Children: the best thing since Prozac

Before I had children one question occupied me a lot: what is the connection between mental health and motherhood? I knew the statistics. It is estimated that between 10% and 20% of mothers suffer from postnatal depression.

Having a personal and a family history of depression increases your risk.
I have both. I have been depressed. Not horribly, not debilitatingly, but enough to worry about it. So have others in my family. There was no way I would have put off having children because I was afraid that it might get worse. But I had a pretty good idea it would.

I first admitted to myself that I have depressive episodes in my mid-20s, when I began to see a therapist following the death of my grandfather. His loss had completely floored me. I had always tended to be negative and self-critical but it seemed to be getting worse. I had a couple of anxiety attacks—in a supermarket and on a commuter train when I was unable to breathe. Therapy helped me to cope.

Feeling better, I stopped seeing the therapist when I became pregnant. At the back of my mind, though, I assumed I would be back before long.

We hear a lot about the negative effects of babies on women’s mental health and very little about the opposite. Of course, not everyone gets the children that they desperately want. And, of course, just being able to have them at all should make you feel grateful. But if you’ve known depression you fear that becoming a parent won’t make you happy. And you fear for what that situation might mean for your children.

It had never occurred to me that they would make me more—not less—sane. Before my first baby was born, I assumed it would be a struggle and that I was at risk of becoming very low. When that didn’t happen and I felt an incredible surge of happiness, I was amazed. With every successive child—I now have Will (seven), Vera (four) and Jack (six months)—any depression I do have seems weaker and easier to handle.

A lot of mothers who have known depression and mental illness before motherhood feel this way. Singer-songwriter Martha Wainwright who had a brief experience of therapy, spoke recently about how she is different since the birth of her son two years ago. “Motherhood has changed my life for the better. I have spent a lot of my life thinking about myself, writing songs and staring at walls for hours, but now that’s not an option and that’s a release.”

‘A huge weapon against the disease’
Kristin Hersh (44), the New Orleans-based singer and guitarist in Throwing Muses, has published a memoir about how motherhood rescued her from the worst of her mental illness. Paradoxical Undressing describes her diagnosis as bipolar shortly before an unplanned pregnancy at the age of 19. More than two decades later, with four sons aged between eight and 24, she says her identity as a mother is the one constant that has never let her down.

“I’ve had extreme ups and downs, but I’ve got good at keeping them in perspective. That is a gift my children have given me. I know people who say, ‘I couldn’t get out of bed for a year’. I feel for them, but I think, ‘You didn’t have to get out of bed’. If you have a child you can’t act that way.”

She says that having children around helps her to keep herself in check, monitor her symptoms and nip them in the bud. “It keeps you from passing symptoms into personality, which is a huge weapon against the disease. I prefer not to be on medication because I feel poisoned when I take it. I see an acupuncturist and it seems to be the most powerful treatment for me. I’m not sure I would have sought that out if I didn’t have to be clean and healthy for the children.”

Seeing things through her children’s eyes keeps her sane. “I like the simplicity of it. They never allow me to stop seeing things as new and thrilling. Basically, children help you to feel less jaded, a feeling which, in my case at least, can quickly lead to feeling down and out of control.”

But is there any truth in the idea that when a person becomes a parent, a new side of her is born that is just as likely to be a less-depressive side? The psychologist, Daniel Stern, explores this concept in his book, The Birth of a Mother. “In the course of becoming a mother, a woman develops a mind-set fundamentally different from the one she held before.

“This motherhood mind-set pushes her pre-existing mental life aside and rushes forwards to fill the centre stage of her inner life. As a woman adapts to motherhood she not only takes into account who her baby is, but also who she has become because of having a baby and who she wants to be.”

This seems obvious. But it’s still a pervasive idea that things are more likely to go badly for you, especially if you have a history of depression. As Ariel Gore writes in Bluebird: Women and the New Psychology of Happiness: “Conventional wisdom holds that women are twice as likely as men to suffer a major depressive episode in their lifetimes. Postpartum and maternal despair are so common, new motherhood is actually considered a major risk factor for depression.” It’s possible that this attitude is finally disappearing and we don’t have to accept the doom scenario.

Human life as Prozac
The psychologist, Dorothy Rowe, the author of Depression: The Way Out of Your Prison, says there is no reason a baby shouldn’t make you happier, even with a depressive history: “Having a baby produces a mental change in every woman. It’s not what happens to us that determines our behaviour, it’s how we interpret it.”

She remembers experiencing a high herself: “I remember thinking a couple of hours after my son was born: ‘I understand now why women have lots of children. Because it’s so great.’ Up until then, I had thought it was mad to have lots of children. But I could see then that if you had a positive experience, why wouldn’t you want to repeat it?”

We all too rarely read about family life as human Prozac. Often any kind of positive spin on parenting—especially motherhood—is seen as sentimental or smug. But novelist Amanda Craig, the mother of Leonora (18) and William (15), believes becoming a mother can repel your worst thoughts. “Before I had children I was suicidal from time to time with depression. But once you have children that option is closed off. I felt that I had been given something joyful and positive to live for. People aren’t told that enough.”

As a parent, you don’t have time to be miserable: “It can be hard—the sleeplessness is the worst part—but you are too busy to get depressed. Excruciating though it is, I think a lot of depression is a kind of luxury. When you’re frantically trying to fit everything in, you don’t have five minutes to think about your mood.”

No woman should be afraid to have children because of how it might change her for the worse, says Craig: “I’m always moved by the story of Virginia and Leonard Woolf, because she was prone to depression and he wouldn’t let her have children, thinking it would disturb her mental balance. Knowing how she got on with her sister’s children, I’ve always thought that this was precisely the wrong thing. Had she had children, it might well have not only helped her creativity and her mental health, but it would possibly have given her a feeling of contentedness.

Of course, some women do react badly to becoming mothers, but my view is that if you truly want children, the sense of connectedness they bring makes you more not less sane. My novels changed completely once I had mine. You share a kind of underworld with other parents, which, even when it’s exasperating, is also liberating.”

Chrysula Winegar, an American blogger and coach with four children under the age of 10, is working on a book called When You Wake Up a Mother. She says her own children make her question the best use of her time, which helps her to stay focused and positive.

Having a family has not “cured” my depression. But I do know that since having children I am more in control of my moods. I did not expect that. It’s a pleasant surprise. I wish I’d known.—Guardian News & Media 2011

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