Parenting: Depression, Stress and Resilience

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Neil Bernstein, Ph.D.
Clinical Psychologist and Author
Friday, January 20, 2006; 10:00 AM

A recent study concluded that parents, from those with infants to empty nesters, are more depressed than non-parents . The Journal of Health and Social Behavior surveyed 13,000 adults and asked respondents how many times in the past week, for example, they felt sad, distracted or depressed.

Does this study truly reflect the state of American parenthood? Do you think you'd be happier if you hadn't had children?

Clinical psychologist and author Neil Bernstein was online Friday, Jan. 20  to take questions on the study and on the nature of stress, depression and resiliency in parenting.

Bernstein has been treating Washington area children and families for 25 years and is author of "How to Keep Your Teenager Out of Trouble and What to Do If You Can't" (Workman, 2001). He practices in the District and Virginia.

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Silver Spring, M.D.: Just some comments on the short intro blurb: How varied is the pool of respondents in the survey mentioned? I have a 19-year-old daughter and 14 yr old son. I'd say that their personalities, age, and gender make a huge difference in terms of my happiness in being their mom. Also, the close friendships I've made with the parents of my children's friends have made a huge difference in the support I feel for my parenting, and work has definitely cut into my time to nurture these relationships.

I'm eternally grateful to the Parent Encouragement Program in Kensington for the parenting classes, which gave me new ideas, approaches, and resources. I am much happier as a result of the PEP classes.

Neil Bernstein: I don't know all the details of the research, but it seems to me that they probably did not control for all the possible variables which could influence the outcome. Despite this, it's still an interesting and difficult finding to digest.

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Washington, D.C.: I suffer from depression as it is and am one month away from becoming a parent. Is there any hope for folks like me? This article just seems to be rubbing it in that my deepest fears are indeed true.

Neil Bernstein: Yes, there's hope. Broad studies don't always accurately represent the experience of everyone. I've worked with many folks who have suffered from depression, yet found parenting to be a great joy--and even felt better than they did in their pre-children years

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New mom in Florida:

As I new mom (four-month-old son), I found this study...troubling. I have never been more tired, and at times, felt more isolated my whole life. BUT, I also feel calmer, more connected to my own parents and my husband, and have been able to say "no" to those stressors in my life from before-baby...and everyone understands! Am I just in denial, or am I one of the lucky ones who's coming out ahead? I found the stresses of college and work life much more "depressing" than this...

Neil Bernstein: I totally agree. You seem to be dealing well with things.

Parenting can be exhausting, but it's also gratifying. Always keep that in mind and be assured that there's a distinction between good and bad stress.

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Arlington, Va.: To what extent do you think the so-called problem of depression among parents is self-induced? Are parents simply making their children into a problem rather than a joy as a means of self-absorption? Clinical depression runs in my family, and I decided not to make the children the center of my life. They are one very important part of a full life, and so far it's working out. They're both A students in a private high school with friends and full lives of their own. I feel as though I've dodged a bullet, though, and would like to understand more.

Neil Bernstein: No one chooses to be depressed--but sometimes people lose sight of the big picture. Yes, we must make our children's needs important, but simultaneously make sure that we look after ourselves as well. That means developing a support system, asking for help when we need it, and making sure to do things that we enjoy separate from our children. Self-pity is not useful when faced with a dilemma with our kids.

Look fear, depression, and stress in the eye, and do what you can.

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Baltimore, M.D.: From my observation, many people use their children as "success objects", (i.e. much of their parental self-worth comes from their children's academic success or success in sports). Does some of the depression that you describe result from the supposed failure that a parent feels when their child does not fulfill their (perhaps unrealistic) expectations?

Neil Bernstein: It wasn't my study and I'm just commenting on the research. But I do believe that parents who tie their own self-worth and happiness into their children's academic achievement are setting themselves up for problems and are probably not doing their kids a favor.

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Washington, DC: I read the Bundles of...Misery with a chuckle and then forwarded it to a bunch of my friends who are moms. The article seems to accurately describe a lot of moms I know in the DC area who feel completely consumed by the responsibilities of being a mother, to the effect of losing their own identity. (How many kids aged 8-14 have your heard say, "Mom, you have no life!"?) I think a lot of the problem is that moms today don't remember that our mothers and grandmothers probably paid a little less attention to their kids than many do today, and as a result many of us have grown up to be independent, well-adjusted citizens who contribute to society positively. A woman who didn't work used to be called a housewife, now she is a stay-at-home mom. Is that the only identity we have? I'm not trying to say being a mom is not a tremendously important job, but I believe that women should focus first on their marriages and their relationships with their husbands and that will set a healthy tone and priorities with their relationships with their kids. Kids of any age will consume you if you let them, but after they hit 3 years of age and can do a bit more for themselves, you shouldn't really let them.

Neil Bernstein: Totally agree. Excellent point!

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Neil Bernstein: It's important to keep our expectations of parenting realistic. Nothing in life is foolproof and stress-free, but that doesn't mean we wouldn't choose it over and over again if we had the choice. I strongly disagree with the gloom and doom interpretations of the study. Readers should interpret the findings cautiously! But there is some legitimacy to the results.

