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Why Didn't Anyone Warn Me About Stay-at-Home Mom Depression?

Photograph by Twenty20

Last week, my youngest son was home sick. As the designated at-home parent, I was up all night with him when he was snotty and feverish, and I was with him all day, showering him with TLC as he lay on the couch, clutching his hurt tummy.

But after a couple of days stuck inside, I began to feel a dark cloud of depression pass over me. I was not only tired and depleted, but hopeless—like my life had no purpose, and no one seemed to care about all I’d been doing for my son and my family.

One evening, when my husband came home, I listed all the things I’d done that day—the meals I cooked, the tantrums I’d quelled and the decisions I had to make about what medicine to give my son, and when, and whether or not I needed to call the doctor. And when it seemed that my husband wasn’t really listening, or just didn’t care as much as I wanted him to, I began to sob uncontrollably.

I wasn’t just crying about that day, but about all the days over the past decade of being a SAHM that I had felt like this. You may love your kids like crazy, and want to give them the world, but to do it day in and day out can be exhausting and demoralizing. And even with a family who does acknowledge your hard work whenever they can, it’s still easy to feel like a doormat, as though nothing you do really matters and the people around you just don’t get it.

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Why doesn’t anyone warn SAHMs that they’ll have days like this? Maybe months like this? We talk about how it’s hard and exhausting but then we qualify it all as being a labor of love. But why don’t we talk about the dark feelings too?

It turns out I’m not the only SAHM who has felt this way—far from it. According to a 2012 Gallup poll, SAHMs are quite a bit more likely to feel depressed than working moms. The poll looked at 60,000 women and found that non-employed women with young children were more likely to experience daily bouts of sadness and anger than employed women with young children.

As Gallup reported: “Stay-at-home moms also lag behind employed moms in terms of their daily positive emotions: They are less likely to say they smiled or laughed a lot, learned something interesting, and experienced enjoyment and happiness ‘yesterday.’ Additionally, they are less likely than employed moms to rate their lives highly enough to be considered ‘thriving.’”

Gallup doesn’t explain why this was the case, only that it was a very real trend they saw. They suggest that perhaps mothers who feel depressed may find more fulfillment by working. But they also acknowledge that SAHMs might feel more happy and fulfilled if their roles were simply more acknowledge and celebrated.

“For those who choose to stay home, more societal recognition of the difficult job stay-at-home mothers have raising children would perhaps help support them emotionally.”

I think that might be the bottom line here.

The times that I’ve felt most alone and unhappy as a SAHM were the times that I felt as though all I was doing for my family was completely overlooked or taken for granted. It’s not that I don’t have a kind and loving family—it’s just that so much of the work of a SAHM is the kind of thing that only gets noticed if it doesn’t get done.

Maybe it would help if society viewed our jobs as real jobs, with value and real-world contributions.

Not only that, so many of us were raised to believe that success in life is tied into a skyrocketing career, and that our identity as a successful woman is inextricably dependent on that. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that, but if for whatever reason your career needs to take a pause while you stay home with your kids, it’s easy to feel like you’re faltering, and that your life just doesn’t have the meaning and weight it once did.

Add that to the fact that the SAHM gig is a 24/7 job, with no vacations, and very few opportunities for proper self-care, and it’s easy to see why so many of us fall into depressive moods so easily.

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I do think it can become easier over the years, as your kids get older and more independent. Many of us learn how to better advocate for ourselves and our needs. Others of us eventually do go back to work, or find interests outside of our childcare and homemaking duties—and all of this can help lift our moods.

Of course, in some instances it’s not just a matter of more support or self-care. For some SAHMs, professional treatment for depression is a must, and I encourage moms to make an appointment with their doctor or a therapist if they feel that their depressive feelings are out of control.

I’m not sure what the answer is in terms of guarding SAHMs from depression. Maybe it would help if society viewed our jobs as real jobs, with value and real-world contributions. And maybe—as loving and supportive as our families can be—they, too, could make a greater effort to acknowledge all that we do.

Either way, I think a good first step is to be honest about the fact that depression sometimes comes with the territory of being a SAHM, and that the life of a SAHM is not always the rosy picture we may have grown up believing it would be.

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