Thursday, March 25, 2010

Depression is Not a Life Sentence for Your Children (I Pray)

Recently an article in the Los Angles Times reported, "Evidence is mounting that growing up with a depressed parent increases a child's risk for mental health problems, cognitive difficulties and troubled social relationships." This is one of my greatest fears. That's because in my own experience I know this to be true. As I read this article, it definitely struck a chord for me. It's something I worry about often, and in those moments when I fail to hold it together as a parent grappling with my own demons, I beat myself up stridently for this reason.

Depression runs in families. I am certain that my father has suffered from undiagnosed and largely untreated depression for most of his life, and I suspect that it started very early on. He had a troubled relationship with his father, whom he idolized, but had a difficult time connecting with. Things got to the point that my grandfather took him to a therapist with the goal of finding out why my father "hated him." The therapist worked with my father, and ultimately told my grandfather that his son did not hate him, and in fact worshiped him, and helped the two to ultimately have what my dad described as "a wonderful rediscovered relationship." But this new found father and son connection was tragically arrested when my grandfather had a massive heart attack and died when my dad was barely 14 years old.

In the years that I've known my dad he has been prone to intense anger, has at times been both verbally and physically abusive, and has fallen into deep periods of hopelessness, punctuated by terrifying threats of suicide. My husband doesn't quite grasp my aversion to the guns he enjoys in a sporting fashion. My father always had a sawed off shot-gun just under his sweaters on the top shelf of his closet, and I believed that he could and would use it at any moment growing up as a child. Guns represent violence and insecurity to me.

As I age, I also suspect that my mother also suffered, and continues to suffer from depression. But she manifests it very differently. She withdraws from everyone and everything. She prefers to give her care and attachment to animals, with whom she has a deep connection and a beautiful gift for healing. To this day, my mother largely remains a mystery to me. Whereas my father, a deep lover of history, regaled me (repeatedly) with stories of his life, when I would ask my mother about hers, she would vaguely and flatly tell me she "didn't remember." I remember looking at photos of my mother as an obviously spunky and stunningly beautiful young woman, making up the stories that I knew were there, feeling very hurt that she chose not to share them with me.

My parents are both still living, but I consider myself all but orphaned. They emotionally abandoned me long before I physically left them. That's how it feels to me anyway, although I know they disagree. We don't have any kind of functional relationship now. This is largely their choice. For years, I stayed silent about how I felt about their distance and estrangement from me, fearing that they would completely cut off what little relationship we did have. That was until this year, just after the birth of Little Kidlet, whom they have yet to meet.

I finally, in the twilight of my thirties, had mustered the courage to tell them how much it hurt me to be estranged from them, to not know what was happening with them unless I made it my business to find out, and to ask them why they didn't seem interested in their grandchildren, let alone their only child?

It was my fear realized. My mother flatly rejected that they had not expressed care and concern as parents, that if anything happened to them, "I would be contacted," and that if I needed them to tell me that they thought about me, or loved me, then the problem was mine. End of discussion. As I sat on the phone (on speaker so my husband could hear) trying to control my body shaking sobs, my father tried to soften the precise blows just delivered by my matter of fact mother. But, we have not spoken since that day. I periodically send them updates about the boys, but that is the extent of our relationship. I can't manage much more at this point. Looking at it now, and the timing of that conversation, it factors as a trigger for the depression I'm now moving through.

Instinctively I know they do not mean to hurt me, but it doesn't lessen the pain of feeling unwanted. My ninety-plus grandmother, who always sees the bright side of things (how else to survive losing your husband, and raising two teenage boys alone, put them through college, and live to be the last of your immediate family), sees the fact that they don't contact me (or her for that matter) as their attempt to protect me. And I guess she has a point; they must know that I was and am miserable in their world, and was happy to leave it. I do consider the day I left home for good at nineteen, as an escape from the frequent and explosively angry arguments between them, fear, and sadness that was pervasive in their home. I returned briefly a few years ago to help nurse my father after a surgery, and I could barely breathe before I was able to get back to my life again.

I work a lot in my prayer and biblical study trying to give them and myself grace for this. It is really only through the lens of my own depression that I can even attempt to do that, to understand how you would want to shield your children from your own darkness and despair.

