Mothering and Depression (or, the Book Tom Cruise Needs to Read): An Interview With Tracy Thompson
by Amy Anderson
When I was pregnant with my first baby, I thought depression was something only a few people in my life were facing. Then I had a baby and a toddler stepson and a job and parents who were divorcing after thirty years of marriage, and I realized that depression was a part of my own everyday life. I started reading blogs like Dooce and many, many others by brave and smart and amazing people who write about their own struggles with depression. But over and over I keep thinking, "Is there something about the WAY we're expected to parent these days that's exacerbating our natural tendencies toward anxiety and depression?" Tracy Thompson was wondering the same thing, and the result is her new book, The Ghost in the House: Motherhood, Raising Children, and Struggling with Depression. This is one of those books that I want to hand out to everyone I meet, because we all have, know, and/or are mothers ourselves. It's that kind of book.
mamazine.com: In the second chapter of The Ghost in the House, "Motherhood: The High-Stress Occupation," you compare what society expected of mothers when you were growing up in Georgia in the 1960s to what is expected of mothers today. You conclude that your own mother would be considered "barely adequate" by today's standards," yet by the standards of her day, she was extraordinarily involved and attentive." Can you tell us a little about how you see modern expectations of intensive mothering affecting families in general and mothers struggling with depression in particular?
Tracy Thompson: I'll give you one great example. One of the nearly 400 women I heard from wrote this, referring to her toddler son, "I will try to read the newspaper when he is eating. I will try to read a magazine when he is playing. Sometimes I feel guilty about this, thinking he should have all of my attention all of the time." You read that and you think, geez louise, is that woman insane? And yet when I had my first child, I was pretty much like that. I felt horrible if I was driving somewhere and she was in the back seat and I didn't babble nonstop. "Ooooh, see the big red truck? Now we're going over a bump. BUMP! Wow, isn't the sky blue today…."
Somewhere in the last 30 years, motherhood has attained the same status that housework had in Betty Friedan's day—i.e., it has become this all-consuming, all-encompassing task that expands to fill up every second of the day that we can give to it. So just like women in the 1950s were told they needed to starch and iron their bed sheets twice a week to be "good housewives," mothers today are told that there is no such thing as too much "quality" time for anybody who wants to be a "good mother." So women in the salaried work force deal with constant guilt that they are somehow failing at motherhood, and stay-at-home moms are rarely at home because they are so busy chauffeuring the kids around to various enriching activities. And all this has a ripple effect.
It's a lucky mother these days who can tell her kids to "run out and play," because very often there aren't any kids out there to play with: they're all off at their Tae Kwon Do classes, or ballet lessons, or whatever. There is this general cultural expectation that if you are at home and your kids are in the vicinity, that you "ought" to be doing something with/for your kids. When I was a kid, if I told my mother I was bored, she'd get out the iron and the ironing board and a pile of my father's shirts and say, "This ought to keep you busy." That was being a good mother—she was teaching me domestic skills and responsibility and participation in household chores.
But you rarely hear parents today brag about how many chores their kids are doing. Instead, you hear them talk about how many entertaining or educational or athletic things they are doing with their kids, and you can bet it's all stuff they have to schedule in addition to their regular work week. You also hear parents say things like, "I don't let my kids watch TV"—usually spoken in a smug tone. Well, guess what: I do. I plop them down in front of it and turn that sucker on. Or I just say, "There are approximately 500 toys in your closet. Go find one and play with it." I need a break from them sometimes—and sometimes they need a break from me. It is humanly impossible to work every waking hour, and taking care of kids is real work.
I've learned this the hard way. I think there are a lot of women out there who struggle with depression who feel the same pressures I do, that we all do, and they don't realize that they are trying to live up to inhuman expectations. The thing about depression is that it's essentially a kind of faulty wiring in the way the body responds to stress, whether it's external or internal. The expectations mothers deal with today constitute a huge amount of stress.
mamazine.com: You write, "The work of motherhood is also invisible because mothers are conditioned not to talk about it." Then you describe reading your husband what you think is a hilarious description of crabby kids and sleep-deprived parents on a rainy Saturday morning from Rachel Cusk's book A Life's Work: On Becoming a Mother, only to find that he is horrified by its darkness. I've had that same experience (in particular with Faulkner Fox's motherhood memoir, Dispatches from a Not-So-Perfect Life: Or How I Learned to Love the House, the Man, the Child ) when I've tried to pass on stories that resonate with me and found that my fellow mothers and my husband were stunned by how, well, depressing the reading which sustains me can be.
At the same time, one of the questions women who write honestly about motherhood often get asked is, "How can you invade your family's privacy like this?" It's a real struggle for me and for many women I know; we want to tell the truth about motherhood, and yet the societal pressure not to say anything negative about any part of the experience of motherhood often comes through in questions about how we dare to write about our children's struggles or our own maternal ambivalence. On motherhood blogs, for instance, complaints about a difficult time with one's children are inevitably proceeded with the obligatory disclaimer: "I love these kids more than life itself, but..." So in a way, a mother can be left feeling that it's not okay to read OR write about the very real challenges of motherhood, and the silence is perpetuated. How do you deal with this pressure to stay silent?
