Growing Up With a Depressed Mother (I Had No Idea She Needed Help)

My mom was really depressed when I was growing up. I see it now as an adult, as I struggle with my own life and my own mental health.

As a child, I didn’t realize it. I didn’t understand what was happening, or why. I also didn’t realize that what was happening wasn’t normal at all.

Or that none of it was my responsibility or my fault.

As a mother now, I constantly see parallels to the work that I do every day, the way I treat my own children, and the way that I grew up.

It is hard for me to complain about my childhood and my life. The honest truth is that while my mother was depressed, our family still had enough food to eat and a secure place to live. My parents together got me through high school, into college, and off into the world.

But looking back, I wonder how my childhood would have been different, how I would be different now, if my mother hadn’t been so depressed.

face of a person half shadowed

What did depression look like in my house back then?

My mother suffered from depression back during a time when no one really knew or acknowledged what depression was. There wasn’t really any good way at that time to admit to it, or an acceptable way to treat it.

My mom said to me once, not long ago, that she tried going to see a counselor at one point. That the counselor “made her cry” the entire time, and that she couldn’t go back there, didn’t want to go back there.

Seems to me like she probably needed to go, and the counselor was helping her confront things that she needed to.

But my mom comes from a different age, a different way of being. My mom’s generation (and our family) were raised to keep things private. To present an acceptable image to the world, and hide all the dirty laundry under the bed and behind the couch.

No weaknesses for people to see.

So my mom’s depression became a thing that was hid at home.

And I didn’t question it.

As a child in elementary school (second or third grade) is was normal for me to look into my drawers and find no clean clothes to wear. For me to have to dig through piles of laundry to find something acceptable for school that wasn’t too wrinkled or stained.

As a child in the first grade, it was normal for me to get myself up on my own, using an alarm, get myself dressed, make a lunch, and get out to the bus on time by myself. (Looking back, it is no wonder that my clothes were so awful, and that my hair was always out of control).

My mother didn’t get out of bed in the morning with us as we got ready for school. It was normal for me to get myself ready, run into my mom’s room to kiss her goodbye, and then walk down to the bus.

As a parent now of a first grader and a kinder aged boys, I cannot imagine not getting out of bed to see my kids off to school.

boy walking away down school hallway

First of all, I doubt very much that they could get themselves out of bed on time, dressed, fed, and out the door to arrive on time.

And looking back, I am pretty sure as a child I didn’t either.

I know that I went to school often without eating breakfast. And that my lunches were poorly made. In general, I think I managed to throw in a small bag of chips and a juice pouch to eat.

My mom looked into my lunch one morning on a day when she actually got up before I left and was horrified to see what I was putting in my lunches….she threw in a wedge of cheese as I went out the door.

Maybe that experience is why I lovingly wake my boys each morning. Why I help them get dressed, and make sure their clothes are clean and smell good. Why I keep their hair cut and attractive. Why I walk them to school even though I know that they could walk there on their own from my house (we live just a few blocks away, with no streets to cross).

Why I make their lunches and overstuff the boxes with fresh fruits and vegetables, a sandwich, and even a treat.

Why I talk to their teachers at the classroom door, and kiss them heartily on the head or cheek and hug them when I let them go for the day.

My mom spent a lot of time sitting on the couch watching television when we were around. So much that we barely did anything as a family, even at home. Perhaps this is why the rare moments when we did play together are so clear to me, even 30 plus years later. Staying up late to play the Mouse Trip board game. Making cookies together.

Perhaps this is why I do not own a television, and make screens a minimal part of our lives.

Household management fell to us as kids

My sister and I are close in age (blended family). As a parent now, I have a hard time imaging having my own children cooking my dinner and cleaning my house at this age.

But that’s what my sister and I were doing. This may have been a result of my mom’s depression. Or maybe she wanted to arm us with life skills at an early age. It also occurs to me now as I write this that my mom was a child in a family with 10 children, and that all the children from an early age had roles in the household because of the size of the family. There’s no way that my grandmother could have taken care of all of those children on her own without help.

It could be that this was just the norm for my mother. That children in elementary school could and would cook dinner for the entire family.

My father worked long hours, and generally didn’t even eat with us. I am sure that he knew that my sister and I were cooking and cleaning, but I don’t see that he ever questioned my mom’s parenting at all. He left the house in the morning before the sun came up daily, and drank a few beers in front of the television after he arrived home.

I can’t imagine that my father did much to help the situation, as I am sure he was as mystified as us as to what had happened to my lovely, energetic, laughing mother.

The decline in their relationship (which ultimately led to a divorce at about the time I left for college) couldn’t have helped at all either.

woman sitting on a bed with arms crossed

What was wrong with my mom?

What sort of depression did my mom have? Honestly I don’t know. But if I had to guess, I would say that it was probably postpartum depression. My mom suffered a miscarriage late in a pregnancy when I was little, which I remember clearly. I remember announcing that I was going to have a new baby sister to my class….and how that never happened.

