Many of the articles that followed referenced a 2012 Gallup Poll that revealed, “Non-employed women with young children at home are more likely than employed [mothers] to report experiencing sadness and anger a lot of the day…Stay-at-home moms are also much more likely to report having ever been diagnosed with depression than employed moms. Employed moms are about as emotionally well-off as working women who do not have children at home.”
As a steady stream of best sellers and articles suggests, a stay-at-home mom can be simultaneously grateful to be home with her kids (never missing a moment!) and feel guilty complaining about her privilege, while still grappling with the social isolation; fractured identity (usually accompanied by a career downshift); mountain of unending, unacknowledged, unpaid labor; the reconfiguring of her marriage around retrograde gender roles; and the unique societal stigma attached to the word “homemaker.” For some women, staying at home is a choice; for others it’s a financial and logistical necessity. It can also be both.
To help manage the mess of emotions that can weigh on even the most resolved stay-at-home mom or parent, we consulted with Dr. Aliza Pressman, director of clinical programming for the Mount Sinai Parenting Center in New York, and host of the podcast Raising Good Humans. Our edited and condensed conversation is below.
Q: Is there a difference between “stay-at-home-mom depression” and depression?
A: If you have a diagnosis of depression, you have a diagnosis of depression. And sometimes certain life events bring up pre-dispositions toward depression or mood disorders. Because really, clinical depression is clinical depression whether you’re a mom or any other adult.
Q: How can you tell if what you’re feeling requires medical treatment?
A: There is a range of experiences with depression. But if, all of a sudden, you or the people who love you question whether you need support, that’s reason enough to speak to your doctor. Whether it’s a therapist or your OBGYN, you need someone to help you distinguish between, “Is this normal? Or is this more than I can take on?”
Q: Let’s talk being a parent and lack of sleep.
A: Part of being a mom is having the awareness that you’re going to get less sleep, so you have to do everything you can to commit to getting sleep. Especially if you are having thoughts of worthlessness or lacking interest or pleasure in things, or if you have decreased energy or irritability.
But it’s a terrible cycle. And the sad part is, half the time moms don’t sleep it’s because they’re trying to be better moms. They’re trying to make the homemade lunch, or organize the perfect calendar, or plan the perfect birthday party. And what kids need is a mom who got a good night’s sleep. A lot of the things we do in the service of our children are actually undermining how we experience our children. Because these things are making us crazy.
Q: So don’t stay up ’til 2 a.m. planning the Pinterest-perfect birthday party?
A: All moms need to take a look at their self-care and figure out what they derive pleasure and joy from. If it’s making the perfect Pinterest-page party, great. That is not to be criticized. But if it isn’t, and they’re up at 2 a.m., then that should be the first thing to go. Because none of that matters for your child’s well-being. Your well-being as a mom, your own fulfillment and happiness as a person, is what’s going to reflect upon your relationship with your child.
Q: How can stay-at-home parents combat social isolation?
A: It’s essential to find a way to not isolate yourself, whether that’s opening up to a mom on a park bench or telling your partner, “I think I need a night out.” Reach out to someone and let them know you’re feeling isolated. It’s really hard to do, but most of the time when a mom does that, especially a mom to kids under age five, people respond with a very compassionate and often empathetic, “Yeah, me too.”
Q: Can social media help?
A: While social media can be extremely toxic, it can also be very good for parents, especially if you’re using it not to be a voyeur but to connect with other people. You just have to find the tone that resonates with you. Some people find that Pinterest-perfect Instagram resonating with them and other people want to get together specifically to crap on the moms who make everything perfect. And some people are like, “I just want to feel loving and talk to other breastfeeding moms.” It doesn’t really matter. Social media only becomes toxic if you use it to follow people who make you feel crappy.
Q: What other fresh advice can we give moms and parents who may be struggling with this?
A: Positive Psychology researcher Martin Seligman has a theory of well-being. It’s called PERMA. It stands for Positive Emotion, Engagement, Relationship, Meaning and Accomplishment. It’s a framework for thinking about ways to have a better outlook. What are those ways? Positive emotion—thinking about gratitude, for example—is a great way to build a sense of hope for the future and a contentment with the present. If you’re lost in your new role as a person, it can be very helpful.