How to Enjoy the Often Exhausting, Depressing Role of Parenthood

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What scientists have to say about the demands of parenthood—and some advice based on research to make it a little easier to get through.

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Judging from Huggies commercials, Gerber ads, and perhaps a select number of oddly giddy parents on the playground, there's no more blissful experience than becoming a parent. One's days are filled with the laughter of little children; the pride of school recitals; and the rapture of bake sales, soccer game victories, and family vacations.

However, many research studies -- and an awful lot of parents if you ask them to be candid -- paint another picture. While there's certainly a lot of joy involved in parenthood, it is not unusual to also feel overwhelmed with negative feelings: anxiety, confusion, frustration, depression.

Parenthood also puts a lot of pressure on a parents' relationships, which can lead to more stress.

Take heart. If you're feeling the downside of being a parent lately, know that you're not alone. Parents all feel the weight of parenthood at some time or another -- some more than others. Here we'll go over what scientists has to say about the demands of parenthood and offer some advice based on research to make the less-than-camera-ready moments a little easier.

PARENTHOOD IS EXHAUSTING

More and more mothers have been speaking up about postpartum depression, and today most people see it as a normal physiological response experienced by some new mothers. What's less talked about is that negative feelings can extend much beyond the first few months of a baby's life: they can be felt throughout much of your child's grade school and teenage years.

As most parents know, taking care of a child and his or her many, many needs can be physically exhausting. Young babies need almost-constant care: they need to be fed every couple of hours; they wake up multiple times per night (making a good night's sleep a thing of the past for you); and they may require specific (and bizarre) rituals to get them to eat, stop crying, or fall asleep. And then there is the never-ending supply of dirty diapers, soiled clothes, and the array of bodily fluids they bestow upon their parents with uncanny regularity.

The constant attendance to another person and lack of sleep can leave parents feeling physically run down and haggard. Studies have shown that when parents are fatigued, this can affect their overall well being, as well as their ability to respond to their children with sensitivity and confidence. Fatigued parents also show more frustration and irritability toward their kids, which means that it's all the more important to learn how to cope with it.

The physical exhaustion of parenthood is, of course, tightly coupled to mental exhaustion: in fact, it's difficult to separate the two. The very act of taking care of a baby or child can be draining on many levels -- emotionally, cognitively, and psychologically. Let's be honest, playing with teddy bears or transformers for hours on end is not the most stimulating activity for an adult. Focusing one's attention on child games and kid-oriented activities can be wearying, so often parents just zone out. It's easy to beat oneself up for not feeling mentally present 100 percent of the time, but these are feelings that most parents grapple with at some time or another.

PARENTS ARE AT RISK FOR DEPRESSION

Because of all the work and exhaustion that accompany parenthood, it can bring a rise in depression as much as a boost in happiness. A number of studies have found that people are not only less happy after having children, compared to their pre-child levels, they are less happy than their childless counterparts.

Significantly, once kids leave home, things seem to improve. The same study suggested that the happiness level of empty-nesters was comparable to people who never had children. The authors suggest that while kids are still living at home, "the emotional demands of parenthood may simply outweigh the emotional rewards of having children."

While postpartum depression usually dissipates within a few months or a year after the birth of a child, regular old parental blues can wax and wane over the entire period during which your child is living at home. There are additional factors, beyond the fatigue associated with caring for a child, that contribute to it. Luckily, there are ways to combat it.

How Your (Parental) Relationship Affects Parenthood

Another important reason that parenthood can be so difficult is that it puts an enormous strain on the central relationship in the family: the relationship of the parents. Couples can often experience a drop in marital happiness that affects one's overall well being.

After having a child, people often notice that they are not communicating as well with their partners as they did in their pre-child relationship; they may not handle conflicts as well, and may report an overall loss of confidence in the relationship. In fact, the negative changes can seem to outweigh the positive. Though people who don't have kids also experience a decline in happiness throughout their marriage, it is gradual, without the sudden drop associated with having kids.

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Alice G. Walton, PhD, is a health journalist and an editor at The Doctor Will See You Now.

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