Lately, the weather news here in Chicago has been dismal. Every day, we’re dealing with record low temperatures or still more snow. The sun visits so little that it’s barely recognizable when it does. The good news, though, is that winter will end and the snow cover has protected the plants beneath it. Eventually, the snow will melt, the daffodils will bloom and Chicagoans will crack out the shorts.
If you’ve had depression, though, it can be hard to believe that there is anything good about it, especially when you’re a parent. Just getting out of bed can be a major feat. At my lowest, I’ve even slept through picking up one of my children from preschool. When I’m depressed, I’m irritable and angry. My children say I’m mean and they’re right, which makes me feel like the worst mother in the world.
There is some good news about depression, though. It may actually help you be a better parent.
Depression makes you think
Many people with depression have thoughts that just won’t go away, such as constantly replaying a negative situation. This rumination is generally considered a harmful aspect of depressed mood, one that therapists work hard at helping their patients stop. Certainly, revisiting painful situations can be tremendously harmful. There are researchers, though, who have shown that rumination can have positive effects as well.
Evolutionary psychologists hypothesize that something affecting 25 percent of the population isn’t a disorder, but rather an adaptive strategy. Exposed to stressful situations, the brain shuts out other thoughts and focuses on the stressful event.
A study, by Andy Thomson, a psychiatrist at the University of Virginia, and Paul Andrews, currently an assistant professor at McMaster University in Ontario, showed that depression may enhance analytical reasoning and persistence. In essence, depression shuts out distraction and focuses attention on the problem that caused the depression.
Children are masters at distraction; ask any new mother who’s tried to take a shower. As an infant, my son would scream while I showered, only quieting when he had me in sight again. Perhaps the practice my depression had given me in focusing on a problem lead me to find a solution that made everyone happy; I replaced our shower curtain with a clear one. My son, buckled into his bouncy seat on the bathroom floor, could keep me in sight and I could take a shower that hit more than just the hot spots.
Depression can also prime us for dealing with complicated issues. Scientia Professor Joe Forgas, of the University of New South Wales in Australia, has researched the effect of negative moods on the ability to process complex problems and found that being sad can lead people to deal more readily with complexity.
Parenting presents one complex situation after another. Take coping with a child’s academic failure, for example. So many factors influence a child’s ability to succeed in school that finding the ones causing the greatest difficulty can be like teasing a knot apart. Based on depression research, a parent who is or was depressed has the ability to persist in finding a solution.
Depression ups your empathy
Nassir Ghaemi is a Professor of Psychiatry and Pharmacology at Tufts Medical Center in Boston and directs the Mood Disorders Program there. He is another researcher who thought that there must be some good mixed in with all the bad that mental illnesses bring. He and a group of colleagues conducted a review of more than 80 scientific articles on bipolar disorder, looking for positive aspects of the illness. They found several, including a heightened sense of empathy and a tendency to see situations more realistically than people who aren’t depressed. Dr. Ghaemi, who is also author of seven books on mental disorders, believes “depression seems to prepare the mind for a long-term habit of appreciating others’ point of view.”
I’m sure some will argue that a child’s point of view is irrelevant, particularly when it comes to discipline. Kids can’t be allowed to hit others or run into the street. When my own son did just that, though, it wasn’t to be naughty, but to test the psychic powers he believed he had. How did we know? We asked.
It’s empathy, though, that I find the most powerful tool in a parent’s arsenal of strategies. My daughter was adopted from China. The first years after we brought her home were smooth sailing. Then, at about eight years old, she began to mourn her birthparents. Hearing her cry for her “real” mother broke my heart, but I was able to keep my hurt out of her grief. Whether it was depression-induced or not, my empathy for her enabled me to do what a real mother does and console my daughter while she cried.
Re-envisioning Life With Depression
No one is arguing that depression isn’t a painful, destructive disorder. And asking someone in a deep depression to find some value in it seems frightfully insensitive at best and dangerous at it’s worst. But for those whose depression is well-managed, knowing that a disorder that takes so much away may also give something back might be a comfort. That the positive aspects of depression can help make us better parents is all the more reason to re-envision depression’s role in our lives.