The effects of parental depression on the entire family
To a child, Mom and Dad are everything. They are our teachers, our nurturers, our security, and our most foundational example of how to be a person. From language, spirituality, academics, and morality, our parents, or those who step in and take this role, introduce us to the world and are our most fierce supporters through every obstacle it has in store for us. Of course, as the family unit is quite a diverse system in our society, these forms of support are very different depending on the type of family, the values of the family, and the personalities of the individuals who comprise it. For a specific subset of these families, those with a parent or parents who suffer from some sort of depressive disorder (also called parental depression), the common systems of guidance and support are oftentimes very different from the norm.
Parental depression and child outcomes
I can speak to this issue from both sides, as I grew up with a mother who has battled major depressive disorder for many years, but also have children of my own now and struggle with a much milder form of depression myself. As I discuss my experiences of family support in relation to parental depression, I wish to emphasize the unique challenges that both the children and parents experience in relation to parental depression and not to appear as if I am implying that a depressed parent is not a capable parent, or a good parent. Quite the contrary, being the child of a depressed mother I can speak to the incredible strength, endurance, and dedication to one’s children that it requires to be able to balance the many responsibilities of parenthood while dealing with the symptoms of depression.
As parents, especially of young children, I’m sure most of us try to protect them from the ugly parts of this world. We sensor their entire lives, from television and media to deciding who are acceptable people to interact with (no one wants their child to be friends with bad-news Benny!). We try not to let them see us argue with one another, or lose our temper, and we usually try to hide our bad decisions from them. This is the charade that is parenting, trying to prepare our children for the world by hiding its most dangerous aspects until we feel we have taught them well enough that they know how to handle it; we try to prepare them before we expose them. But my mom did not have this luxury, nor do I believe do many moms or dad with parental depression, because this mental health disorder does not patiently wait until the family is ready and capable of handing its presence― it just shows up and makes itself comfortable, permeating every aspect of life for that parent, and consequently, affecting their children as well.
Depression is often misunderstood as a sort of extreme kind of sadness, and in many ways this is a good summary. But this classification only scratches the surface of the complexity and intensity of the symptoms associated with major depressive disorder. Along with this persistent and intense sadness comes symptoms such as negative patterned thinking fixated on self-worth, past and current failures and suicide or self-harm, a decrease in appetite and energy, sleep disturbances, difficulty thinking and concentrating, irritability and agitation, anxiety and restlessness, and difficulty completing day-to-day activities. In some cases depression can lead to other physical and emotional problems as well, creating a vortex of symptoms surrounding the individual, eroding their ability to fulfil their parental, and other, responsibilities.
Oftentimes the symptoms of depression can be treated with medication, therapy, or a combination of the two, and they can be reduced significantly as to no longer affect the individual’s daily life, or can even be eliminated. However, the treatment process takes time, and for some it takes a long while before an effective treatment plan can be found, and in the mean time, families have to cope with the effects of parental depression.
Growing up with a depressed mother
As an especially emotionally sensitive child, I was very aware of my mother’s situation, and though she did her best to keep us from seeing her at her worst, there came a time when it could no longer be hidden from us. She stayed afloat through three consecutive caregiving burdens: her mother died of lung cancer, her father of complications following a stroke, and my dad, her husband, of cancer. Within a matter of about 5 years my mother had nursed three of her most cherished loved ones on their death beds. She selflessly and tirelessly tended to their every need, putting her own emotional and physical health to the side, because these were to be the last moments in this world for her mom and dad, and for her husband. She made our school lunches, kept our clothes clean and folded, kept the cupboards full and meals on the table and still managed to find time to be there for us emotionally. She was an absolute champion, as she still is. But this champion’s mental health eventually began to feel the strain of the years of trauma and stress, and after my father passed and the funeral was over, her depression hit hard and fast.
She had been battling the symptoms of depression for years, only I had no idea because she hid it from us, as parents tend to do. But the extremity of her depression made it no longer possible for her to do so, as her more mild symptoms turned into major depressive disorder and she was no longer able to function. Our family had just watched my dad slowly die of cancer, so we were all dealing with some pretty powerful grief, but our mom was suffering with the most intense depression I have ever heard of. My brother and I were both teenagers by now, and pretty independent in terms of laundry and feeding ourselves, and we also had an older, adult brother who stepped in the parental role when our dad first became sick. But we all felt my mom’s depression, and it was devastating to our whole family.