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Washington, D.C.: I am the mother of a 13-year-old son, who has decided to not do homework anymore, and a 10-year-old daughter, who can hardly remember to bring herself home from school, much less any homework! On top of this I work a full-time office job, which I go to from 6:30-3 p.m. every day, so I can get home in time to start my REAL job: policing the kids homework, cooking dinner, driving kids to various sports and/or school events. So I feel that 95 percent of my time is spent taking care of other people who are hardly grateful or appreciative. This leaves 5 percent (if that) for me...so how does a person NOT get depressed and stressed? I feel a lot of times there is simply nothing left at the end of the day, yet at the same time, I can't drop any of these responsibilities without disastrous consequences.

I can't imagine my life without children; it's simply comparing apples to oranges, two completely different modes of life, so I don't even go there. But how does one survive raising them without ending up a shell-shocked traumatized person? I'm only mildly joking here...

Neil Bernstein: Yes, it can be really tough at times. And your kids may not express their gratitude for years to come. Both could use help with self-discipline and need to learn to appreciate what you're doing for them. Unfortunately, there are too many entitled kids out there who just take us (and the things we give them) for granted. Maybe they need more chores to understand what hard work is like???

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Upstate N.Y.: I am a single parent with no help (financially, physically, or emotionally). I find myself worn out at the end of every day with nothing left for my child or myself. I don't know how to end this tiring pattern. I live in a rural area with no way to connect with other parents. What is the best way for me to better my child and my life? I also don't have any health insurance so going to a doctor isn't an option.

Neil Bernstein: My heart goes out to you. You really do have it tough. If there is no immediate support group in your area, I suggest that you join one of the he many online support groups available to parents in need. Don't ever give up! You and the kids will be better off and stronger for it in the long run. Adversity really does build character!

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Woodbridge, Va.: Hi. I work in a public school and come across many happy and unhappy parents. The happiest ones seem to be the ones who provide safe and loving homes, set limits on their kids and keep up with their own lives. By contrast, the harried and stressed parents are the ones who give their kids everything (we're talking first graders with North face jackets here) except firm and loving guidelines for behavior and safe and predictable home lives. Just a thought!

Neil Bernstein: Interesting thought. Probably some validity to it!

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Midlothian, Va.: Help, Dr. Bernstein!

My wife put a 10-year job on hold to be a stay at-home-mom. Kids are 2 and 3. She goes through long periods of being "down," lasting 2 weeks at a time or more. She also yells at the kids on a constant basis. (Yells at me too!) I am hardly an out-of-touch dad. I feed the kids, bathe them and even took the kids away for 3 days so she could get a break. I am starting to resent her consistent bad mood, though I understand the stress she is under. I am concerned she is depressed, even slightly. I have begged her to talk to her doctor, but she refuses. I personally am considering talking to someone so I can cope with the long, protracted bad moods. Any suggestions?

Neil Bernstein: Sometimes, folks get depressed and don't even realize or admit it. Although it's difficult, try to be supportive and understanding of what she's going through. Perhaps you can enlist the support of other close friends and family who might be able to help her to see that she needs assistance to get through these difficult times.

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Springfield, Va.: As mother of a 1-year old, I can honestly say that I've never been happier. Before deciding to have a child, I was very ambivalent about my feelings toward parenthood and, looking back, I feel that I was very self-centered. I was only interested in me - my job, my relationships, my well-being. Now, I realize that so many of the things I thought were important before are really not. Now, I get my fulfillment from raising a person to be a contribution to society. There is a sense of satisfaction in knowing that a little part of you (hopefully) will live on after you've gone.

Neil Bernstein: I agree! You've learned one of life's important lessons early.

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Silver Spring, M.D.: Do you think the study would have had different results if taken in another country that had more support systems in place for parents? It seems as if the study was saying "American" parents are more depressed. And that it was in large part due to the societal pressure of kids first?

Neil Bernstein: Yes, support systems are important.

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washingtonpost.com: washingtonpost.com is starting a new e-mail newsletter on parenting issues from infancy to college. You can sign up -- it's free -- at washingtonpost.com/newsletters . Scroll to the bottom of the page, to the "News You Can Use" section, and click on "Parenting."

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Washington D.C.: As someone who has yet to start down the road of parenthood, this study definitely makes me think twice about having children. I had been under the impression that people who had kids were happy they had them. But, after reading this and seeing things on TV, like on the Today Show where parents talked about wanting to go back to work while on vacation because it is less stressful than hanging out with the kids, it makes me wonder.

Were there biases in this study at all? For example, parents who were less well off financially and had multiple stresses that could cause anxiety? Do parents have too high expectations of parenthood? I.e. It is easy or my kids have to be #1 in everything? What is it that makes these people depressed?

For those of us who have yet to have kids, it does beg the question as to why have them in the first place.

