Plenty of stay-at-home moms (and dads) struggle with depression. What factors contribute to happy stay-at-home parents? And what can they do when depression strikes? Dr. Gregory Popcak digs into the research (and his own Catholic counseling experience) to provide some answers.
by Dr. Greg Popcak
Being a stay-at-home parent is hard, but does it cause depression? A recent discussion in the PB & Grace Parents Facebook group raised this important issue. It turns out that there is more to this question than meets the eye.
A 2012 Gallup poll found that 28% of stay-at-home moms (SAHMs) had been diagnosed with depression compared to 17% of employed moms (defined as mothers who have both a full or part time job and children under 18).
Of course, this alone doesn’t necessarily mean SAHMs are more depressed than employed moms. For instance, it could be that working moms are just as depressed as SAHMs; but, between work and household responsibilities, they just don’t have time to seek professional help. In fact, a 2015 Pew Research poll found that the majority of working moms continue to be frustrated by the uneven division of labor at home. As sociologist Arlie Hochschild observed, working moms often feel that, at the end of the work day, they have to go home to work their “second shift” as a homemaker. Many working moms are not only depressed, they also don’t have time to do anything about it.
Bridging the Gap:
The Ideal vs. Reality
Regardless, few people would argue that being a SAHM is easy. And it’s clear that some SAHMs are happier in their role than others. Similarly, because research shows that kids do better overall when raised by a contented and attentive SAHM than kids raised by either working moms or unhappy SAHM’s, there are certain women who would feel they should be home with their kids, but who genuinely struggle to make it work for them.
Is it possible to know which moms will be more likely to find real joy in being an SAHM? Or, for that matter, if a mom has chosen to stay home, but is struggling with it, are there things she can do to feel better about her choice besides going back to work outside the home?
What Makes a Happy SAHM?
Here are a few things research can teach us about the circumstances that allow certain women to enjoy being a SAHM, along with some suggestions for those who value the role of being a SAHM but currently find little joy in it. (What about stay-at-home dads? See the note at the bottom of this article.*)
1.They are securely attached
Research consistently shows that SAHM’s who were raised in affectionate, affirming homes that were stable, emotionally supportive, and employed consistent, gentle discipline are much more likely to enjoy being SAHM’s than less securely-attached women. The term “attachment” refers to the degree a child has a gut-level sense that she can count on her parents to provide the temporal and emotional support and guidance she needs to thrive.
By contrast, women raised in less emotionally-affirming families-of-origin tend to exhibit either anxious or avoidant attachment.
Anxiously-attached women tend to be extremely scrupulous about their parenting, constantly worrying that every little misstep will ruin their children. Their constant fear of failure and hypersensitivity to perceived (or actual) criticism makes it hard to truly enjoy anything about being home with their kids. These SAHMs tend to experience both an extremely high commitment to being a SAHM with very low satisfaction in their role. Depression can be a symptom of laboring under the constant weight of feeling that they are always wrong, always failing, and never good enough, no matter how hard they try.
Likewise, avoidantly-attached women raised in unaffectionate, unemotionally supportive families-of-origin tend to struggle to enjoy relationships in general. Things like giving affection and being nurturing tends not to come naturally to them—and may even grate on them. They tend to focus on the tasks of motherhood rather than cultivating rewarding relationships with their children. Although every mom gets tired of cleaning a room just to have to clean it again, avoidantly attached moms tend to primarily and almost solely view motherhood as a never-ending mountain of tasks that can never be completed. They may experience depression as a result of never being able to feel that they have accomplished anything.
WHAT TO DO: If you struggle in this area, the good news is that there is such a thing as “earned secure” attachment. Anxiously attached women can learn to stop beating up on themselves, and avoidantly attached women can learn to enjoy being human beings rather than human doings. Books like Dr. Tim Clinton’s Attachments: Why You Love Feel and Act the Way You Do or Dr. Amir Levine’s Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment are good places to start seeking healing. Professional counseling can also offer tremendous assistance in healing attachment wounds.
2. They chose it
It is difficult to feel good about something that was forced on you. Research shows that mothers who feel obliged to be SAHMs primarily because of social pressure, or poor alternative child-care options, or other reasons, are more resentful of their role and more inclined to depression as a result.
By contrast, mothers who choose to be SAHM’s primarily because they see, not just intellectual or practical value in the role, but also emotional value in nurturing a deep relational connection with their children, creating meaningful family experiences, and maintaining a cozy home are much more likely to experience real joy in their role.
WHAT TO DO: In psychology, an external control fallacy is the mistaken belief that I am a helpless victim of my circumstances. This unhealthy thinking pattern makes us passive-aggressively push back against our “fate,” causing us to “phone in” our effort which, in turn, leads to a sense that nothing matters, nothing is enjoyable, and I can do nothing to make my life more meaningful. Anyone can fall into this trap, but avoidantly-attached moms are particular prone to this tendency.
There may well be compelling, practical reasons for being home with your children, but don’t ever let that stop you from bringing your creativity, your intelligence, and your whole self to the roles you choose to play—whatever they are! Happy moms don’t always love every part of parenting, but they make sure to put their own stamp on what they do and the way they do it. Even when they are struggling to find the energy to do it, they treat homemaking and child-rearing as worthwhile professions that they are committed to being accomplished at and taking joy in. Research on burnout shows that when we feel uninspired by our work and roles, one key to recovery is making ourselves learn new ways to do what we feel are the “same old things.” Each morning, ask yourself, “How will I create meaning, joy, and connection today?” Make these goals your priority, and resist the urge to simply coast through the day doing as little as possible, and doing it the same old way you always do. Books like Overcoming Passive-Aggression by Dr. Tim Murphy and The Corporal Works of Mommy (and Daddy Too!) by Lisa and Greg Popcak can be a huge help in these areas. Counseling can also be a great help for reclaiming your sense of competence and creativity.
