How to Enjoy the Often Exhausting, Depressing Role of Parenthood

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.

Other factors, like age and how settled you are in life may also influence how parenthood affects you. Older parents are generally less at risk for depression than younger ones. Parents still in their early 20s appear to have the hardest time because they are struggling with their own move from adolescence to adulthood while at the same time learning to be parents. This may be because younger first-time parents aren't totally grown up themselves, and there is more risk for a "disordered transition from adolescence to adulthood."

Other factors that can affect both your relationship with your significant other and your feelings about parenthood include whether the pregnancy was planned or not, one's mood before the birth of a child, and the degree of sleep disruption you experience as a new parent.

Though not all of the variables that affect our relationship to parenthood are within our control (age, our partner's behaviors, our children's specific needs), there is a lot that is within our power. Changing our attitudes toward parenthood can make a big difference in our perception of it. Below are some things one can do to derive more joy from the experience and minimize the melancholy.

LEARNING TO ENJOY THE RIDE

Despite all of the evidence that parenthood can be hard on the psyche, parents also experience times of fulfillment that are hard to beat. Sometimes it's the little moments of parenting -- like the way your toddler says "bsghetti" or how she hums when she is coloring -- that make the difference, and paying attention to these can have a big impact. Some studies have found that when people are actively parenting, it's these specific moments in time that are linked to the highest levels of happiness.

Remember the Cost, Idealize the Benefit

Having kids generally entails some level of sacrifice, as some parents are eager to remind their kids. "What I did for you!" can be a common refrain in some households, which is probably not the healthiest sentiment to impart on one's children. But reminding yourself of the cost (and the benefits) can actually help your attitude toward parenting. It may sound a little dire, but recalling how much you have sacrificed to have your own kids can actually help you appreciate the endeavor more.

When people were asked to recall the financial sacrifices they'd made for their kids, they also reported being much happier as parents than those who were not asked to recall the financial pain of parenthood.

This could be viewed as simply a rationalization, but the same study found that parents who were first encouraged to idealize parenthood and visualize all the pleasant things involved reported many fewer feelings of negativity about being a parent. Focusing on the positive also minimized the negative.

Rather than lamenting the costs associated with your child's education, try to focus on the many ways in which it will benefit him or her. Say to yourself, "Yes, it costs a lot, but my child is getting a good education, learning to think critically, making friends, and learning to play violin and basketball." Shifting attention from the cons to the pros is, as in any aspect of life, the most productive approach.

Take Time to Yourself, and Your Spouse

As most parents will tell you, leisure time -- doing fun activities by yourself or with your spouse -- is a key to parental happiness. In fact, studies have found that after women became mothers, they enjoyed their leisure time more than before (which is not surprising, since there is much less of it after the baby comes along).

Personal time, either by yourself or with your partner, is an important part of maintaining your sense of self -- and your sanity. Pursue a project you want to do; take a walk, visit a museum, listen to a CD you love. (In the same study, women also rated their moods as less negative toward their relatives after the birth of the child, which could suggest that having a baby makes one a little less hard on family members.)

Spending time with your spouse is also an important tool for getting through parenthood. Though couples' alone time drops off sharply after a baby is born, it tends to climb in the months after -- maybe not to pre-baby levels, but still. And the kind of leisure time couples spent before the baby is born has a lot to do with how well the relationship works after the baby is born. For example, women who spend more time enjoying leisure activities with their husbands before having a child are generally happier in the first year of their child's life. For men, the situation is similar: the fewer leisure activities men do by themselves, the less conflict they experience after the baby is born.

So make sure that you have a night out with your significant other, whether or not you're a parent. If you haven't yet had a child, make the most of your time together, because it will translate to the strength of your relationship postnatally. And if you already have kids, make sure to give yourselves a night off once in a while, since doing so can increase your bond with each other, which will be a benefit to your child as well.

Take Yourself (and Your Child) a Little Less Seriously

Parents are a self-conscious, self-serious group these days. The "helicopter" phenomenon -- parents who monitor their kids' every move and pack their kids' schedules full of extracurricular or educational activities -- is becoming more widespread. But as helpful as we try to be, sometimes we do too much. And doing less can also make parenting more pleasurable.

At the playground, stand back and be slower to step in. Kids need play -- as much as parents -- to help them learn their way in the world. Studies have found a decline in free play in the last few decades that is not only linked to, but may actually cause, the increased levels of depression, anxiety, feelings of helplessness and loss of control, and other negative effects that we seeing increasing in kids these days.

Free play, the kind kids do totally on their own (as opposed to structured or supervised activity) is critically important in how kids develop basic cognitive abilities, like decision-making, problem-solving, and self-control. The trial-and-error nature of unstructured play is an essential practice for the trial-and-error nature of life -- and taking it away from kids can actually be a great disservice to their overall mental well being.

Our tendency to strive for parental perfection is understandable given the amount of information to which we have access nowadays. But over-parenting can lead to more anxiety than there needs to be. Learning to have fun with your child -- and let him have fun, too -- will not only make the experience more pleasant, it will be a big help to your child's development.

WE'RE IN IT TOGETHER

Parenthood is a big change -- bigger than many anticipate. This aspect, in and of itself, can lead to negative feelings, since it is so easy to feel lost and ineffectual. Any change is hard for people to cope with -- but especially difficult is one that involves responsibility for another life (particularly a screaming, crying, bodily-fluid-producing one). Even beyond the baby days, a school-aged child can present a whole new set of challenges, like scheduling activities, restricting screen-time, discipline, and homework management.

But childhood goes by fast. The early days of colic and diapers give way to action figures and tea parties, to college applications, to proms, and, finally, to empty-nesting. Approaching parenthood as a process can help keep you sane through it all. Take it seriously but not too seriously. As harrowing as the bad times are, keep in mind that they too shall pass -- and the good times go by just as quickly.

Image: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock.


This article originally appeared on TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com, an Atlantic partner site.

Presented by

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

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