Special Issue: Women and Family Health

Legacy in Blue

Tracy Thompson, whose book details her struggle with depression, shares a hug with one of her daughters.
Tracy Thompson, whose book details her struggle with depression, shares a hug with one of her daughters. (By Michael Robinson Chavez -- The Washington Post)
By Sandra G. Boodman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Motherhood and depression share a long common border, author Tracy Thompson observes in "The Ghost in the House" (HarperCollins, $24.95), her exploration of the often-overlooked mental health problem. The book blends memoir with research on the topic.

Thompson's focus is not the more-familiar postpartum form that can follow the birth of a baby, but the longer-term illness that affects an estimated 12 million American women, many of them diagnosed in the prime childbearing years between 25 and 44. In Thompson's view, unrealistic expectations about motherhood may be increasing the risk of depression in women who feel they can't measure up.

A former Washington Post reporter who chronicled her battle with suicidal depression in her 1995 book "The Beast," Thompson explores the legacy of an illness that is often passed from grandmother to mother to daughter. She discusses ways the intergenerational link might be broken, based on insights gleaned from her own history and interviews with some of the 400 mothers whose accounts of depression she collected over several years.

Following are excerpts from a recent question-and-answer session with the author:

What do you mean by maternal depression?

Maternal depression, the way I define it, is depression that is created or exacerbated by the stresses of being a mother in this culture at this time.

It can be transmitted from mother to child via genetics, environment or through learned behavior -- or more likely a combination of all three things. It's depression as it intersects with motherhood, with the lifetime job of rearing a child.

We as a society give lip service to what a wonderful thing motherhood is, but at the same time [we] act as if any old mammal can do it. I'm not trying to dis fathers here, but I'm not writing about dads. I'll leave that to someone else.

What are the stresses associated with contemporary motherhood that in your view contribute to depression?

If you go back to "The Feminine Mystique," the classic 1963 book by [feminist movement founder] Betty Friedan, and substitute the word "motherhood" for "housework," it's amazing. [Friedan wrote about the tyranny of housework and the all-consuming, never-ending and unpaid nature of what was then called "women's work."]

I think these days instead of starching and ironing bedsheets once a week, we've transferred that energy to our kids. Our kids are a measurement of how well we're doing. There's this attitude that a mother's constant presence is necessary to ensure her children's emotional health.

At the same time we're supposed to be doing all the other things women are supposed to be doing -- like working and going to the gym and keeping the home computer free of viruses and having hot sex with our husbands and looking good. There are a lot of inflated expectations for mothers in this culture.


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