When I signed up to be part of the Mother Talk book tour, I was excited. I love reading books. I love reviewing books. I couldn’t imagine this undertaking being anything other than a bookworm-y good time where I got to metaphorically lounge in a bathtub full of novels.
Sometimes, I’m not very bright.
This month’s tour is for The Ghost in the House: Motherhood, Raising Children, and Struggling with Depression by Tracy Thompson. I cannot think of another book that has been so difficult for me to read. I cannot think of another book that has been so important for me to read.
I cannot think of another book that is so vital for every mother who has ever struggled with depression to read.
I’m not sure what I expected. Another book on post-partum depression, I suppose. Hey, I had post-partum depression. Twice! I could read about it, and maybe have a few unpleasant memories of my own experience, and move on with my day (and my life) unchanged.
Little did I expect to to find my vision tunnelling as early as page 2. Page 2. There is no “easing into it” with this book:
Depression is a fire in the brain that, once ignited, is hard to extinguish. It develops its own rhythm of flare-ups and remissions; for many of us, it becomes a chronic, lifelong condition. Motherhood is another lifelong condition: once a mother, always a mother. Which makes it strange the term maternal depression is commonly taken to mean depression in women who have recently given birth—as if depression and motherhood could coexist only during those first few months.
So what is maternal depression—simply Depression + Motherhood? No. It’s what happens when a mother’s depression reaches out to ensnare her child. It’s depression created or exacerbated by stresses common to motherhood, and—most important—it can be transmitted from mother to child via learned behavior, environment, genetics, or any combination of the three.
Oh. Oh oh oh. Hello, book about my deepest, darkest fears which are even now coming true around me! Thank you so much for stopping by! Can I offer you a rusty blade? Some arsenic?
I come from a family with a history of depression. I had post-partum depression. I also suffered recurrent episodes of major depression before I became a mom, and have struggled with dysthymia (for the blessedly uninitiated, that’s depression-lite) since. If I could be granted one wish for my children’s future beyond the usual healthy, happy, etc., it would be that they would never know depression.
My daughter went on anti-depressants for the first time when she was five. I struggled then—and occasionally still do—with the pull between my own guilt/grief therein and the knowledge that at least she was getting the help she needed. “But it’s my fault,” a small voice whispers on the dark days. “I gave this to her.”
Thompson knows my story because it is her story, because it is the story of countless other women who shared with her as she was writing this book. I found myself chuckling, even through the pain of reading, because she even knows my hubris. Like me, Thompson dealt with depression prior to motherhood, then figured she was well-equipped to deal with whatever form it might present itself in, after the baby:
“Your life is about to change,” people told me before Rebecca was born, but they were wrong: our lives were about to disappear. For most people, the arrival of the first baby is a period of joyful chaos. For David and me, it meant that virtually everything I had learned up to then about dealing with depression was now either inadequate or useless.
While motherhood is a humbling experience for every woman, motherhood for the depression sufferer who “had it under control” can be one very long lesson in how deluded you were, pal. And oh, by the way? Please, sir, may I have another?
There might be a higher chance that our child would develop a mood disorder, but—barring some miracle cure—there was a 100 percent chance that I would be a mother with one. Years before we would be able to get the first inkling of whether any child of ours showed signs of developing a mood disorder, that child would have to live with the fallout of mine. We were like smokers calculating the risk that our offspring might one day take up cigarettes, never factoring in the effects of years spent breathing polluted household air.
So then I had to curl up in the corner and sob for a while, and then kiss and hug my kids a bunch, and after a while I was able to go finish the book. (I’m kidding. I skipped the sobbing in the corner thing.)
Not all of the news is bad, though. In the chapter “Rats, Monkeys, and Mothers,” Thompson explores the research on the interaction of genetics and environment. The not-so-great news, of course, is that a depressed mother is much more likely to “activate” depression in her genetically-disposed children. The good news is that humans in general—and children in particular—are resilient. A rocky start is not a life sentence. Past mistakes are not the blueprint for the future. As Thompson puts it, “Human resilience is like a weed: give it half a chance, and it will grow.”
This leads logically into the next chapter, “Don’t Look Now, but Your Kids Are Stealing Your Coping Skills.” Thompson’s poignant description of her daughter’s struggles and diagnosis could easily be my story with Chickadee. What is an amorphous “I want to do my best by my kids” turns into a pointed “I need to model how to cope effectively” when your child also struggles with depression. And while I once found that a rather crushing responsibility, there is also a great joy in realizing that helping yourself is also the greatest mothering you can share with your children.
The remainder of the book focuses on coping and how this struggle can make you a better mother. I’ll confess to heading into that last chapter with trepidation; a better mother? From this? When I had wished a thousand times to be rid of the depression so that I could be a better mother? But as I read through to the end, the points unfolded seamlessly, painting parallels with my own life.
I think my grandmother was probably depressed. Not that anyone ever discussed such a thing in her time. I know that my mother was depressed, and she was able to get some help, eventually, and also made sure I got some help, starting when I was in my teens. As saddened as I was to see the cycle starting so early in my own daughter, she started getting help in kindergarten—something that would’ve been unthinkable even in my generation. I am vigilant with her in a way I simply wouldn’t be capable, if I hadn’t been through it, myself. Maybe it is making me a better mother.
The Ghost in the House is at once deeply personal and research- and statistics- supported. The interweaving of these two approaches presents a complete, relatable picture. Thompson’s fearless sharing of her own experiences binds the tale together. By the end—having nodded, cried, and chuckled my way along the pages—I find myself coming back to the final sentence of the “Motherhood” chapter:
And in the struggle to take care of myself, to navigate that barbed-wire boundary between myself and others so that I can be the best person I can be, I find the courage to be imperfect.
This book may just have given me the courage to be imperfect, too.