Reading about the effects on children identified in the article, "learned helplessness," resonated, but not in the way many would think. It is true that from my experience of my father's expression of his depression, I felt, and feel the lure of fatalistic helplessness, of succumbing to the belief that no matter what I do, I am not able to "fix it." But from my mother's expression of her depression, I learned a complete revulsion of helplessness (she often complained about this fact scathingly regarding my father). I learned that if you wanted to fix something you had to do it yourself, and if you failed, you only have yourself, and your weakness to blame. This leads me to the feelings of shame that I am not somehow
"strong enough" to, as my mother would say, "grunt and bear it." She never had any patience for my intense sensitivity and tendency to cry, and secretly, neither do I. I fight that feeling myself now at times as a mother, and focus on being a "soft place to fall" when my emotional toddler is melting down.

But even though it runs in families, it's not a foregone conclusion according to the findings this article reports. The overarching theme of the article is that the effects of a parent's depression on their children is to a degree combatible. The article states: "Studies suggest, for example, that changing destructive parenting practices and teaching children good coping strategies can make a big, positive difference in kids." This is a main driver behind why I attachment parent. I understand how being insecure in your relationship with your parents, from the very beginning, can lead to a profound insecurity in oneself and one's relationships with others. I know how exerting my need to control, and not setting up parameters of true respect between parent and child, can alienate and estrange them, and ultimately not equip them well to make good decisions for themselves, or worse make them fearful to make decisions at all.

As one mother who grapples with depression shared in the article: "My son is a lot more prone to worry and anxiety. He struggles with big, big feelings. He feels things on a very deep, empathetic level and is so affected by the feelings of others." Another in the comments on the article explained the extreme "empathy" they (and I to) developed as a "defense mechanism" because of the need to "tailor one's activities to the parents 'mood of the moment.'"

That hit the nail on the head of what I experienced and I worry what my own swinging emotions and moods are already doing to my nearly three year old. He shows he is sensitive to my moods, and tells me "I be a nice boy, mama" in particularly tense moments between us when he realizes he has pushed me and I show him I have been provoked. Sometimes this breaks my heart. I know how scary that can be for a kid. He doesn't need to twist and turn himself to make his mama happy, and I shouldn't make him feel that way!

The findings about the physiological effects of depression on a child's growing brain are particularly chilling as well. You are literally influencing the growth of their brains, long after they leave your physical body.

I figure that with this knowledge, both of my self and my struggles, as well as the effects it can have, I need to parent in the best possible way to counteract it. As the author also writes, ""Not only do children fare better if they are taught not to blame themselves for a parent's depression, they also flourish when caregivers can give them plenty of attention, says Beardslee."

I often write about my faith and God, and what place does God have in all this for me? The answer is a lot. Although faith was absent in my parents house, I was exposed as a young child, and have never lost that deep sense of connection, one I can't always explain. In my darkest moments, God was and is a constant for me. Many people that grow up in unstable homes easily fall into addictions and substance abuse. While I had other issues, I never ventured, nor wanted to venture in that direction. Frankly, I think I feared the lack of control. But, I also felt "guided," for lack of a better term.

When I worry about these issues, I am reminded that before I was my parents' child, I was God's child, and the same is true of my children. So another "coping mechanism," in fact what I believe to be a truth, I will teach my children is that they are loved well and wholly, even when mommy doesn't do such a great job of it. They are not here to complete, fix, or reflect me, but to live out the love and purpose that God has for them, and them alone. I am not the true compass of their lives, God is.

As an adult and a parent that has made plenty of mistakes, I also find hope and comfort for myself in my faith, and especially when encountering this challenge of circumstance and biology. It is a daily exercise in trust for me. Trust that I am intended to be just who I am, that my trials and triumphs have purpose, and that I am loved in my brokenness.

So, bottomline, I believe that depression can be encountered and combated for myself and my children. Just because I struggle doesn't mean that they cause it, or are doomed to also, but I will continue to work to try and protect them from the darkness, by showing them a light out, and showing how their mama fights through it, with every breath I have. God willing.

I always appreciated this iconic photo from the Great Depression, housed at the Library of Congress, but as a mother I "get" it.

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