Is Motherhood Depressing?

Researchers say it can be, and that it can hurt both moms and kids. But there is reason to be hopeful. Here's why …

By Debra Gordon

It started with something as simple as the vacuum cleaner. It was Saturday, the day I enlisted my three sons, ages 4 to 13, to help clean the house. While I don't recall the exact details of that morning seven years ago, I do remember screaming at my oldest son because he didn't vacuum properly. I can still see the fear on the other boys' faces, and the disgust on the teenager's.

"You're out of control," he yelled back, as I continued my tirade. "You're nuts."

Actually, I was depressed. It was February during my first-ever northern winter, my husband had been traveling off and on for the past six months, and the combination of working full-time, parenting practically solo, and the day-after-day grayness, snow and icy cold proved too much. Despite the antidepressant medication I'd been taking for nine years, something tripped the tenuous balance of chemicals in my brain and the depression came crashing down.

I was first diagnosed with depression when my oldest child was 4. And while I would never blame my children for my depression, after living with this disease for 15 years I can now clearly see that - despite how wonderful they are - my children contribute to the stressors that tend to trigger my depressive episodes.

I'm hardly alone. A groundbreaking study published in late 2005 found that being a parent - whether mother or father - significantly increases your risk of depression, regardless of race or economic status. The findings add some fuel to previous studies that found that women in their childbearing years are especially vulnerable.

"In terms of depressive symptoms, parenthood is not good," says Robin Simon, Ph.D., of Florida State University, who, along with Ranae Evenson, Ph.D., of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, conducted the study. Yet, Simon notes, "We still have these cultural beliefs that parenthood is the key to lifelong happiness, and that having children will improve your well-being."

Simon and Evenson analyzed data from the federal government's National Survey of Families and Households, which involved interviews with 10,000 adults throughout the country in the late 1980s, with follow-ups through 2003. From the first wave of data, they found that it doesn't matter what type of parent you are - custodial, non-custodial, stepparent, adoptive or empty nester - you still have a significantly higher likelihood of being depressed than a similar childless adult. Their study was the first to compare emotional distress, a major determinant of depression, among parents vs. non-parents.

Simon is quick to point out that her study did not examine the positive side of parenting, like feelings of pride and joy. And she's aware of another study, still under review, that did find greater feelings of joy in parents than non-parents. "So," she says, "it's very possible that the costs and benefits of parenthood cancel each other out."

Whether that's the case or not, health experts are quick to point out that depression is a highly treatable illness, and once identified and treated, sufferers - and their children - often experience a huge improvement, and the joy of parenthood can once again be realized.