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.
Pediatrician: Parents More Diagnosed, Not More Depressed
Parents see a doctor -- their child's pediatrician -- often. That means they have a lot more chances than nonparents to have mild depressive symptoms brought to their attention, says Thomas J. Sullivan, MD, a partner in Virginia's Alexandria Lakeridge Pediatrics. He's also a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics committee on psychosocial aspects of child and family health.
"I am to going to see every child and parent eight times in its first years for health supervision visits, when there is nothing the matter," Sullivan tells WebMD. "In that time you are looking for things, in both child and parent. So there is an increase in identification of depression as times go on. And if you have mild symptoms, and it goes on for two weeks, you meet the criteria for clinical depression -- even though it is mild."
That doesn't mean depression isn't important. In fact, Sullivan says, responsible pediatricians are constantly on the lookout for depressive symptoms in parents. Why?
"For us to pick this up is very important, because if we improve the mental health of the parent, we improve the health of the family," he says.
Often parents will worry over their child's symptoms when it is their own symptoms that need attention.
"Parents are very concerned about gas and crying and fussing and the baby not getting enough sleep, when really it is they who are not getting enough sleep," Sullivan says. "And their expectations are the baby is always going to be smiling and doing all these cute things. But the baby is going to cry a lot, and not sleep, and a parent really isn't going to be getting much sleep."
The trick, he says, is to shift the conversation from the child's symptoms to the parent's feelings.
"What you do is ask open-ended questions, like, 'What are you doing?' he says."And they answer, and you say, 'Well, you are doing everything right.' They say, 'Then why do I feel so bad?' -- and now you are talking about feelings. Remember, 85% of mental health care is given by primary care providers."
Sullivan agrees with Jeffers that parents' expectations are often unrealistic. If they knew to expect that they will sometimes suffer from depressed feelings, he says, it would make it easier to provide them with proper care.
For example, one of Sullivan's patients was an older child with hyperactive behavior. His parents had taken him to a neurologist, sent him for a sleep study, and sent him for MRI brain scans and neuropsychological tests. The boy's behavior, it turned out, was a response to one of his parents having unrecognized depression.
"It is just that if people knew to expect this, they would be able to talk to their doctor, instead of asking about medical tests or changing the baby formula," Sullivan says.