The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How my mother’s depression shaped my whole life

By 7, I was cooking for my family and taking care of my brothers and sisters.

(Courtesy of the author)

When I think back to my mother when I was a child, I don’t have a single memory of her smiling. She suffered from chronic, lifelong depression, and it affected me and my four siblings every day.

We quickly learned that we couldn’t depend on her for emotional or physical support. At 7, I became my family’s caretaker. I would make my mother toast and coffee each morning. Then, I’d make lunches for my siblings, iron their shirts and made sure their homework was complete.

When most of us hear the term “maternal depression,” we likely think about postpartum depression, or the “baby blues.” This is important, and I applaud New York for passing a state law that provides guidelines on public education and physician screenings.

Some mothers, however, can’t shake that sadness, even as their infants grow into toddlers and teens. According to The National Council on the Developing Child Working Paper on Maternal Depression, 10 to 20 percent of mothers suffer from depression at some time during their lives, and often when their children are young. On average, women’s maternal depression peaks four years after the birth of their child, according to one of the largest studies to date by the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute. 

Depressed mothers are often withdrawn, disengaged and unhappy. These symptoms may sound a lot like “regular” depression, and they are. What most differentiates it for mothers is the profound impact it can have on their children.

I am an example. I have vivid memories of sitting outside my mother’s locked bedroom door, reading books and hoping that at any moment she would emerge excited to see me. I drew hundreds of pictures for her, hoping that somehow something I could do would lead her to want to spend time with me and interact with me. It never happened.

For young children, healthy development depends on the daily, consistent and responsive interactions with a primary caregiver. Mothers who suffer from chronic depression have trouble doing things like taking children out to the park, reading books or even talking. The lack of these important daily interactions can have long-term negative consequences on brain development and overall health. Living with a depressed mother may also shape the development of a child’s stress biology, causing increased levels of anxiety and withdrawn emotions that endure over time.

While my childhood years are far behind me, I am still haunted by my memories and the emotional effects of my mother’s untreated depression. I look back at my childhood and see a burdened, sensitive and anxious child. I was a perfectionist, an overachiever, always trying to get my mother to notice me, always longing for her acceptance, love and attention that just never came my way. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized it wasn’t that she didn’t want to spend time with me; rather, she was emotionally unable to do so. She was stuck in the dark, deep hole that swept her way.

When my mother died eight years ago, I found a list of things she always wanted to do in her life. One thing on that list has haunted me every day: “To be happy for my children.”

Maternal depression is often unidentified, and only 15 percent of women suffering from it obtain professional care. While it is unclear why some mothers are more susceptible to depressive symptoms, what is clear is that rethinking maternal health surveillance beyond postpartum is important, since it can have debilitating and long-term harmful effects on both families and children.

My mother never received help. My father worked long hours, and while I know he realized that she was somber and often depressed, we never talked about it. Ever. My siblings also knew that something was not quite right, but we never talked about it. Ever. My mother had a successful career and was able to mask her symptoms in public. So her depression was hidden behind closed doors.

I’m choosing to open the door by writing about my childhood experiences publicly for the first time, to start a conversation that I hope can lead to more awareness, research, advocacy and a mandate for physician screenings for depression. Because, every child deserves to have a mother who smiles.