Blog Book Tour: The Ghost in the House

By Mir
August 8, 2006
Category Books

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.


  1. Julie

    This book sounds wonderful. I have had my own ups and downs of depression over the years, but since our daughter came along it is my husband who has been most strongly effected. Coming to terms with what it means to our family to have a vibrant fantastic new member and at the same time being the supportive team to help my husband through his treatment has been a daily challenge. I’ll be recommending this book to several of my mom friends that struggle with depression as well as my husband. Thanks.

  2. jenn

    It sounds like a great book… it’s in my shopping cart. I’ve struggled with some of those same issues (although my current problem is anxiety, not so much depression.) I’m in therapy right now trying to get some better coping strategies in place, but this might be a good complement.

  3. Devra

    Your review gave me chills. Beautifully written and you captured so much of this book! I was fortunate to get a glimpse of the book as it made it’s journey toward publication. It is a difficult topic, yet an enjoyable read. I hope your review spurs mothers and others to get help if experiencing depression (or symptoms)knowing they are valuable to themselves and their families, despite their “imperfection”. No one is perfect and these days pressure to be perfect is, at times, intense. Here’s to more books that give us the green light to seek the help we need when we need it!

  4. Amy

    You’ve just described almost exactly the experience I had reading this book. (Only way better than I could have, for sure.)It was a hard book for me to read, mostly because of how Tracy puts into words that feeling of guilt for having passed my prone-to-depression-and-anxiety genes on to my kids. But god I’m glad I did read the book, and so glad that we live in a time when so many smart, brave women — including you, Mir — write honestly about their experiences with motherhood and depression.

  5. Susan

    Wow. Your post brought tears to my eyes. I struggle with some mild depression (note to self: look up “dysthymia” after this), and plenty of anxiety, and unfortunately I am starting to notice the anxiety in my 10yo son–if not a smidgen of depression thrown in for good measure. I’m pretty sure I inherited it from my own parents (although my mother was great at concealing all of her negative emotions–to a fault, actually), and so I worry I am, in turn, giving this to my kids.

    This part made me cry:
    “But it’s my fault,” a small voice whispers on the dark days. “I gave this to her.”

    Yep. Sums it all up.

    I must read that book.

    Thank you, Mir.

  6. Daisy

    I must read this book — although like you, I know I will find it difficult. It may sit on my bookcase until I feel ready. Thank you so much for sharing your reactions and your personal connections with the reading!

  7. Deb

    Chalk me up as another mama with depression, pre and postpartum and whose overwhelming guilt becomes paralyzing when faced by the sentances you shared from the book. I WANT to read it but am terrified.

    Thanks for sharing it.

  8. Jen

    Wonderful post on such an important book for those of us who have been there. Thank you for sharing your experience.

  9. Lesley

    Great post. Now promise that when you see Chickadee pull a mighty coping mechanism outta her little hat, your little voice will whisper “THAT’S my fault. I gave her that too.”

  10. Nic

    Wow. Just Wow.

    Also, hats off to Lesley. We are (generally) all about pointing out the bad things. Those are completely our fault. But we never seek out the good things. And we never see ourselves as the cause of the good things. We chalk up good things to supernatural force or fate or something. “It just happened.”

    I’m going to start hunting up some good things that are my fault. Thanks Lesley!

  11. Sarah, Goon Squad Sarah

    I’m reading this book too, and it really has been very emotional for me. I’m glad to hear that you had the same reaction. I think it will make it easier for me to keep reading.

  12. Lisa C.

    From my corner where I am sobbing…

    The thing about the coping skills is the punch-in-the-gut part that stood out for me. I just imagine my sweet son in 20 years, after failing a test or something (he’ll be 23 then), ordering a big ass pizza and some Pepsi to make himself feel better. Oh. Meeeeeep. Meeeep…..

    Returning to my corner to sob some more…

  13. Krisco

    There were a lot of points there that I really had never thought about, like how thoroughly you pass on those tendencies, along with the coping skills, to your kids.

    Thank you for sharing your own personal experience with the review of the book. That makes the review that much more engaging.

  14. Vicki

    I definitely will have to read this one. I’ve been on depression meds since the birth of daugter #3 (and last one I might add) four years ago. My mother has depression and my older brother is bipolar. I spend most of my nights hoping and praying that I or even worse my kids won’t end up the way he has. Thank you so much for telling me about this book. I’m going to B&N first thing in the AM.

  15. Briana

    I appreciate the way you pointed out for us that maternal depression isn’t a transitory thing during those first couple months. Motherhood is for life. And the ebb and flow of depression can be as well.
    I think it is wonderful that so many people are able to identify their own depression and anxiety nowadays. Sometimes what makes it harder is when our parents see it as a weakness. Am I the only one that struggles with that part?
    It is hard to watch my little boy (13 months) and think that maybe oneday he’ll feel those dark places that I hope so badly he won’t have to. But you are all so right. Maybe me dealing with my own shaddows will teach him that it is okay to seek help in a positive way as well (when/if he needs to). Thanks for sharing and encouraging the rest of us to dig deeper into our own selves. We love you, Mir.

  16. Stacia

    My family sounds like yours. My grandma, my mom (and at least one of her siblings) and I suffer from chronic depression. Of the ten grandkids, at least 5 of us also suffer. We’re also prone to addictions (my brother suffers from the worse on both counts). For these reasons, I decided to adopt. I know that environment also plays a large role, but since the genetics seemed so prevelent, I really don’t want to risk it. But, it sounds like this is still a book I should read before I become a mom.

  17. JGS

    It’s really incredible how many parents have struggled and suffered with depression – even us Dads. I worry SO much about “infecting” my Okapis, trying to protect them from my family and in some ways myself – while still trying to be there fully for them. It’s hard, if not impossible, and only recently have I begun to understand, I don’t need to change the future of my family in one big stroke. I just have to try to stop the really bad stuff and give my Okapis the chance I never had. For me that’s the meaning of the courage to be imperfect.

  18. helensparkles

    Since she was 5?

  19. Meghan

    “there is also a great joy in realizing that helping yourself is also the greatest mothering you can share with your children.”

    That is a powerful (part of a )sentence, Mir.

    We can choose what we teach. At least some of it. Thank you.

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