The struggle of the depressed parent
She’s exhausted and feeling guilty that she can’t care for her young children during a medical crisis
Q.I’m struggling with a bout of depression, something I’ve dealt with since college. I’m working with a therapist and trying to adjust to new medication. Meanwhile, my kindergartner and my 2-year-old need my attention — but I have no energy to cope. Sometimes I’d rather ball up in bed than take care of them, and the last time I felt this bad, I didn’t have kids yet. My husband is pulling double duty, and I’m full of guilt because I feel dysfunctional, apathetic, and lazy. I’m getting medical help, but I need parenting advice: How can I stay in the moment with my children while handling this?
Kara: You need to give yourself a break. Trying to parent while coping with depression is like trying to ski on peanut butter. Worry less about staying “in the moment” and focus on meeting your kids’ basic needs to slog through the day. You’re going through a real medical crisis, so please respect that.
“Depressive episodes are serious and not a matter of something that can be willed away. They require treatment,” says Jessica Slavin Connelly, LICSW, a psychotherapist practicing in Cambridge.
That said, she urges visiting your primary care doctor to eliminate any underlying causes for these issues. “Make sure you’ve ruled out other possible medical conditions that might be contributing, including hormone imbalances or shifts, possible vitamin D deficiency, or thyroid issues,” Slavin Connelly says.
In the meantime, don’t beat yourself up. In the age of Pinterest parenting, it’s easy to think we need to be hyper-engaged with our kids, all the time. Instead, focus on manageable things you can do with them, whether it’s just reading a book or cuddling. Your kids don’t need you to be perfect; they just need you to be there.
David: Absolutely. Focus on getting well. Parenting is exhausting when you’re healthy, and depression is exhausting even when you’re childless. Setting superhuman expectations for yourself will only make your recovery more difficult. I understand the urge to, as you say, “stay in the moment,” but you should also feel perfectly OK getting out of the moment to get the help you need, so you’re able to be there more fully later.
Kara: The happy news is, it sounds like you’re taking the right steps toward getting better, which requires energy in the first place. It also sounds like you have a supportive spouse, which is huge. In the short term, take full advantage of that support. Let him be the more present parent. This isn’t a long-term excuse to slack off, but a short-term prescription for being good to yourself while you get on track.
David: And don’t feel bad about it. If you had a broken leg, people around you would pitch in. What you’re dealing with is as purely medical as a broken leg, and it’s not unreasonable to expect help. Certainly, mental illness is less visible than physical illness, and you may be reluctant to share your challenges widely. But those you’re close to should be helping you, just as you should help them when you’re well and they hit a tough time.
Kara: All true. It’s also great that your husband is helpful, but he’s also probably tired and could use some support himself. Do you have friends or family who might also pitch in with baby-sitting, pickup, or meals? Is it possible to invest in a mother’s helper or other child care to keep your kids on a steady routine? Enlist outside forces, if you can. This isn’t lazy; it’s smart.
And fortunately, this limbo period should be temporary. (Slavin Connelly asks her clients to be in close touch with their prescribing physicians during this time for monitoring, as some medications need to be taken for a number of weeks or increased before the full therapeutic effect occurs.)
If your symptoms don’t improve, remember: Medication and treatment aren’t one size fits all, and you shouldn’t resign yourself to a new normal. In addition to consulting with your doctor, I’ve found that the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (www.adaa.org) is a great resource for baseline tips, expectations, and advice. So is the National Alliance on Mental Illness (www.nami.org).
Lastly — and I know this is hard — try to set small parenting goals for yourself each day. This will help your sense of well-being and hopefully reduce your guilt, especially since your kids aren’t old enough to fully grasp why you’re not your usual self. Take a walk with them. The exercise and fresh air will feel good (really). Plan a fun outing, even if it’s down the street to the playground. Read a book aloud. Concocting a small, attainable agenda will make you feel in control of your own life again. Relish these small victories, and try to build on them day by day.
David: I agree that these little, less-stressful activities can do a lot and may help you find some positive focus. But I also want to reiterate how important it is that you not try to handle this situation alone, or blame yourself for illness. Use the support you’re getting to focus on recovery. Lean on your friends and your family. Do what you need to do. Get better. Good luck.
David Mogolov is a dad, a comedian, and a playwright. His parenting comedy is forthcoming as a collection titled “I Should Have Done That Differently.” Kara Baskin is a mom, a journalist, and author of “Size Matters: The Hard Facts About Male Sexuality That Every Woman Should Know.” With a mix of expert insight and first-person reassurance, they tackle your parenting worries and woes.