Pre-motherhood, I was never prone to depression (anxiety is >more my jam). But there have been several times since becoming a parent that I have wondered: Am I depressed? Days when I’ve wanted to get back into bed after school drop-off or weekends when I’ve secretly wished that my family would go off without me so I could retreat to my room, sleeping, reading, and generally being left alone.
That’s depression, right?
More than once, I’ve asked my therapist that. Her answer, based on what she knows about me and my life, has been the same, “I think what you are feeling is that you just want a break.” And she’s right—for me, these moments have been a sign that I have too much going on as a working parent.
With rest and some restructuring, I’ve seen things improve. But parenthood is no joke. The struggle for mums and dads is real, and it can take many forms. We all deserve support for whatever new challenges we are facing. But first, we have to figure out what they are.
So here’s a guide to figuring out whether you are experiencing a diagnosable mood disorder, exhaustion, or just a general sense of overwhelm from parenting—and what to do about it.
First, ask yourself: Am I just tired?
The answer to this one is pretty easy. “Exhaustion can be draining and can cause a loss of motivation, but exhaustion should be temporary and not paired with other strong feelings of sadness,” says Nicole Lippmann-Barile, PhD, a clinical psychologist and certified nutritional therapist consultant.
“It should also be remedied with rest and relaxation, while depression needs more than that to start improving.” I have discovered that inadequate sleep is a gateway to overwhelm and anxiety, so I’ve worked hard to make sure I get seven to eight hours every night.
If better sleep and rest don’t help, or you begin to feel some of the other symptoms of depression (see below), “those are things to take notice of,” says Sheehan David Fisher, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioural sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.
So what’s depression?
Fisher says it’s normal to get overwhelmed at times as a parent, “but depression is a cluster of symptoms.” These may include:
Feeling down or sad for at least two weeks
Experiencing a lack of pleasure in things you normally enjoy—for instance, your favourite TV show or meal
Sleeping too little or too much
Significant changes in your appetite or gaining or losing a significant amount of weight
Feeling a sense of worthlessness
Having difficulty functioning as you normally do because of how you feel
“If you have most of those things, that would constitute a diagnosis of depression,” Lippmann-Barile says.
When should you reach out for expert help?
The experts I spoke with recommended paying attention to whether the way you are feeling is a significant shift for you. “If you notice a slipping in your baseline, that is something to be mindful of,” Fisher says. “Sometimes people assume that if they go see a mental health professional, it means they are going to have a disorder, but they might just be experiencing intense emotional exhaustion, and with some skills can begin to feel better.”
For Karen Kleiman, author of Good Mums Have Scary Thoughts, “the bottom line is this: If a parent is experiencing distress that interferes with the management of day-to-day tasks, it is time to seek additional support.”
How do you get help if you think it might be depression?
A good place to start is with your primary care provider, because it will be easiest to get an appointment. They can help you get to the bottom of whether your symptoms are stemming from something physical, general overwhelm, or—potentially—a diagnosable mood disorder.
If it is the latter, your best option is meeting with a mental health professional who specialises in the symptoms you are experiencing. Your provider should be able to make a referral to a psychiatrist, psychiatric nurse practitioner, or psychotherapist who accepts your insurance.
What if you determine you are overwhelmed?
“Feeling overwhelmed is still very distressing,” Fisher says. “Often parents are going through things back to back. And they don’t realise how much of a toll it takes on their body and their brain.”
Rather than waiting for an opportunity for a getaway or big chunk of time to yourself, Fisher recommends looking for opportunities for “small interruptions in that process,” such as a short outing to have an ice cream with a partner or friend, or heading to the basement to do a half hour of yoga on YouTube.
Even just five minutes of mindfulness meditation—with an app or on your own—can help break up a day and make it feel more manageable. I recently took an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction course and now meditate daily, a practice that has inspired me to streamline my life by lessening obligations and also helps me weather the unavoidable day-to-day stress.
Don’t forget about the big picture
If you’ve been making small changes and are still finding your days to be unmanageable—or even just unenjoyable—it’s worth thinking through the structure of your life. See where you can cut back on commitments, share the load with a partner or other family members or caregivers, and generally shorten the to-do list. Fisher says that mums and dads are inclined to believe that “good parents” do it all on their own, but even if they could (spoiler alert: they can’t), “it doesn’t make it the healthy choice.”
“Parents need to make smart choices of when to prioritise themselves and shift the balance of priorities for health in the long-term,” Fisher says. “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”