Women are more likely to experience depression during their childbearing years than men, but there are treatments and lifestyle habits that can help.

On social media, motherhood looks like brightly-colored healthy meals, endless exciting outings, and happy kids with their smiling moms. Behind the smiles, some moms are living with feelings of sadness or depression.

While the stigma surrounding mental health is decreasing, women may still hide or feel ashamed of their feelings, hesitating to get the treatment they need.

If you suspect depression or are getting treatment for depression and you’re a mom, you’re not alone.

Women are twice as likely to develop depression as men, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and women’s depressive symptoms can look a little different from men’s.

Depression isn’t something you have to endure or hope will go away on its own. It’s a treatable condition that can improve with effective treatment methods, ranging from medication to nutritional and behavior changes.

Language matters

Sex and gender exist on a spectrum. We use “women,” “moms,” and “mothers” in this article but understand that not all mothers are women, and not all parents identify as moms or dads. All tips in this article can apply to any birthing person(s).

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The causes of depression in moms vary. Genetic, biochemical, and situational factors mix and blend together in varying concoctions to cause this mental health condition.

Research from 2021 suggests that ovarian hormones may play a major role in women’s mental health.

Postpartum depression, premenstrual dysphoric disorder, and postmenopausal depression are all specific forms of depression that only women can and do develop. These types of depression follow the changing flow of hormones throughout a woman’s life.

But depression goes beyond hormones.

Mothers often express love for their children and the importance and fulfillment they find in parenthood — that being a mom is wonderful and brings meaning to their lives.

But many will admit that being a mom is also one of the most difficult and stressful things they’ve ever done. All those happy, smiling faces on social media might make you wonder — is it natural to not enjoy being a parent?

Yes, it is natural. But the realities of parenthood — caring for a child 24/7, financial concerns, and job pressure — can be stressful.

Chronic stress can change how the brain functions and contribute to the development of depression, according to research from 2018.

A 2015 article points out that men tend to develop depression because of external factors, such as career changes or issues related to achieving goals. On the other hand, women seem more sensitive to internal factors, such as personal relations, which can get strained with the pressures of parenthood.

Relationships can fluctuate more often than external goals, and their status often has more to do with the person’s perceptions.

Women face stress from external sources as well, such as job loss for themselves or a partner, sudden illness, death of a loved one, and other life changing events that can contribute to depression.

A 2022 study highlights that women in low-income areas and Women of Color have an even higher chance of developing depression and are less likely to seek mental health services for reasons that range from lack of access to stigma.

These moms may not report their depressive symptoms for fear of judgment. They don’t want to be seen as an unfit mom with the potential of having their children removed from the home.

Symptoms of depression can look different between the sexes. A 2017 review comparing depressive symptoms in men and women found that women may be more likely to have:

  • appetite disturbances (eating more or less than usual)
  • weight gain
  • sleep problems
  • fatigue
  • depressed mood — sadness and guilt
  • lower sex drive

Men living with depression can also show these symptoms but may be more likely to become angry or irritable or mask or ignore their symptoms through excessive substance use, overworking, or changes in sexual behavior.

Of course, women with depression can also be irritable and angry and turn to substances — they just may be less likely to experience these symptoms.

While women develop depression nearly two to one compared to men, according to these studies, researchers haven’t conclusively pinpointed why.

The leading theory is that women experience more hormonal fluctuation during their childbearing years, especially in ovarian hormones such as estrogen and progesterone.

Pre-teen boys and girls develop depression at around the same rate, while postmenopausal women and men of a similar age also present depression at about the same rate. It’s the years of cycling hormones where mental health differences arise.

Many people believe that depression in moms is due to pre- and postnatal hormones. But a 2018 study of non-pregnant or postnatal women and women of childbearing years (or roughly the same age) had similar levels of depression. They put the numbers around 1 in 20, while the CDC estimates the numbers higher at 1 in 10.

Initially, evidence gathered by health practitioners suggested that postpartum women experienced higher rates of depression. But current research suggests pregnant and postpartum women are more likely to report depression because of their regular pre- and postnatal doctor appointments.

