When Being Mom Leads to "Mommy Depression"

We get the kids ready for school, we feed them, we do what needs to be done.
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By Jami Ingledue

I have heard many moms I know talk about a specific kind of high-functioning depression. We get out of bed in the morning, because there are small people completely dependent upon us. We can’t just ignore the crying or the “mom, mom, MOM!” We get the kids ready for school, we feed them, we do what needs to be done.

But it is all a sham. We feel dead inside, like a shell of a person. We can sort of fake it for the kids, but no one else. We are completely sucked dry. Still functioning on the outside but paralyzed on the inside. No hope, no light we can see at the end of the tunnel.

Not to say that moms don’t have debilitating, can’t-get-out-of-bed depression too. But so many mothers suffer from this other invisible dead weight.

My own depression came after a year of struggling through some of the hardest things I’ve ever dealt with. My teenager had spiraled into a deep depression that left her suicidal and nearly requiring hospitalization. My toddler was what we euphemistically call “spirited:” extremely energetic and strong-willed and, at 15 months, an accomplished climber who knew no fear.

For a year I spent all of my energy literally trying to keep both of my kids alive, in one way or another. I dug and dug to find this energy until the well was dry. But it didn’t matter that the well was dry. I had to keep going. They still needed me.

My body was achy and tired and I often found myself wondering if I was coming down with some illness. But I kept going. Even when I became completely apathetic and hopeless. I knew it was time to get help when I had the thought: I hope my family will love me for what I used to be, because there is nothing good left.

I remember I was putting clothes into the dryer, that Sisyphean task, and I just froze for a minute. And thank God I had some experience with depression, thank God there was a voice in my head that said: Stop. That is not OK. It’s time to get help.

Stay-at-home moms are uniquely at risk for depression. The isolation of being home all day with no adults; the monotony of doing the same damn things over and over again and never feeling like you’ve actually accomplished anything; the lack of time and energy for the most basic hygiene; the sometimes complete lack of positive feedback; the mind-numbing endlessness of it. Never a break, especially if you are not blessed with a good sleeper. Always on call, 24/7.

I used to fantasize about being back at work just so I could actually take a 15-minute coffee break and talk to other adults.

And the lack of sleep. Oh, the lack of sleep. The effects of sleep deprivation cannot be overstated. There’s a reason they use it for torture. Sleep deprivation and depression form a vicious cycle that can be impossible to break out of without help.

The mom job is hard enough. But if you add on a child with mental illness, chronic health issues, or disabilities, it becomes monumental. I know many moms like this and many have suffered through depression.

When you spend your life, your LIFE, taking your child to appointments, fighting for their access to an education, managing their illness, dealing with their meltdowns, wondering how you will ever pay for it all…there is no time for exercise, for self-care, for all the things you should be doing for yourself.

Near the end of that most difficult year, I was talking to a good friend on the phone who had moved away. We had been neighbors when our babies were small and had been great support for each other. I told her what we’d been going through. “Jami,” she said, “what support have YOU had through this?”

None. I had none. I had not even realized it until that moment.

There comes a point where you must just STOP and put your own oxygen mask on first. Not just for ourselves, but also because we are completely ineffective if we don’t take care of ourselves. We are no good to anyone, least of all our kids, if we are a shell of a human being.

And support is the very first thing. We can’t do this alone.

I started with therapy for myself, along with antidepressants, which I feel were crucial in getting “me” back. But I also reached out to friends. It can be hard to make yourself so vulnerable, especially with the lingering stigma of mental illness. But allowing vulnerability is what makes us strong. I am very lucky to be surrounded by wonderful women in my community, but it’s on me to make the connections.

One friend then opened up to me about her own child’s mental illness and her struggles. We met for drinks. She introduced me to a private online group of moms with similar experiences. The relief of knowing I was not alone, of having a safe place to say whatever I was feeling, is indescribable. The burdens so many of these women carry are huge, and they are my heroes, my definition of courage and strength. Having a community of support like this makes all the difference in the world.

The thing I’ve found is that there is no “balance.” When I take time for self-care, whether it be dinner with friends, therapy, exercise, or just escaping from the house alone—there’s a trade-off. There’s something else that gets left undone. We can’t really “do it all.” We can only do what we can do. So something else has got to make way.

And THAT’S OK. Why would a clean house be more important than our own mental health? That’s insane. What do our kids possibly need more than a fully-functioning mom capable of connection?

We are their deepest need. Not the socks being in the sock drawer. And if you have friends who make you feel bad for that, you need to find new friends. We can’t do this alone. An important part of self-care is only allowing supportive people into your life.

To be honest, some things in my life are a mess right now. But I am not an empty shell of a human being. And I think that’s a pretty good deal.

Previously published in Jami’s monthly Behind Domestic Lines column as ‘The Myth of “Doing It All”’ in The Wild Word magazine. www.thewildword.com

Jami worked as a librarian for over a decade before choosing to stay home when her son, now 4, was born. She also has a 17-year-old daughter. She makes all-natural soap and body products and sells them through her company, Dancing Bee Farms (dancingbeefarms.net). She lives with her husband, daughter, and son on an acre of land in rural Ohio, where they keep bees, garden, and brew beer.

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