadness will destroy them and will cause them to have psychiatric conditions down the road. In the midst of an uncontrollable crying session, I hear Jackie Onassis’s words: “If you bungle raising your children, I don’t think whatever else you do well matters very much.”

The other day, my son, daughter, and I were in Michaels, the craft store picking up some face paint for spirit week at school.

“Can I have some gum, Mom?” my son asked me. We’re in the candy aisle.

“Sure,” I said, putting aside my efforts to de-sugar him.

“Do you want anything?” I asked my daughter.

“Yes,” she said. She looked up at me with tears in her eyes. “I want you to not be depressed.”

My heart broke in half.

Ten minutes earlier I was crying in the car. The painful ruminations wouldn’t stop, and I felt besieged by anxiety. As much as I try my best to hide my symptoms from them, not crying in front of them feels like not being able to pee during the day. The tears flow like Niagara Falls.

“Sweetie, I know you want that,” I said to her. “I want that, too. And I will get there. I promise. The magnets [transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS] are helping me, and I am getting better.”

I offered her hope even as I couldn’t access it myself.

Later, I cried to a friend.

“I’m ruining them,” I told her. “They need another mom — a more stable, capable woman who can run them to Michaels without tears running down her cheeks.”

“You can’t put the pressure of being well or being perfect on yourself,” she said. “That burden is too heavy.”

She urged me to forget about all the statistics that haunted me — studies that suggest children of parents with mood disorders have a much greater risk of developing psychiatric disorders themselves.

“Look at all the kids whose moms have breast cancer,” she explained. “They cope. They become resilient. They know their mom is ill, and they just might develop more compassion and empathy as a result. They might grow in ways they wouldn’t have if they hadn’t had to deal with it.”

“The difference is that a mom with breast cancer doesn’t feel the kind of guilt that you do about having cancer,” she continued. “She usually doesn’t fault herself for having to go through chemotherapy and losing her hair.”

She’s right about that. The guilt associated with this illness is what imprisons depressed mothers and stymies recovery.

In order to be the best mothers we can be, we must move beyond our guilt and focus all of our energy on doing whatever we can do to get better. In my case, that’s going to my TMS treatments, doing yoga, talking to friends, eating the right foods, lowering stress, sleeping, and calming myself down as much as possible. We can’t entertain statistics about how our crying might psychologically damage our kids — we just can’t go there. We must pray the serenity prayer with conviction so that we can separate the things we can change (like seeking the best treatment possible and taking care of ourselves) from the things we can’t (like symptoms that come with our present condition).

I Will Be Back to Myself One Day

A few years ago I wrote a children’s book for kids with a depressed parent calledWhat Does “Depressed” Mean? It included messages like “You are not to blame” and “Don’t take it personally” and “You are still loved.” But the concept that I think is most important for kids to hear (and for depressed persons to hear as well) is that “Your loved one will be back.”

I paraphrased this paragraph to my daughter in Michaels:

It is hard to imagine that the person who is now depressed will one day be back to herself. It is scary when you think that she might be sad for the rest of her life. However, you must trust that the same person who read bedtime stories to you, or tickled you until you screamed “Stop!” or took you on Saturday errands will be back! For real!

Yes, for real.

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