How To Keep Your Head Above Water When You're A Depressed Mom

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Image Source / Getty Images

It happens. It happens to 1 in 8 women over the course of her lifetime, according to Mental Health America. They add that it’s most prevalent among women 25 to 44 years of age — prime childbearing and “mom in the trenches” years.

According to Postpartum Progress, widely accepted sources state 10–15% of women will suffer from a postpartum mood disorder, be it PPD, postpartum OCD, postpartum anxiety, or postpartum psychosis, though they themselves estimate a higher percentage at 20%.

But when you break it all down, Child Trends says that 1 in 5 children live in a household with a parent who has major or severe depression. One in five kids. That’s a hell of a lot of depressed moms and dads.

You know you’re depressed. You don’t need someone to reel off the effects on your life, your mind, your parenting. You know, because you’re living it. But even in the middle of the depression, hard as it is, you need to get shit done. You have to.

The kids aren’t going to feed themselves. Work isn’t going to accomplish itself. The laundry’s piled up and the dishes are in the sink and the tub’s got a rim around it, and just contemplating it all makes you want to cry. I’ve been there, more than once. I totally get it on a personal level.

So how are you going to accomplish this petty shit while your mind is telling you — well, in the interest of avoiding trigger warnings, all the horrible things your mind is telling you? How can you muster the strength to pick up that crying baby, or comfort that 7-year-old who’s lost his Lego piece, when you feel stretched thin as the skin on a drum?

Nothing will take the place of a good doctor and a therapist, so that’s the first, most important route to take. But after that? How do you take the edge off when you’re doing everything “right” and you still feel weighed down?

Get Out

On Quartz, therapist Megan Bruneau says that between depression’s negative self-talk and shame, it becomes almost impossible to open the door. “Despite what depression tells you,” she says, get up and go somewhere, “shower optional.” Take the kids to that park, to the library story time, on a walk in the woods. A change of scenery is a big deal for you — and for them, for whom it’s fun and exciting, which makes you Awesome Mom.

Lower Your Expectations

You want your kids to have the best of everything, to have everything be perfect. We get it. But Denise Levereaux, MSW, LISW-CP, a clinical social worker with a private psychotherapy practice in Spartanburg, South Carolina, dedicated to the treatment of trauma and stress management, says that we need to “learn what it means to have realistic (and KIND!) expectations. Moms are some of the worst offenders I know when it comes to perfectionism.” That means that you stop stressing if the dishes aren’t done when you go to sleep, if your kid’s lunch doesn’t look like a freaking Bento box, if your bathroom isn’t sparkling and your kids are munching Micky D’s for dinner. Give yourself some grace. Chill.

Ask for Help

Mental illness can feel shameful. But that doesn’t mean it is shameful. It’s not. Esperanza says that depressed moms have to step out of their comfort zones and ask for help. Can your spouse take off work (mine had to) or scale back hours? Do you have relatives and friends who can come and help — even for just an hour? Can you pay a babysitter to take the kids for some of the time, giving you a much-needed break?

Scale It on Back

Therapist Denise Levereaux says that it’s important we understand that “energy and time are finite resources for everyone. When we are struggling with depression, we have even less energy and time available. We can’t do everything. That’s okay. Take it to baseline: “What do I and my kids need to survive this day?’” Esperanza agrees. One mom tells them, “You have to adjust your expectations of what a normal day looks like, and sometimes that means just surviving until bedtime,” she says. “It doesn’t even matter if the kids get dressed. We made it? We’re good.” In Quartz, therapist Megan Bruneau recommends setting “SMART goals [which] are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-oriented.” Instead of “I’ll get some chores done today,” you shoot for “Today while the baby sleeps, I will fold a basket of laundry.”

Connect, Connect, Connect

Both Levereaux and Bruneau recommend connecting with others as a way to help depression and stay productive. Bruneau says to “spend time with others — so long as they’re people who care about you, around whom you can allow yourself to be a total mess.” Levereaux says that “so much of the time, we carry massive amounts of shame that shut down our connection to others, our ability to access our support system, both external and internal. Other people understand what you are going through, and you can find them. No matter how loudly the depression is telling you there is no one who gets it.” She recommends even virtual support using apps like Pacifica, Talkspace, Facebook communities, and Instagram. You can find other moms going through the same thing you are, and when you feel that connection, when you feel less alone, the depression loses its hold a little bit.

Practice Self-Care

You know the metaphor: You put the oxygen mask on yourself before you put one on your kid. You need to take care of yourself before you can take care of anyone else, and that means taking a timeout. Bruneau says you can practice two kinds: “the kind that distracts, like rock-climbing, jewelry-making, and other activities that demand full concentration; and the kind that helps us process our emotions, like journaling or making art.” Do not beat yourself up about this. You absolutely must make time for it. It’s crucial for your health to take time away from the kids so you can come back to them with a full tank.

Most of all, make sure you’re seeing a doctor or a therapist, and that you have a road ahead toward recovery. Keep taking care of yourself. Lower your expectations. And drop the shame. “Separate your idea of you from your depression. Imagine it as a gremlin that follows you around and makes life difficult. It is not you,” reminds Levereaux. You are not Depressed Mom. You are a mother who is suffering from depression. Which, with some help from doctors, you can beat. And not just for your sake. For the rest of your family’s too.