Perils of Parenthood

Now I’m REALLY depressed.

December’s Journal of Health and Social Behavior, published by the American Sociological Association, reported on a study that said being a parent is, well, depressing.

All the stuff you’ve read about how having a family makes one happier? Forget about it.

According to researchers Ranae Evenson of Vanderbilt University and Robin Simon of Florida State University in their article, “Clarifying the Relationship Between Parenthood and Depression,” you’re apparently better off if you’re like yuppies Todd and Margot, who lived next door to family man Clark Griswold in the movie “Christmas Vacation.” Think about it. He had a nervous breakdown before he caused theirs.

Here’s what the study reported: The authors looked at analyses from the first results of the National Survey of Families and Households, which sampled 13,000 adults. The researchers of this study examined the relationship between parenthood and depression. And _ bummer _ all types of parents reported more depression than all types of people without children. The least-depressed parents, those married moms and dads living with their minor biological children, were still more depressed than non-parents.

And, according to the study, if you are a single parent or have adult children living at home, you are REALLY hurting.

Now I’m as tempted as anyone to jump all over this study and suggest that this is just more of the anti-child spin in which our culture regularly indulges. Kind of the same thing as people suggesting that one or two kids, maybe even three, is fine, but more than that and you must be really kooky and “not fulfilling yourself” or something. Part of me wants to come up with anything to avoid saying, “Wait a minute, I thought having and raising children was to be the happiest experience of my life _ it turns out I’m going through all this craziness and the payoff is a big downer?”

I’m guessing these authors would suggest that based on their data I, as a single mother with sole custody of four young kids, should be ready to jump out an eighth-story window or something.

(OK, maybe I haven’t considered the eighth-story window, but when I traveled with all the kids to the East Coast last week I did briefly fantasize about putting them on one plane and myself on another, bound for Puerto Rico. I thought it possible the kids wouldn’t notice until it came time to fight over turns at the window seats and they started looking for me with whines of “Mom!!!” But I also thought the separate vacations might be a tough one to explain when I give talks on parenting, so I decided not to chance it.)

Anyway, rather than attack the study, I have to admit I think it makes at least some sense. Yes, there may be too many parents who make their own lives (ital) about (end ital) their children, or about raising near-“perfect” children, and it seems to me it would be hard for anyone to be happy in that situation.

But even for parents who have a healthy orientation toward parenting, the fact remains that anything really worth having, anything really important, anything that really matters, is worth getting pretty wrapped up in. In this case, our kids.

We pour ourselves into them, we invest in them in so many ways, precisely because they matter so much. Sometimes, that’s an incredibly difficult, stressful, if often wonderful and rewarding job that could, and apparently inevitably does, put just about every parent on some kind of an emotional roller coaster. Let’s face it: Our kids probably make us more emotionally vulnerable than just about anything else we can imagine.

As I’ve written before, what helps me on this journey is reminding myself that my ultimate goal for my children is heaven, not Harvard. If they go through Harvard on the way (and there’s no indication any of mine are headed there), that’s a fine thing. But if I reverse that equation and make all my perseverance for them about achieving something in this world, that’s bound to magnify every failure or setback on their part or mine and be really depressing.

What also helps is remembering that roller coasters can be nerve-wracking and frightening _ but also exhilarating, and so much fun!

(Betsy Hart is the author of “It Takes a Parent: How the Culture of Pushover Parenting is Hurting Our Kids _ and What to Do About It.” She can be reached at