Mothering requires a high emotional involvement, but restricts your freedom to plan your life as you please. If you are already vulnerable because of poor education, low self-esteem or a troubled marital state, you are more prone to develop depression. Serious social problems such as job loss, poor housing, overcrowding, threats of eviction, and physical danger can escalate the stress you feel. Twenty-five to 40 per cent of mothers studied in a working-class district of London, with children under six years old, were found to be depressed.
Single parents have added stresses. Finances are often limited. Ongoing disputes with ex-spouses can be exhausting. Juggling the demands of children and a job, as well as running a household by yourself, calls for creative strategies. According to a recent study carried out by McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, low-income adolescent mothers living on their own are the most vulnerable group, with a 45 per cent incidence of depression.
What will help you survive these years? Practical and emotional support from family and friends, and an intimate relationship with your partner, if you have one, protect you from developing depression. Employment outside the home is also protective, because you develop an increased sense of competence, stimulation and social status. (The money comes in handy, too!) Other practical ways to combat depression might include participating in playgroups with mothers and toddlers at a parent resource centre, or sharing babysitting with other parents so you can both get a night out without children. Local gyms often provide babysitting services while you enjoy working out and talking to other mothers. Informal arrangements with relatives can also give you time for yourself.
Rita was pregnant again, though her first two children were still preschoolers. Her husband, Robert, ran his own plumbing business; he was in and out of the house at all hours and couldn’t be depended on to babysit the kids. Rita found herself becoming more and more irritable and tired. Her own family was in Spain for most of the year. Her mother-in-law lived two blocks away and was retired, but they had never been close, because Robert had left his first wife to be with Rita, and her mother-in-law had never approved. Finally, one afternoon when her mother-in-law dropped by for coffee and found the house in a shambles, Rita burst into tears. To her surprise, her mother-in-law said she remembered how tough it had been when she was a young mother. She gave Rita a hug and told her to go and lie down while she cleaned up. After that, Rita and Robert’s mother could talk about how they really felt. It turned out that Robert’s mother loved helping out with the children, but had felt she would be interfering if she offered to do so. With help from her new-found ally, and antidepressants and therapy from her doctor, Rita found her load much lighter.
In many cultures, there are rituals surrounding childbirth that support the new mother. Women in our own culture have reinstated some of these rituals with childbirth classes, home births, midwives, and husbands taking a more active role. But the most important step is recognizing that depression is not unusual, and that it’s all right to ask for help.