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Coping with Midlife Depression During Motherhood

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Coping with Midlife Depression During Motherhood

Jan 26, 2017

Mothers can face their toughest years in their mid 30s and 40s, especially if their children are teenagers. Women’s expert Dr. Kirtly Parker Jones says stress and depression can arise in middle-aged women when changing bodies, hormones and mental states are compounded by challenging teenagers. Learn what mothers can do to cope with these challenging midlife years.

Episode Transcript

Dr. Jones: Moms are most likely to experience depression in their mid-30s and 40s. Well, is that because it's the time of life, or is it because they're the moms of teens? This is Dr. Kirtly Jones from Obstetrics and Gynecology at University of Utah Health Care, and this is The Scope.

Announcer: Covering all aspects of women's health, this is The Seven Domains of Women's Health with Dr. Kirtly Jones on The Scope.

Dr. Jones: A recent study of over 2,000 mothers with children from newborns to early adulthood looked at levels of anxiety and depression in these mothers. We all know that post-partum depression is common, affecting about 12% of women who just had a baby. That feeling of being overwhelmed, being inadequate to the job of being a mom. Depression and anxiety is well-described, and clinicians are ever more focused on identifying moms with postpartum depression and helping them get better.

However, what this new study published in the Journal of Developmental Psychology suggests is that moms are more likely to be overwhelmed and depressed when their kids are early teens than when they're newborns. What's going on here and what shall we do about it?

Firstly, being the mom of teens is much harder than being the mom of a healthy newborn, even if it's your first baby. Babies are moderately predictable. Yes, you get sleepless, but usually you have the tools to figure out what the baby needs and get the job done. There is a very significant hormonal shift after giving birth that can upset the emotional applecart for women.

They're vulnerable, but for most women, the combination of increased awareness, social and psychological help and occasionally, some medicine, gets most women over the hump of postpartum blues in about a year. The baby starts to smile and giggle, you feel more comfortable in your role, and things are still pretty well-defined.

But being the mom of a teen is really hard for many women, and at least a baby will give you a full-on genuine smile once a day. There's no guarantee that an early teen will give you a smile once a month, one that isn't a little twisted with a "Gotcha." They're pushing the boundaries of their bonds with their mom, and it isn't very pretty and it isn't very predictable.

The solutions to their own unhappiness isn't found in a simple checklist. Are they doing drugs? Check. Are they having sex? Check. Are they really going evil places in the Internet? Check. Are they being bullied? Check. Will they even talk to you? Check. Mothers with kids this age have the highest level of stress and loneliness of moms of kids at all ages, and the lowest levels of life satisfaction and fulfillment.

The second possibility is that some of the same hormonal re-wiring of the kids' brain is happening in the moms' brains. The study looked at "well-educated" women who probably didn't have their kids when they were 15 and now they're just 30. More likely, first kid at 25 and now they're about 40. And if they're moms of several teens, they're probably in their mid-40s. Their own hormones are less predictable.

Symptoms of women with PMS are often most prevalent and the most severe in women in their late-30s and early-40s. Our own health may be changing and our relationships may be changing. This is a time of significant stress in marital relationships, and that can add to the loneliness. It's totally unfair that our children are going through very significant mental, physical and social changes at the very time that we're going through our own. In fact, for mothers, "the mid-life crisis" is most likely when their kids are in their early teens.

The third possibility is that this is just part of the biopsychosocial phenomenon called the U-shaped curve of happiness. Studies done all over the world, men and women, rich and poor, highly educated and less educated, millions of people studied show that the levels of happiness are relatively high in the late teens and early 20s, lowest in the 40s, and starting to rise up again about 50, and are the highest in the late 60s to 70s.

Is the U-shaped curved with the bottom of the U of happiness coinciding with the time that most of us have early teens? There are many reasons proposed for this, combined with crazy teens, tough marriage, aging parents, perception there is more good years behind us than ahead of us, and physical aging. The U-shaped curve of happiness is the same for men and women, so it can't be blamed on menopause or pre-menopause.

So what's to do? There are lots of blogs, hotlines for new moms. There are movies and pop stars coming out to talk about their postpartum depression, and it's all the rage. But mid-life moms are on their own, and they don't need to be. The answer of mid-life moms who are tweens who struggle, they share the same similarities with those other new moms. Let's get someone to talk to, someone who's there or has been there. Maybe your mom or sister, or maybe not. Be assured that your friends with the kids of the same age are going through the same things.

Get a group, go out to dinner with your tweenie-mom friends. Giggle a little, reach out to them. You know the kids who are in trouble, more trouble than your own. Reach out and help someone else. Get out of your own head and share with others. Just get out, go for a walk, take an exercise class. Best of all, go for a walk with other tweenie-moms. Many moms had a support group called a playgroup when their kids were little. Now, you should invent a tweenie-moms playgroup for moms to go get out and play.

But sometimes, this won't be enough. If you need more help, and there's no shame in asking for it, healthcare professionals know about this mid-life slump and can help. Women in trouble can get better with therapy, and sometimes a medication can help. It is often a hard time for the kids, the partners, the entire family, but remember, in the event of a sudden loss of cabin pressure, put on your own mask first.

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