I remember that she and my dad had to make a decision to keep the baby or terminate the pregnancy, because of some defect or deformity. The doctors told them that the baby would not survive the entire pregnancy, and that she would not survive after birth. My mom was six or seven months along in the pregnancy at the time, when they decided to terminate.

As a parent now, having given birth to three healthy babies, I cannot imagine the devastation. I’m not sure that I could do it myself, or that doctors now would even advocate for such a thing.

I think I probably wouldn’t have taken to my bed and stayed there as well.

Not long afterwards, my mom got pregnant again and carried a healthy baby boy to term. My brother is almost 30 now.

But I wonder if my mom suffered from PPD after both of her pregnancies, and only climbed out of it after us kids were grown and flown.

A series of failed diets, exercises, shopping trips

But even after my brother was born, and my mom was distracted with a new baby, I can’t remember a time when my mom wasn’t trying to do something to make herself feel better.

In hindsight, this makes sense. On some level, my mom knew that what was happening to her wasn’t normal. But she didn’t understand what was wrong, and was trying to get better on her own.

She attributed her bad feelings to her weight gain (perhaps rather than the opposite). To combat her bad feelings, she tried desperately for years to lose weight. She walked and ran, went on fad diets, bought pills, powders, foods, you name it. She did everything she could to lose weight to feel better.

Not realizing that if she just felt better, she’d lose weight.

She spent WAY too much money on herself, on stuff our family didn’t need and couldn’t afford to try and feel better about herself. Her room was stuffed full of clothing that she didn’t wear, couldn’t possibly wear in a month or even a year. It was stacked along the walls, sometimes piling up higher than my head.

Shopping didn’t help her feel better.

No surprise there. What my mom needed was to see her doctor, to start seeing a counselor on a regular basis, to start talking about what was wrong with her, and how she felt.

But that didn’t happen. Now, my mother is in her sixties. In her golden years. I spend a lot of time at her house, helping her with the yard, visiting her with the kids. My mom is handling things now pretty well. But I have to wonder about depression, about whether she is truly better or if she is still suffering from it, and hiding it from the rest of us the way she did when I was a child.

How is my mom now?

I think my mom is doing a lot better overall. She is working out regularly, learning to eat well, going out and doing things with her friends, succeeding at a job that she really loves.

group of four people walking on a path

She has done a lot of work since my youngest brother left home to find her own strength, and to take control of her life.

But who is to say what lurks underneath.

How did my mother’s depression shape my life?

While it seems strange to say this, I think my mother’s depression did arm me with some very useful skills, and there are positives to it.

I am super independent. I am not intimidated by doing things on my own. From a young age, I was very self sufficient. So when it came time to leave home and make my own way in the world, I launched from the arms of my family and home and went out into the world.

My ability to handle myself, and to handle challenges led me through college, to professional school and an advanced degree, to a six figure salary, to traveling around the world.

I don’t need people to make decisions for me, or to do things for me.

I have enough money to live, I worked in a career that people respected or even envied. I got married, had a big house, had children.

The things I learned to overcome my mother’s absence in my life as a child (though she was there the entire time) have been a strength.

But also a weakness.

I am uncomfortable asking people for help. I like to do things on my own, prefer it, actually. I’m a control freak. I need to know that there is food in the pantry, in the fridge, in my diaper bag.

I don’t let people in. So much so that while I managed to shepherd a relationship all the way to marriage, I couldn’t maintain it, couldn’t do the things I needed to do in order to stay married.

I continually push people away, preferring the safety and security I feel when I am on my own.

I don’t honestly know if I’ll ever succeed in a long term relationship or marriage.

Parenting my own children

I am constantly aware of my mother’s influence on my childhood, and how that plays out with my own children.

I want to be involved in their lives, but without being the tiger mom or helicopter parent.

I think daily about ways to be the best possible parent I can, and to give my kids a good balance of love/support, while also helping them become independent and self-sufficient.

I do believe that there real benefits to giving over responsibility to kids for themselves at an early age, or as early as possible. Self-sufficiency and confidence grow hand in hand in my opinion, and our society has skewed so far towards doing everything for kids, and treating them as invalids who are incapable.

You don’t have to look far to see the products of this type of parenting. Kids who won’t leave their parents’ homes. Children who can’t dress themselves, or brush their own teeth even as teens. (My dental hygienist told me that she brushes her 12-year-old’s teeth for her because her daughter doesn’t do it well enough).

Teens who don’t have any confidence, young adults who can’t manage a credit card, college graduates who don’t have any skills necessary to get a real job and hold onto it.

My mom was depressed when I was a child. I know it now, and I see the impact her struggle had on me.

I’m not going to let it define me. I’m going to continue to make my own way, and make the best of this life that I have been given.

Even if my life doesn’t look like the American Dream.