Parenting isn’t easy, even when things are at their best. When you’re a parent with major depressive disorder (MDD), the challenges of raising a family can be compounded by feelings of disconnection and despair.

Major depressive disorder (MDD), sometimes known as clinical depression, is a mental health condition defined by intense feelings of despair, sadness, and hopelessness.

You’re not just in a “down mood” or having a bad day. MDD can cause psychological and physical symptoms that impair your daily life. You may notice an inability to experience joy. Fatigue, weight changes, sleep disturbances, and restlessness are common.

Some people may experience recurrent thoughts of death or suicide.

Approximately 21 million adults in the United States have experienced at least one major depressive episode, and as many as 5% of adults worldwide live with this condition.

Parents aren’t exempt from experiencing depression. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), around 1 in 8 women experience symptoms of postpartum depression.

Both mothers and fathers can live with depression, making it a challenge to attend to the needs of a family while facing symptoms.

As a parent, relating to the stories of others may help you feel less alone in what you’re going through.

We spoke with Lorraine C. Ladish, an accomplished author, motivational speaker, and principal co-founder at Viva Fifty Media, LLC, about her experience as a mother living with MDD.

This interview has been edited for brevity, length, and clarity.

I have dealt with MDD and anxiety since about the age of 17 and have had at least three big episodes — one of which landed me in the ER because it was so acute and intense.

It was all tied up with an eating disorder, so it all feels muddled in my memory. One thing that I do recall is I never gave up seeking solutions.

I didn’t become a mother until ages 37 and 40, respectively, so I mostly dealt with mental health symptoms without the pressure of being a mother. That said, once I became a mother, I was even more adamant about dealing with my mental health in a way that would allow me to function and be there for my children.

During both pregnancies and while nursing each of my children, I stopped taking my antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications cold turkey with no side effects. I was pretty level and only started feeling depressed and getting panic attacks after I’d weaned each of my kids.

A word of caution

Stopping any medication abruptly or “cold turkey” may cause unwanted reactions, such as recurring symptoms or withdrawal, depending on the medication. If you want to stop taking a medication, a mental health professional can help you come up with a strategic plan to help you avoid any withdrawal symptoms and side effects.

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I recall driving in Florida with my children — then 3 years and 6 months old — and having a panic attack. I pulled over and cried. I realized I was putting our lives in danger by not having a grip on my emotional state, and it was a good idea to go back to seeing a psychiatrist.

My ex-husband didn’t believe in taking medication for a mental health condition. I had to ask my psychiatrist to explain it to him and to explain why I needed medication and what it could do for me.

At 41, I started taking an antidepressant and an anti-anxiety medication and never looked back. After a lifetime of searching for the right medication, I found it.

I didn’t discuss my anxiety or depression with my children for several years. I also didn’t discuss my fear of heights or other things I felt they could mimic.

I held back because I felt that some of my fears were inherited from my father’s fears. I grew up without a mother, so he was my primary role model. I didn’t want my children to imitate any behavior that could hold them back in life.

They knew early on about my eating disorder because I wrote books about it … and when [my children] asked about the books, I [explained] it broadly in a language they could understand.

My kids [knew] I ran to feel better mentally and emotionally and would sometimes encourage me to go for a run when they saw I wasn’t myself.

My children discovered I was taking medication when my youngest was around 12 and my eldest was around 15. When I ran, I wore an identification bracelet and forgot to take it off during dinner.

My youngest read the list of medications and … knew what they were because of pop or rap songs. My eldest asked, “Is it because of me?” I explained that I’d always struggled with MDD and anxiety, and it had nothing to do with them.

I also told them why I never mentioned it before.

Opening up about it ended up being good for them. It helped them understand that seeing a therapist is OK when you don’t know how to cope. Both my kids have been in therapy at various times for different things.

Normalizing therapy gave them permission to seek help when they needed it.

We had a few family challenges last year that had me looking into the eyes of depression despite the medications I was taking.

Whenever I feel that way, I let my husband know. This is my second marriage; we’ve been together for 14 years. Although my husband has never taken medication or dealt with MDD himself, he’s supportive and encourages me to do whatever it takes to get through an episode of anxiety or MDD.

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Photo courtesy of Lorraine C. Ladish

What helped me the most was always realizing that I had to care for myself no matter what, even if it meant arguing with my former husband or father-in-law.

I sometimes asked for help babysitting so I could do something for myself — get a massage or see a doctor. But my former father-in-law wouldn’t think that was right for me to do. He felt that I had to be with the kids all the time.

I’ve never had an issue advocating for myself. It was a survival instinct. Still is.

Dealing with your mental health — whether it’s MDD, anxiety, or something else — can be a lifelong challenge with ups and downs.

It’s usually not just one thing that helps.

I’m [certified in and] practice yoga. I exercise regularly [and am also a certified fitness instructor]. I journal. I do therapy as needed, meditate, take medication, get out of the house, read a book — whatever it takes.

Sometimes just crying in bed all day is what’s necessary. What works for one person may not work for someone else.

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Photo by Phillippe Diederich

Parental depression can affect everyone differently. As Ladish points out, no single coping strategy will work for everyone.

Advocating for yourself, seeking treatment, and creating supportive inner circles can help keep your family unit functioning when a depressive episode hits.

When children have questions, age-appropriate open communication is one way to help them understand they’re not to blame and that mental wellness shouldn’t be stigmatized.