Not surprisingly, the number of depressed mothers has increased during the Covid-19, as moms have suddenly had to add additional "job descriptions" to a life already filled with demands on their time and energy. As one client told me early in the lockdowns, "I'm suddenly not just mom and wife at home and employee at work, but now I'm also teacher, tutor, school nurse, dietitian, IT specialist, after-school counselor and friend and playmate to my kids. And I'm highly underqualified for most of those positions."
Depression often occurs when a woman is trying not to repeat her mother's mistakes but discovers that it's not as easy as she thought.
But research shows that the number of depressed mothers around the world has been consistently increasing for years, so there's more to the rising levels of depression than the pandemic. One likely reason is that many women, including a number who dreamed longingly about having children, find that the experience of motherhood is very different from what they expected it to be — and that present-day conditions exacerbate that contradiction.
Researchers have found that motherhood seems harder than it was 20 to 30 years ago, in part because many more moms are responsible for child care and job responsibilities and in part because of the increase in dangers from outside influences, such as greater use of drugs and alcohol, and peer pressure that has been intensified by social media. At the same time, these researchers have found, we are more critical of mothers than we have been in the past, possibly because of a greater tendency to blame mothers for their children's psychological and emotional difficulties.
In my psychotherapy practice, I have noticed that depression often occurs when a woman is trying not to repeat her mother's mistakes but discovers that it's not as easy as she thought. This disparity between daydreams and reality, along with some of the overwhelming demands of parenting, can lead to confusion, anger, sadness, anxiety and depression in the best of moms. The pandemic has in many cases just brought these feelings into sharper relief.
One manifestation of these feelings is women who are unhappy about being mothers and who dislike their children, at least some of the time. Psychological problems arise when they believe that these feelings are wrong and try to ignore them. Instead, it would be more useful for them to understand that these feelings are a normal and even healthy part of parenting.
Learning to tolerate negative feelings without always acting on them is a difficult yet important aspect of human relationships. Parents who grasp this dynamic can be good role models for children learning to handle their own anger. And becoming comfortable with a range of emotions allows greater access to a richer, more complex relationship with children as they grow into adulthood.
Part of the problem for many mothers is that their idealized vision of Motherhood with a capital M makes it hard to admit to any second thoughts about their decisions to have children. According to society, and frequently their own beliefs, women are supposed to love their children and take pleasure in being moms at all times. But what's lovable about a temper-tantruming toddler, a whining 5-year-old or a hostile adolescent? And who in their right mind enjoys cleaning up a child's poop?
"Across cultures and continents, society projects this ideal of motherhood, placing a premium on why mothering matters so much, with a list of things mums must not do: smoke, have casual sex, work instead of taking maternity leave," author Jedidajah Otte wrote in a 2016 article in The Guardian. "The biggest taboo, however, is when a mother says that she regrets becoming one at all."
To remove some of that stigma, author Orna Donath in 2017 published a book called "Regretting Motherhood: A Study" based on her interviews with 23 Israeli women who acknowledged that they were deeply sad that they had become mothers. The interviews highlight the reality that many women who have chosen motherhood struggle with the painful realization that they do not always feel loving or even kindly disposed toward their children. On top of that, if they fail to live up to that image (for instance, by admitting these natural feelings), they are often blamed for their children's problems long into adulthood.
The British psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott, one of the early psychotherapists to recognize the importance of complexity in human relationships, wrote in the 1940s that mothers are actually supposed to hate their children — not all the time, but on occasion. His reasoning was that when children behave hatefully, as when a baby bites while nursing or a toddler has a tantrum, it's important for mothers to acknowledge that they don't like what occurred even if these behaviors aren't intended to hurt them.
Winnicott's idea was that negative feelings are part of any relationship, no matter how loving or caring it might be. And neuroscientists have found that closing off one emotion makes it hard to recognize others, so acknowledging that negative feelings are part of a multifaceted parent-child experience makes room for other emotions — like love. At the same time, it can be difficult to manage opposite emotions at the same time, which is why it can be hard to remember that you love someone in a moment of anger. Being able to manage these contradictions makes it easier to parent successfully.
Managing contradictions is particularly difficult in parenting teens, who are often tremendously ambivalent as they move away from the family and toward the outside world. The title of the classic book "Get Out of My Life, but First Could You Drive Me and Cheryl to the Mall?" captures the psychological push you-pull me that goes on as youngsters prepare to separate and parents struggle to manage sadness, anger, frustration, irritation, loss, protectiveness and love.
Anger, irritability and hatred, of course, are often symptoms of depression. So don't judge a mother's frustration, irritation and even hatred toward her children too harshly. And don't assume that the children must be doing something wrong, either.
Psychotherapy and, in some cases, medication can help ease some of the physiological and psychological symptoms of depression. Recognizing that mothering, while at times quite wonderful, can at other times be difficult, overwhelming and maddening can also ease some of the shame that leads to depression.
Whether or not depression is involved, no relationship is all good all the time. Understanding that is an important lesson for mothers and children alike. And when you open the door to mixed feelings, you might feel a lot more love than you ever expected.