What It’s Like Having A Mother With Depression

November 7, 2019  |  
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depressed family member

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As far back as I can remember, my mother has struggled with depression. I remember as a little girl there were days when my dad would tell us not to go on the side of the house our mother was on—that she “wasn’t feeling well”—but I could hear her crying, and sometimes yelling. We had one of those old landlines where you could pick up and listen in on someone’s call. I didn’t mean to, but I accidentally stumbled upon some of her calls with her therapist, and once I determined what her voice sounded like, I picked up on the fact that my mom spoke to her therapist a lot. There would even be full days when my dad would gently ask our nanny to take my sister and I out for several hours—to take us to do something fun—and I understood that he was trying to keep us away from our mother. At the time, I didn’t really understand what was going on, but as the years went on, I got it: my mom suffered from severe depression. As I get older, she doesn’t really hide it from me, and it’s certainly a factor in our relationship.

a depressed family member

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A phone call can go either way

I know that every time I pick up the phone to call my mom to say hello, I’m playing a game of roulette. She may answer quite perky—or at least stable—and we will have a true catch-up session. But she may answer sounding absolutely numb and zombie-like, and I’m not really accessing my mom. I don’t know what to do in those times. It isn’t really a conversation. It’s just her lamenting about how dark everything is.

a depressed family member

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So I schedule calls accordingly

I don’t call my mom right before something for which I must be in a good mood—like an interview or a presentation or a date. I can’t risk spending the 20 minutes in the car, on the way to this thing where I should be perky, listening to my mother tell me how terrible the world is, and her life is.

a depressed family member

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I feel guilty about this

I can’t help but feel guilty that I have to be so calculating about when I talk to my mother. I can’t help but feel guilty that, when I catch her on a bad day, rather then feel bad for her, I feel bad for myself for calling at this exact time. But it can be difficult to conduct your own life and keep your own moods stable when you speak to someone, on a regular basis, who talks about how sad everything is.

a depressed family member

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I don’t like sharing bad news

If I share any bad news with my mom, I know it will just confirm her theories that life is terrible and unfair. When something bad happens to me, I need someone to tell me that it will all be okay—not to tell me that, “Yes, that’s how life is. It can be awful.”

a depressed family member

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The literal guilt trips

Sometimes I visit my mom just because I know she’s been down for a particularly long time. I know that I’m going over there to have the life sucked out of me—to be in the presence of a very low, dark energy, and to listen to some very cynical words. But there comes a time when it just feels wrong to avoid a family member who is depressed. So you visit.

a depressed family member

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I worry about traveling with her

Look, I don’t exactly have a million dollars (or days) to spend on travel. My vacation time is precious. My mom is insistent that she, my sister, and I take a girls’ trip every year. Sometimes it’s close. Sometimes it’s far and I have to pay for my travel there. I’m definitely taking time off work either way so, there go those vacation days. And all the while I know that, if we catch my mom during a downswing, this trip will be a nightmare.

a depressed family member

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It won’t be vacation; it will be work

It’s happened just once, but it was rough. We met my mom at a nice resort for a girls’ weekend and she was in a bad place. She was completely out of it, barely looking the restaurant servers or pool attendants in the eyes. Not feeling like doing anything. My sister and I just felt as if we were walking on eggshells, in this dark cloud with our mom—and it was so weird because we were in such a beautiful place.

a depressed family member

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We can’t tell her

On a rare occasion, it gets to be too much, and I might hint at the fact that it’s hard for me to be around my mom when she’s like that. But then she takes it to a level 10 and says something like, “Fine. Then go. Or maybe I should just leave this planet. It would be best for everyone if I wasn’t here.” So, as you can imagine, I can’t really tell her my feelings—share my experience—around this, with her.

a depressed family member

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She makes my downfalls feel worse

Remember how I said I don’t like sharing bad news with my mom? Well, even sharing just moderate news can be tricky. I may accidentally mention that an interview didn’t go phenomenally, and she may say something like, “Well that’s not good because everyone in the industry talks and it could be hard for you to get an interview with anyone else now.” It’s just that she has a doomsday mentality. But, I hadn’t even thought of things being that bad.

a depressed family member

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We pity her husband

There are times when I either talk to my stepdad (my parents have divorced and my mom remarried) on the phone, or when I visit, that I can tell they’ve recently been (or are still in) one of my mom’s terrible bouts of depression. And he’s completely beat. And he wants to escape. But he also can’t admit any of that, for fear it would make him seem like a bad husband.

a depressed family member

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We’re very grateful to her husband

We are also very grateful to our mom’s new husband because, if he weren’t there, we’d feel particularly guilty for not visiting more, and we’d worry about her all of the time.

a depressed family member

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We worry about old age—her old age

It’s common for elderly individuals who were happy for much of their life to become depressed in old age. What will our mother, who’s been depressed even through her youth, be like when she becomes very old?

a depressed family member

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We must explain her

To friends. To significant others. If we bring people home to meet our mother, she may, at some point, say something that is quite foreboding and negative. We have to explain to our visitor that it isn’t personal, and that they shouldn’t take it to heart—that she’s depressed and has a sad perspective on things.

a depressed family member

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We fear it’s hereditary

My sister and I often worry that depression is hereditary. If we go into small bouts of it ourselves, we wonder is this it? Am I broken now? Will I ever be better again? My mother wasn’t…

a depressed family member

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We worry what our partners think

My sister and I also both worry what our partners think. Do they fear depression is hereditary? And that they could become caretakers to us one day? Or that we’d pass it onto our children? We know it isn’t easy to live with a partner with depression. We saw our dad do it.

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