Raising Richmond: Parenting through depression (revisited)

A little over a year ago I filled you in on my struggle with depression—specifically within the context of raising a young son. Time for me to check back in and tell you how things have been going.

A little over a year ago I used this space to tell you about my struggle with depression—specifically within the context of raising a young son.

When I wrote that post, I was a few months into the most severe depressive episode of my life and back on medication for the first time in five years. It was a dark time, to say the least. I was sad, scared, and so very tired.

I’ve spent most of this last year figuring out how to best care for myself while also being a present and loving mother to our three-year-old son, JR. It’s been a lot of “two steps forward, one step back”, but I can confidently say I’m in a much better place than I was last summer. In the marathon that is managing depression, that’s no small feat.

Right now my life’s two big, glaring realities are 1) I have depression and 2) I spend my days caring for my young child. It’s hard as hell taking both of those on at the same time—figuring out how to meet the needs inherent to both and keeping an eye on how one affects the other. As you can imagine, doing so requires a lot of thinking—thinking about your feelings, thinking about how you think, thinking about what you think of how you feel. It’s as exhausting as it sounds, but it’s also allowed me nail down a handful of truths that help me manage my depression within this particular season of life. Maybe they’ll help you, too.

Your children are not you.

One night, a few weeks ago, I went upstairs and found JR sitting in the doorway of his room. We’d put him to bed hours before and hadn’t heard a peep since, so naturally I was a bit surprised to see him there.

“Whatcha doin’, bud?”
“I’m having a hard time sleeping.”
“How come?”
“I’m just…sad.”

I’m sure most parents would respond to that by scooping him up, giving him a hug, and whisking him off to bed without a second thought; he’s three years old and probably just looking for an excuse to avoid bedtime.

I did put him right back to bed—I just spent the rest of the night fretting over whether this was the first sign that he’s going to face the same emotional challenges I do.

One of my biggest struggles as parent with depression is to not project it on to my kid. I can’t assume that one moment of sadness or anxiety means he’s doomed (Doomed! DOOOOOOOMED) for life.1 However, I also can’t ignore that fact that depression is more common in people with biological family members who also suffer from the condition.2 What’s important, though, is what I do with that knowledge; it can inform my reaction to JR’s sadder/more anxious moments, but it doesn’t have to take over. For me, depression and empathy (especially when it comes to emotional struggles) go hand-in-hand. I’m hopeful that my experiences with this mental condition have equipped me to spot signs of it in my child and–if they ever do show themselves–help him cope.

Kids understand a lot, but they don’t need to know everything.

Part of me wants JR to never know that his mother goes through some very sad times. He’s a sensitive kid and is pretty good about picking up on what other people are feeling. However, I realize that approach isn’t doing anyone any favors. First of all, shrouding this reality in secrecy does nothing to work against the stigma that keeps so many depressed people from seeking help—or just being honest about what’s going on in their lives. Second, should JR face depression later on in life, I don’t want him to think it’s something he has to hide; he needs to understand that people with this condition can still be highly functional, fantastically hilarious members of society.

That said he doesn’t need to hear about each and every nuance of his mother’s depression. At this point in his life, we keep things very simple and matter-of-fact. He knows I take medicine because I get very sad sometimes. I’ve also assured him that I don’t get sad because of him; I get sad because my brain makes me sad and the medicine helps me feel better. That’s as far as it needs to go right now. It’s enough information for him to begin understanding what’s going on with me but not so much that he feels burdened to manage my emotions.3

The brain isn’t always to blame.

Parenting is hard for everyone, whether depression is in the picture or not. I can’t always assume my frustration over JR’s temper tantrums or a particularly hellish bedtime is solely caused by my medical history. In those moments when I feel the anxiety bubbling up, I try to pause and ask myself, “Is my depression making me react this way, or does what’s happening right now legitimately suck?” By simply taking the time to answer that question, I’m usually able to realistically assess the situation. And if I’m not, well, that brings us to my next point…

“It takes a village” isn’t just about the kids.

Part of caring for the child is caring for the parent. That’s such a pleasant notion when you’re the one offering the care. However, when it’s your turn to be on the receiving end, things get trickier. It requires you to let go of your pride and trust other people with the mess that is your life. But I’ve learned over the last year that, despite my incredibly introverted nature, I need people. Lots of them, even! People who are ready and willing to provide support, whether that’s through an encouraging response to a desperate text message or an offer to take JR off my hands for a couple hours. Or people who can provide the occasional reality check—even if that means getting in my face (usually figuratively, sometimes literally) and saying, “This isn’t you. Make an appointment with your doctor.” Hearing something like that is never fun, but when I know it comes from a place of love (for me and my child), I’m much more motivated to act on it.4

Depression lies.5

I’m almost 10 years into this journey, and I feel blessed in that that I’ve never gotten to the point where I think this world would be a better place if I weren’t in it. However (and I’m not sure I’ve shared this before), during my darker days I sometimes have thoughts that my husband and son would be better off if I left.

That’s the kind of bullshit depression makes you believe.

To push through those moments, I have to remember that depression is a lying bastard. It tells me I’m an unloving wife, a cold mother, that I don’t really matter to anyone, and I should just accept that the sadness will go on forever. It’s like that horrible, controlling boyfriend who will say anything to make you think you don’t deserve better.

But I do. And this isn’t all that I am; this doesn’t define my life.

I love deeply and I am loved deeply. I’m needed. The people in my life want me in theirs—especially my husband and son. That’s a truth that I refuse to let the noise of depression drown out.

— ∮∮∮ —


  1. I don’t mean to imply that I think I’m doomed. But when I allow my brain to go there, it feels that dire—particularly when I’m thinking about my child’s future. 
  2. So says the Mayo Clinic
  3. That will come later, like when it’s time for him to leave for college or get married. 
  4. For what it’s worth, if you’re suffering from depression and need support, I will be one of these people for you. I’m a great encourager. I’m also really good at getting in people’s faces. 
  5. I can’t take credit for this phrase. I first heard from Jenny Lawson. When you have a few minutes, be sure to watch this video. Those of you who suffer from depression will probably find yourselves nodding a lot…and also crying. Those of you who love someone who suffers from depression might end up crying, too.6 
  6. If you want to save the crying for later, read this post instead. You’ll still might cry, but they will be laughing tears. 
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Valerie Catrow

Valerie Catrow is editor of RVAFamily, mother to a mop-topped first grader, and always really excited to go to bed.

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