When researchers reached beyond the numbers reported by doctors, they found that roughly 1 in 20 non-pregnant women of childbearing years experience symptoms of major depression. A number similar to the range reported during pregnancy.

Research from 2015 estimates that about half of all women of reproductive age who develop depression don’t get treatment.

Black and Hispanic people are least likely to get help because they may be more likely to live in low-income areas, have less access to healthcare services, and resistant to traditional treatment options.

If you’re a mother living with depression, there are strategies you can try to manage your symptoms.

  • Talk: Depression breeds isolation. You may try to hide your symptoms or withdraw because you don’t feel like participating in life. Talk with your partner, a friend, a family member, or a professional.
  • See a professional: You can contact your health insurance to find out what resources are available to you in your area. There may be free community resources, which you can find by contacting local charities or government agencies. A healthcare or mental health professional can determine what type of therapies or medications might help you.
  • Consider medication: Medication for depression works for some people. A 2020 review highlighted that up to 70% of people with major depressive disorder continue to experience symptoms after treatment with an antidepressant. Medication often works best when you also participate in therapy and practice healthy habits.
  • Take care of your physical needs: Depression can make it hard to get out of bed and face the day, especially when you’ve got children to care for. Try your best to get enough rest, eat a balanced diet, and exercise regularly.
  • Exercise regularly: Exercise falls under your physical needs, but it deserves special attention. Exercise releases feel-good endorphins and helps you maintain a healthy body weight. Research from 2019 suggests that exercise can also reduce inflammation and oxidative stress and improve neuronal regeneration.
  • Take a break from the kids: It’s easy to lose your identity when devoting so much of your time and energy to your family. Try to regularly arrange for alone time with your partner (or yourself). Trading babysitting with a fellow mom or asking family members or a babysitter to watch the kids can provide you with a couple of hours to yourself.
  • Yoga and meditation: Yoga is a meditative form of exercise that may help relieve depression and anxiety when done regularly, according to research from 2019. If you take out the physical aspect of yoga, you’ve got meditation, which has also been shown to help with depression. It must be done regularly for the most benefit, too.

You might wonder how to be a good mom when depressed. You can do it. You might be tempted to hide depression from your children, but kids are perceptive and probably know that something is wrong.

Children often internalize the feelings of the adults around them and can think that they’re somehow causing their parent’s sadness, anger, or irritability.

Try to discuss your depression in an age-appropriate way.

Preschool age

Young, preschool-age children can’t fully grasp depression.

But they can understand emotions.

Try talking with your child about sadness and why people sometimes feel sad. It’s crucial for them to know that if mommy is sad sometimes, it’s not their fault.

Elementary-school age

You can add more detail for elementary school-age children. If you’ve already had discussions about emotions, you can start a more in-depth conversation about mental health.

Children this age can understand that mental health is like physical health. For example, they may understand that mommy might need medication, and it might take a while for mom to feel better. You might also need to explain that moms can have good and bad days.

Calling depression by its name is crucial. Informing them about your illness can help them cope with it better but also help them if they ever develop depression themselves.

Elementary-age children may think they contribute to your depression. Again, it’s crucial that they know your depression isn’t their fault.

Periodically checking in on their emotions and letting them know what you’re doing to manage your depression can help model coping skills.

High-school age

High schoolers are fully capable of understanding depression and mental health conditions. Chances are they already have a friend or know someone who has some sort of mental health condition.

They’re capable of understanding your diagnosis, treatment plan, and where you’re at in your treatment. Try to keep tabs on how they feel about your condition. As best you can, try to keep an open dialogue with them about their emotions, too.

If your child, at any age, needs help coping with your depression, family counseling or counseling for your kids by a trained mental health professional is an option.

Living with depression can make you feel like a “bad” mom, but you’re not. Mom depression isn’t uncommon, and it is treatable.

You don’t have to live with overwhelming sadness or guilt. Help can come from many different places, such as a doctor, friends, and family. You can also make a difference by making time to take care of yourself with a healthy diet, exercise, and time to yourself.

If you’re depressed and thoughts of harming yourself are creeping into your mind, you can call an emergency hotline for immediate help.