It’s such a common struggle that it’s almost become a cliche: the haggard, exhausted mother herding her tiny children. In my office, I routinely meet with mothers of young children. And, as you might expect, many of them are exhausted, sleep deprived, and, sometimes, clinically depressed themselves. Now that I’m a mother of a young infant myself, I’m much more attuned to the ways in which fatigue and depression can impact a mother’s functioning.
We know now that maternal depression is linked to many different problems that children experience. When pregnant mothers are depressed, babies are more likely to be born prematurely or have birth complications. After birth, maternal depression interferes with the bonding and attachment process that is so crucial for creating a sense of safety and security for the baby. Mothers who are depressed struggle with caring for their children: playing, cuddling, singing, and the thousand daily routines that create a sense of security and belonging for the child. So, when they become preschoolers, children of depressed mothers have poorer language development and they score lower on tests of cognitive development. Later in life, they are more at risk for depression and other psychiatric disorders themselves. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg for the negative impacts on children.
I heard a researcher recently say that maternal depression is worse for children than maternal drug use. I doubt that he was overstating his case.
So what’s a mom to do? First, pay attention. Depression is real, and it is common in mothers, both before and after childbirth. Second, take time for yourself to care for your own needs. Ask your partner or friend for help while you take a shower, exercise, or take a nap. Spend some time outdoors. Most importantly, take your feelings seriously and ask your doctor for help. Research shows that specific kinds of talk therapy, such as cognitive behavior therapy, can be very useful for depressed mothers. And medications may also offer relief. But the first step is understanding that depression is real and that it’s important to ask for help.
A mama’s happiness IS important, and it leads to benefits for everyone, especially her children.
Rebekah Evans, PhD