A study published in the BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, suggests that mothers have a higher chance of experiencing depressive symptoms four years after giving birth than in the first 12 months after their child is born.
I'm not surprised. I certainly found myself collapsing into tears considerably more when my children were 4 than when they were babies. During one particularly tough period, I wrote an intensity-driven post called "The F-ing Fours," with images of my child's (normal, age-appropriate) aggression freshly in my mind.
The study used data from questionnaires completed by 1,507 women attending public hospitals in Melbourne, Australia. They answered questions at 3, 6, 12, 18 months and four years postpartum. Almost one in three of those women reported depressive symptoms during the first four years after giving birth -- the prevalence of those symptoms being its highest of 14.5% when their children were 4 years old.
This leads me to wonder why. Why are many women feeling sadder when their child hits preschool years?
I have heard from many mothers that the difficulties common with parenting 4-year-olds can be an overload to the system. Toddlers certainly have their challenges, as do any phase of childrearing (let's remember all the wonderful parts of each phase, too), but maybe we're prepared for those? The phrase "terrible twos" has been around for a long time, but until I was in the throws of handling an aggressive, yet sweet and loving 4-year-old, I had never heard of "The F-ing Fours."
Perhaps we're fatigued with constantly redirecting and coaching our little ones. Maybe we should coin the term "discipline fatigue." Facing backtalk, fights, "I HATE you's" and defiance on a daily basis can wear us down. It can feel hard to look forward to a day you anticipate having battles in. This, in addition to trying to foster a loving relationship with a partner, cultivating a work-life for those who do and forming positive connections with other children, can zap our life-energy.
I contacted researcher Tim Caulfield, author of The Cure For Everything, asking if there were other studies discussing this phenomenon, which he did find.
It also seems that difficult interaction with preschoolers feels more personal -- that they are old enough to be lashing out at us on purpose. Negative core beliefs from our own childhoods can really get triggered during this time.
Please know that even though we may be feeling our children are pushing our buttons to intentionally get back at us, they actually aren't. It is hard to be big enough to understand a bit more, but not so big to be able to communicate that understanding. Their emotions are often larger than their ability to understand and process these.
Personally, my desire to change my own level of sadness when my children were 3 and 4 pushed me to learn more about myself as a parent and tools to managing this child-rearing phase. I put my psychotherapist hat on and dug into research, listened to clients and sat on my friend's couches to understand better.
It turns out that many mothers do feel ill-equipped to handle the big meltdowns preschoolers often repeatedly have, experience pressure to keep it all together and perceive they have nowhere to turn.
I believe the first step is to increase awareness that maternal depression continues well past the postpartum phase into preschooler time. More studies need to be conducted so we can narrow down the biggest causes for sadness for mothers of 3 and 4-year-olds, along with the best courses of action to help.
Here are some of the strategies I suggest, which I used myself to feel better while parenting 3- and 4-year-olds. I believe the focus needs to be both on parenting techniques and self-care:
1. Take time to consider your needs:
What is missing and what are you able to do to get your needs met?
2. Schedule rest time:
Create space for meltdowns and time to recover. I found that when I told myself, "I do have time for this," rather than the opposite, I could control my self-talk a bit better.
4. Learn about using positive discipline:
A great resource for this is No Drama Discipline by Dr. Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson, PhD. There are many wonderful books and Facebook pages about how to use positive discipline instead of punishment.
5. Talk with your partner about a shared discipline plan:
It is so important that all caregivers are on the same parenting page. An excellent book to help here is What Makes Love Last? by Gottman & Silver
6. Laugh. Have fun:
As Laura Markham, PhD says, "Laughter releases the same tension as tears," so seek out things that make you laugh. I also recommend Markham's book, Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids
7. Courageously ask for help:
Any time you face a rough patch in life, if you find that you aren't feeling well or need a hand up, reach for one. I enlisted the help of neighborhood friends to play with my children so I could have time to regroup. I also really leaned on family members, therapist colleagues and close friends for advice and strategies to do better.
Postpartum depression can intensify when children reach 3 and 4 years of age. We need to get the word out so that moms will drop any stigmas around seeking help when they are feeling down. I do continually post free parenting resources on my Facebook page, so please do pop over there in addition to reading the books I suggested above.