Neil Bernstein: Yes, probably some biases in sampling of study--but people who get depressed with kids might well get depressed without them as well. Depression seems to be linked to the interaction of genetics and environment, so some are more susceptible to it than others. The way we interpret events in our lives certainly contributes to depression.

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Misery or bliss?: I have two children, ages 2 and 4. My first 3 years as a mother were miserable. I was isolated, overwhelmed, and under slept. This last year has been the happiest of my life. The difference? We reduced the hours that we were working and moved to a co housing neighborhood that provides far more support for parents. We were lucky to have these options.

I think the lack of support is such a major factor in parents' unhappiness.

Neil Bernstein: Strongly agree!

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Crofton MD: We have four children and cannot imagine not having them. When they were toddlers and younger I had bad days of depression and frustration but I am happier with our children than without them. They share their love. I have never been so popular. I have had to grow and learn and mature. Perhaps the depressed parents also resist or resent the changes that care giving requires.

Neil Bernstein: That's a possibility--but many factors go into making a person depressed. I discussed this in another response.

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Washington D.C.: has anyone done a study comparing rates of depression before and after having a child-- that seems more relevant because the study in question really does not establish that having kids causes depression-- it could just say that depressed people are more likely to have children than non-depressed people. In fact, this study does not discount the possibility that depressed people are LESS depressed after having kids, right? Couldn't the study just be saying that less depressed people are less likely to have kids? There life looks good as is, why change? I personally fell less depressed than I did before I had a kid-- and I don't think this study disputes that this could be true for everyone! I'm not saying it is, I'm just saying that the study wasn't designed very effectively if it was trying to establish that kids CAUSE depression.

Neil Bernstein: Good point.

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Silver Spring, M.D.: I have a 1-year old too, and while I don't regret being a parent, I so miss being able to leave the house without packing like I'm on safari, and am having trouble connecting with my childless by choice circle of friends. Does this mean I fall into the category of being depressed? I wouldn't trade my baby girl for anything, but like NY and others, I'm wiped out at the end of the day.

Neil Bernstein: Welcome to reality. Millions of parents who have been through this would agree. Thank god, the phase will pass!

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Alexandria, Va.: Can we clarify that depression is a medical condition often caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain? Many of the posts here imply that the parents in question are setting themselves up for disappointment through their expectations. That's not depression per se.

A person diagnosed as depressed can no more easily change their condition through will than a diabetic could overcome their condition by eating more. Treatment and often drugs are needed. Please don't trivialize a physical medical condition.

Neil Bernstein: Yes, people who are clinically depressed certainty need treatment and or medication.

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Olney, M.D.: I love being a parent. But sometimes it can be very difficult especially this time of year when they are sick and there are no real outside activities going on. I have so little leave at work that I am constantly playing catch-up and then I have no energy or patience to deal with my kids, homework, PTA, house, husband and elderly parent. I don't blame the children, they are great, it is just that to "have it all" I seem to have only exhaustion. I think this is what can lead to depression. I am working on NOT having it all it is not worth it, I want my kids to look back and see a happy mom who was there when they needed me. Now I hear you are always tired.

Neil Bernstein: Good for you. Parenting can be draining and many would agree. But exhaustion doesn't always equate with depression. I believe one of the keys is being able to say to yourself that we can't do everything and "what I'm doing is good enough".

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Washington D.C.: How much of the depression of today's parents is due to the isolation of the nuclear family in this society? I grew up in South America and looking back it seems like there was always a hugs extended family living nearby. Of course people had their own houses but you always had a bunch of relatives nearby who would stay with your kids if you wanted to go out or take a vacation or where the school bus could drop them off at grandma's house after school where they would be with grandma and a bunch of cousins who had also been dropped after school and then you could pick up your kid after work without having to worry. In this country it feels like you have no one. Families are scattered so there is no built-in support group. How can people not get depressed when there is no one you can rely for anything? It seems to me the society is set up to cause depression.

Neil Bernstein: Good point. Support systems are essential. Those who don't have family accessible, but seem to create their own network certainly fare better.

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Alexandria, Virginia: Explain the difference between exhausted and depressed. I think every new parent, and parent of a child of any age is exhausted. But Depressed? I think that is very different.

Neil Bernstein: Depression is a psychiatric disorder characterized by lack of emotional and physical energy, poor appetite, low self-esteem, feelings of hopelessness, and impaired concentration. Exhaustion alone may be situation appropriate.

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Brookland, D.C.: I am a younger mom (27) with 2 girls ages 5 and 6. I feel overwhelmed and sad pretty often, especially when I see other people my age enjoying life and not having to deal with the same issues I do. I love my children dearly, and I don't want to feel this way. What kind of do to remove this cloud? BTW- I'm married to their father, but he works A LOT. It's mostly just the kids and I.

Neil Bernstein: Seek support systems outside the home. Make sure to do things you enjoy (with or without your husband) and don't be afraid to ask for help if you feel like it's too much for you!

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Neil Bernstein: Thanks everyone for your thoughtful and insightful comments.

Neil Bernstein

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