Tracy Thompson: My husband will tell you that I have an ongoing problem with authority, and I think he's right. I just hate it when somebody tells me what to do, or what not to do, and usually what happens is that I make a point of doing whatever it is I'm not supposed to. You could say I'm stuck in adolescence, and there's more than a grain of truth in that, but this is a trait that has some real up sides, too. My first book, which was a memoir about my own struggles with depression (The Beast: A Journey Through Depression ) came about because I was a reporter at the Washington Post and had a breakdown and had to go stay in a locked psych ward for awhile, and when I came back to the newsroom, only one person asked me where I'd been. At a place like the Post, that can mean only one thing: everybody already knows. But there was this huge stigma associated with the subject. The silence was oppressive and demoralizing. I internalized that for a couple of years, and then one day one of my co-workers published an article in the health section about his gall bladder surgery. I read it and I thought—well, I can't write what I actually thought, because there are standards of decency I'm sure you guys want to uphold—but I could not believe this guy was getting all this ink and sympathy about his freaking gall bladder, when I'd been fighting for my life, in the depths of the blackest kind of despair, and I wasn't "allowed" to talk about it. At that point, you could say I quit internalizing and started externalizing. I got really mad, and I said, to hell with what I'm supposed to do—and I wrote a first-person piece for the health tab about my experience with depression. The response was huge, and it became a book. And that taught me: sometimes you have to be the first to break the silence, because there are hundreds and thousands of people out there who are suffering in silence too.
So to the extent that there is pressure on mothers to stay silent about the not-so-great aspects of motherhood, I guess you could say I take some pleasure in breaking those taboos. I think it's healthy—especially in today's culture, when our ideal of motherhood is some celebrity with a flat tummy two weeks after giving birth rhapsodizing about how "complete" she feels now that she's a mommy. Those images have nothing to do with reality.
Incidentally, I would lie down in front of a freight train for my girls (ages 5 and 9), just in case anyone was wondering. And I will throw in for good measure that they are both extremely intelligent, which I never get tired of bragging about, and physically beautiful, which is a never-ending source of pleasure and wonderment for me and my husband. I say this not defensively, but because I am amazed and awed at these two creatures we have brought into the world, and if the world were not full of perverts I would post their pictures and show you what I mean. But you'll just have to take my word for it.
mamazine.com: Your last chapter is "How the Struggle with Depression Can Make You a Better Mother." You note that it's the struggle itself that is important, not the disease, and that in fact depression is an illness, just like diabetes or hypertension. How has your struggle with depression changed you as a person and a mother?
Tracy Thompson: This is a tough one to answer. It is a great temptation at this point to say something like, "Gosh, if I hadn't had to deal with depression I'd have been this really arrogant smartass instead of the profoundly intuitive person I am today" or something like that, but I think this is just another way of romanticizing the illness. Yes, I have learned some hard spiritual lessons along the way, but there are lots of ways of accomplishing spiritual growth, and I don't particularly recommend this one. It's quite possible that if I had not ever suffered from depression I would simply be a much happier person. It's a nice thought, anyway.
I just posted an entry this week on my blog about one week ("How Bad Can It Get? Bad Enough") with my kids during a particularly bad episode of depression two years ago, and the responses have been interesting. I took the description straight from a journal I was keeping at the time, and it was really bleak. Cinderella's stepmother would have come off looking pretty good in comparison to me that particular week. The fact is, depression makes you a shitty mother—not because you are a bad person, or evil, but just because you are sick in a way that makes it totally impossible to do any of the emotional heavy lifting that is involved in raising children. So I want to make it clear that depression, per se, has not made me a better mother. Depression is a huge impediment to being a good mother.
But struggling with depression, and learning how to manage it—that makes you humble. I remember once, during a really terrible episode a couple of years ago (during February, which is almost always a bad month for me), I was telling my psychiatrist, "It never ceases to amaze me, the power this illness has to lay me low." Humility is not a virtue you hear much about these days, but when it comes to motherhood I think it's useful to be reminded of your limits. I get reminded fairly often that I am not in control of my children's destinies, that I cannot protect them from all harm, that I am a really flawed role model. Because it is impossible to disguise the fact from my children that I am sometimes incapable of being fully functional, I have learned to be honest with them—and I think this is vital, because children have a natural tendency to think that they are the cause of anything that goes wrong. My husband and I have done our best to tell our nine-year-old that when mom is sick it is not her fault, and that no matter what she will be loved and cared for. I haven't had this conversation with my five-year-old yet, but at some level she already knows. I try to accept their solicitude when I feel rotten, but also to reassure them that basically everything is fine and that we will all get through the current crisis, whatever it is. I haven't learned how to stop feeling guilty yet.
Another aspect of this—a very important one—is that when my oldest child began showing signs of psychiatric distress, I knew in my gut right away that we were not dealing with a purely disciplinary issue. It took us a while to get things sorted out, but when she was seven she was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. We got her into therapy and on the right medication, and today she is doing very well. I give myself credit (and my husband gives me this credit, too) for recognizing that there was a problem and for being able to get her the help she needed. That's an ongoing story; she still has her struggles, and I'm sure she will continue to—but she is doing well in school, she has friends, she has hobbies, she has fun. My struggle made me better able to help her.
The great thing, as I say in the book, is that children learn not just from our success but from our failures. Maybe especially from our failures. In a way, you could say I have given my children an extraordinarily rich learning environment! (Though for me to say that my struggle is responsible for the wonderfully empathic people that both of them are may be a bit like the rooster taking credit for the dawn, as we say in the South.) In general, I think kids may actually benefit enormously if they have a mother who struggles with depression. They may learn that it is in their power to be the one giving care, not always the one receiving it. They can learn empathy. They will learn about honesty: sooner than a lot of their peers, they'll know that adults are not perfect, nor do they have to be. If they see mom managing depression to the best of her ability, they will learn a lot about courage. These are homely virtues you don't hear much about these days, but they're the ones that will get you through life.
Click here to visit Tracy's website.
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