The symptoms of my mom’s depression were intense enough to drastically change her lifestyle in a matter of weeks after my dad’s funeral. Of course having spent the last three years as my dad’s nurse― every single day of her life— and he was now gone, her daily responsibilities changed drastically. With fairly self-sufficient teenagers, two adult sons, and no longer a patient to tend to, my mom must have felt absolutely lost. And in creeps the debilitating depression. Her sadness and grief were overwhelming, her physical energy was non-existent, and, combined with her chronic pain disorder, her emotional and physical health were deteriorating rapidly. Soon, my poor, sweet, strong mother could not even get out of bed.
Though I know beyond a doubt that this impacted my brothers as well, I can only speak to how it felt for me as a young teenager to have my mother hit so hard with rapidly worsening depression. It was first and foremost, heartbreaking. Always putting on a tough face for us kids, and always finding the time to talk to us about our dad, or anything else that was going on in our lives, I knew that this cost her a great amount of energy, and that underneath her tough facade was a woman who was just broken. And that was a very painful thing for me.
More than anything I wanted my mom to be happy. I wanted her to have people in her life her made her smile and do things that she was passionate about. I wanted to hear her laugh, and not just because she was faking it for our sake, but because she was genuinely joyous inside. Parental depression, in my experience, changes the entire relationship. I used to see my mom as a mom, with her rules and her requirements, and her almost super-human energy and abilities, and not so much as a woman. Watching her depression take over her life, seeing her unable to do things she used to do, knowing that she was sad and miserable inside, made me see my mom an imperfect being, as we all are. For the first time I saw her as a woman with her own feelings and emotions, and not just as “Mom”. I am not saying this is a bad thing, as we all come to a point in our lives where the parental relationship gradually shifts to an adult relationship, but for us, this change was forced on us, long before I hit adulthood.
Parental depression effects on child development
When your most central role model is no longer able to model what it is to be a healthy, functioning adult because of their symptoms of depression, this certainly has an effect. Though my mother never stopped being my most solid source of emotional support, she was unable to do many things that a mom does for their children at this age. I learned to budget and grocery shop, cook and meal-plan, manage school and social responsibilities while my mother passionately supported me from afar. We did not go on family trips or outings, we didn’t have meals together often, and we mostly tried to lean on each other if we could, for help with homework or other problems, so we didn’t have to bother Mom. Our family had the closest, strongest emotional bonds I know of, but with our matriarch down, we struggled every day with regular functioning.
Now, having gone over some of the trials I experienced living in a family with parental depression, let me tell you why I think that it may have been one of the most pivotal learning experiences of my life, and why I am proud to have lived with a mother battling depression. Depression and other mental health disorders are common occurrences in modern society, and the likelihood of being diagnosed with one yourself, or having someone close to you living with a mental health disorder, is quite high. Because of these experiences I’ve had, I was significantly more prepared to deal with the symptoms of depression when they began to exhibit in me.
As well, I have had many friends who have had experiences with depression, whether with themselves or loved ones, and have been able to relate to them on a very personal level about these issues, and because of that, have been able to offer support to them through these challenges. I have been left with a permanent awareness about people, that each and every one of us, even the strongest, or most super of moms, is vulnerable and weak, and is capable breaking. I believe very strongly that this is why I have such a deep belief in being kind, loving, and helpful to people―always— because you never know what they are experiencing on the inside. I think that seeing my hero be taken down so hard has left me especially sensitive to others’ emotional pain, and has encouraged me to become the genuine person I am.
Of all the things I think I have learned from growing up in a family with parental depression, I think the lessons I am most grateful to have learned are the ones she taught me about dedication, perseverance and emotional strength. I witnessed my mother’s world turned upside down on her, all at once. I watched as her body began to weaken, her physical energy evaporated, and her daily pain became almost unbearable. But I also watched her survive it. I saw as she pulled herself up out of bed when we needed her, even though I knew she barely had the strength. I watched her put on a brave face and champion through my important events, like my graduation, even though I knew she was heartbroken inside. I saw thousands of smiles that I knew were only half-hearted, but she managed them anyway. I remember countless words of encouragement even though she was so severely discouraged herself. I saw, up close and personal, the reality of battling an obstacle that comes from within, and how to never give up, no matter how bad it becomes.
I learned that mental health issues do not happen to weak individuals, but that they can affect even the strongest. And probably most importantly of all, I learned that my mother is a fighter― a warrior, rather― who loves me more fiercely than I ever could have imagined. I am proud to have grown up with a mother who was depressed, thankful to have learned what it is to support a person with depression, and honoured call myself her daughter. Parental depression, in our family, may have looked like weakness at times, but it brought out a strength and depth in each of us that we may not otherwise have known was there.
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