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Kids Often Depress Parents

More Depression in Dads and Moms Than in Child-Free Adults
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Feb. 10, 2006 -- Kids just aren't good for parents' mental health, sociologists find.

Moms and dads -- even empty-nesters -- report more depressive symptoms than childless people, find Ranae J. Evenson, PhD, of Vanderbilt University, and Robin W. Simon, PhD, of Florida State University.

"Parents report significantly higher levels of depression than nonparents," Evenson and Simon write. "One of our most interesting findings is that there is no type of parent that reports less depression than nonparents."

The researchers analyzed data collected in 1987 and 1988 on nearly 13,000 U.S. residents. The survey included black and Hispanic Americans, so the findings apply across racial and ethnic lines.

Surprisingly -- given longstanding concern over the emotional consequences of motherhood -- fathers reported just as much depression as mothers.

"Despite the female excess of depression among all types of parents (and nonparents) in our national sample, the association between parenthood and symptoms does not significantly differ for women and men," Evenson and Simon report in the December 2005 issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior.

Parenthood: No Promise of Paradise

There are lots of great reasons to be a parent. But in and of itself, parenthood won't improve your mental health -- or your relationship with your spouse, says psychologist (and parent) Susan Jeffers, PhD. Jeffers, best known for the self-help classic Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway, is the author of I'm Okay, You're a Brat!: Setting the Priorities Straight and Freeing You From the Guilt and Mad Myths of Parenthood.

"Society tries to tell us parenthood is the greatest fulfillment of all times," Jeffers tells WebMD. "That is not true for a majority of people. One can find wonderful things about having children. But people are not talking about the negative effect it has on your life. And it is very hard on relationships."

It's not just the wear and tear of having an infant, Evenson and Simon find. Parents are more depressed than nonparents:

  • Even when their kids have grown and left home
  • Even when they do not have custody of the children
  • Even when they adopt
  • Even when they become stepparents

"You lose your peace of mind, your extra money, your privacy, and on and on and on," Jeffers says. "The worst part of it all is how much you love them, because you worry a lot and you have to keep learning to let go and let go and let go."

This doesn't mean parenthood can't be extremely rewarding, Jeffers notes. It just means that having children doesn't automatically make life more meaningful.

"Don't feel guilty about resenting your children," Jeffers says. "We all as parents go through these emotions. It is part of the process of having a child. You have to take responsibility for creating a meaningful life for yourself, so you don't get depressed. Parenthood is very hard."

Jeffers says her son is responsible for her advanced education, because he drove her to seek fulfillment outside the home.

"The key is to create a rich, beautiful life for yourself," she says.

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