3. They have supportive, involved husbands (and other supportive relationships)
A recent Today survey found that 46% of moms find their relationship with their husband more stressful than their relationship with their children. These moms complained of critical, unhelpful husbands who were poor helpmates around the house, disengaged fathers, and demanding spouses.
Happy SAHMs have husbands who are vocal about their support and praise for the work their SAHM wives do, are active helpers around the house, effective disciplinarians with the children, and engaged dads. Research by the Gottman Relationship Institute also shows that husbands of happy SAHMs exhibit strong emotional intelligence; that is, they demonstrate both the ability to genuinely value and appreciate her perspective (even when they don’t agree) and an openness to respecting and learning from her expertise (as opposed to just going along to get along).
Happy SAHMs also do what they can to cultivate other supportive friendships, but it is important to note that having supportive friendships does not tend to make up for having an unsupportive spouse in terms of the risk of depression for SAHMs.
WHAT TO DO: Know that you have a right to the support you need from your husband to be a great mom. If your husband is a greater source of stress than your kids, seek marriage help today. Go to Retrouvaille. Seek professional, marriage-friendly counseling. If you were sick, you wouldn’t ask permission to go to the doctor. Your husband doesn’t have to agree that you need counseling (in fact, he won’t, if the current arrangement is “working” for him). Talk to him about it, but whether he wants to or not, make the appointment. Let him know you’re going with him or without him and you’d prefer he be part of the changes that are coming. Get the help you need to have the husband you deserve and give your kids the father they need.
4. They can meet their needs
Happy SAHMs feel confident in their ability to meet their personal, financial and other needs—both on their own and with the support of the people in their life. They are confident in their right to say to their husband, “Honey, I need your help with X,” whether that involves getting a shower in the morning, getting help with a discipline issue, getting assistance with household chores, or any other temporal, financial, emotional, relational, or spiritual need they have—and they are confident that such help will be forthcoming.
If their needs are not being met, they see it as a problem that must be solved, not as a trial that must be endured. Silently. With much sighing and hand-wringing because they dare to even have needs much less hope that one day they might be met. Depression can result from the accumulation of unmet needs and the hopelessness of ever being seen as anything but a vending machine. Anyone can fall prey to this habit, but anxiously-attached moms are particularly prone to this tendency.
It is admittedly difficult to find the healthy balance that allows you to attend your children’s needs, your spouse’s needs, and your own needs, but happy SAHMs see this as a challenge, not as an impossible dream. They use their creativity, assertiveness, and intelligence to find ways to achieve balance, gather new tools, and get the support they need to get their needs met. They work hard to avoid polarized thinking; acting like they have to constantly choose between meeting their needs or anyone else’s. They recognize the challenges involved in maintaining good self-care, but see it as a task that requires ongoing collaboration and communication with their husband and children.
WHAT TO DO: Stop assuming that you are supposed to be a super-hero who is not allowed to have or express your needs much less expect that they should be met. On the days you spontaneously feel even slightly more connected to your “best self,” write down the things that happened that made this possible. Did you get more rest? Exercise? Time to pray? Did you do something enjoyable? Pace yourself differently? Prioritize your relationships over certain tasks?
These are needs. Prioritize them. Talk with your husband and (to the degree that it is appropriate) your children, about how you can all work together to make these things happen on a regular basis. If your spouse or family are either not receptive or hostile to this idea, seek professional help immediately. This is an unhealthy dynamic that will undermine your mental health and the stability of your marriage and family if it is allowed to continue.
One book that can help you do a better job of identifying your needs and finding the balance that allows you to be a healthy, fulfilled SAHM is Then Comes Baby: The Catholic Guide to Surviving and Thriving in the First Three Years of Parenthood by Dr. Greg and Lisa Popcak. And, as above, counseling can be a great help to developing these skills.
Bringing It Home
No doubt you can think of many other challenges that make the life of the SAHM a challenge, but chances are, most of these other things fit into one of the above categories.
The more you have the skills and resources associated with the above four categories, the more likely you will naturally be able to find real joy and meaning in your role as a SAHM. By contrast, the more oppressed (or depressed) you feel by your role as an SAHM, the more likely it is that you are missing some or all of the above.
No one can force you to be a SAHM. If you genuinely don’t want to do it, you are certainly free to do something else. There are many paths. But if there is any part of you that values the idea of being an SAHM, regardless of your personality or circumstances, you can find greater fulfillment if you commit to getting the resources you need to find meaning and joy in your role. It might take time, and it might take a little more effort than you thought, but your happiness and well-being—and the happiness and well-being of your family—is absolutely worth it.
To discover more resources to help you be a happy, healthy, fulfilled mom, including professional, Catholic tele-counseling services, visit me at CatholicCounselors.com
*NOTE: Presumably, all of the above information applies to stay-at-home-dads as well. My experience in counseling SAHDs over the years certainly suggests this to be the case. Unfortunately, there is currently not enough research on SAHD’s to be able to draw definitive conclusions.