Singing the parenthood blues A study has found that people with children are more depressed than those without. And this is news?

Posted: January 07, 2006

You may have heard about a new study that says people who have children are more depressed than people who don't.

Speaking on behalf of parents everywhere, I would just like to say:

I wish.

The idea of settling into a three- or six-month funk sounds positively restful.

But I really don't have the time.

For example, on New Year's Eve, as my wife and I frantically swept and cleaned in preparation for a houseful of guests, my 2-year-old decided to strip off her diaper and parade through the upstairs. I don't want to tell you what she did, because you may be eating. Let's just say there are good reasons why 2-year-olds wear diapers.

Was I upset? Sure. On the other hand, what was I supposed to do? Applaud? In those circumstances, gloom seems not merely unavoidable, but the only rational response.

The study, conducted by two university researchers who drew data from among 13,000 American adults, recently appeared in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior. The findings surprised me - because I love my children madly.

Imagine if I'd never had kids. I might seek some sort of perverse substitute in house pets. I could end up like one of those people who keep 64 cats in the house. Or who dress their dogs in Eagles jerseys.

I may be depressed, but at least I'm not crazy.

One of the researchers, Robin Simon of Florida State University, explained to me that while many parents take enormous joy in their role, that delight is overshadowed by their worry and sense of responsibility. Some parents have health or money problems. And plenty of emotional distress can spring from the mad, daily scramble of juggling the kids and the house and the job.

Simon and her coauthor, Ranae Evenson of Vanderbilt University, weren't examining the incidence of clinical depression, which, needless to say, is a serious medical problem. They were trying to clarify the relationship between parenthood and symptoms that can leave moms and dads feeling blue.

And they found that some types of parenthood can be more melancholy than others.

Which I've long suspected. I've always thought it has to be way more stressful to be a parent in my house, than in, say, the house next door. I confirmed this through scientific observations conducted most recently on Christmas, when five little girls rolled into my living room and proceeded to sack and pillage like Visigoths.

Though actually that's not what Simon and Evenson were talking about. They meant that trying to navigate the stresses of parenthood alone, or after a divorce, or as a stepparent, can have a big impact on your emotional well-being. Conversely, some types of parents are less depressive, particularly people like me, the married parents of young children.

"Relative to other types of parents, you do pretty well," Simon says. "Probably because you have to. You don't have time to ruminate."

Ruminate? My daughters are 5 and 2. I barely have time to go to the bathroom.

I've always figured things would get easier as they grew older. But no. Simon says, "Little kids, little problems. Big kids, big problems." After you're past dragging yourself from bed to feed your child a bottle, you get to wake up in the night worrying why she's out so late. That concern persists even when the kids leave home - empty-nest parents are actually more fretful than those with young children.

If there's any good news, perhaps it's this: The study found no difference between woefulness in mothers and fathers - surprising since more women generally suffer depression.

In a strange way, it's sort of comforting.

As my wife and I lead our children forward, as we fulfill the most exhilarating and important mission of our lives, I can rest easy knowing she'll be as miserable as I am.

Contact staff writer Jeff Gammage at 215-854-2810 or jgammage@phillynews.com.

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