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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Depression and childcare

I belong to a small discussion site on the net, where like-minded early childhood workers can mull over sensitive issues in private. One of the issues that's come up recently is the rate of depressive episodes amongst members of our group; to our amazement, we discovered that over half our group members grapple with  depression on a fairly regular basis.

And that made me think.

I can't imagine that depressive personalities would gravitate to a demanding, underpaid, often frustrating profession like childcare by choice. Surely if we knew we were at risk, we'd avoid professions like this one like the plague.

But wait, maybe it's the other way round. Perhaps there's something about childcare that activates depression in those who are that way inclined. (And of course, childcare may well have the same effect on parents who are that way inclined... so if you're a depressed parent, read on...)

Though on the other hand, perhaps it IS often the extra-sensitive, emotionally tuned-in types who do go into caring professions like childcare in the first place, without realising it's making them a sitting duck for depression. People who lack a tough outer shell themselves can empathise with the vulnerability of children, and can feel a call to protect and nurture them. Anyone want to argue with that?

I'm not a mental health expert. I'm just thinking out loud because I'm in a hole right now, and because some people in my profession (who I've never met but have come to care about) also admit to falling in holes. Often.

So, what does Aunt Annie- a sufferer from depression herself- have to offer on this subject that might be the least bit helpful to others?

Well, I can offer you my observations about the nature of 'us', those with depressive tendencies, versus the nature of 'them', the non-depressives. Maybe that will give us some hints on where we need to change or work on ourselves.

Or maybe we'll look at some features of depressives and non-depressives and decide that being depressive about childcare is actually functional, and feel more comfortable with our lot.

So here's my view of the difference between 'us' and 'them'. Please feel absolutely free to argue the point in the comments, because your view may well help elucidate things.

I have absolutely no doubt that teaching in general, and early childhood care in particular, is an extremely high-stress profession.  We're the meat in the multi-layered sandwich, expected to be in several places at once and expecting to be ground to a pulp at any moment by the giant teeth of those more powerful than us within the system. We're squeezed and pinched every day by the needs and demands of the kids, their parents, our bosses, our colleagues, the government, the endless documentation, the lousy pay, our long-suffering families, and most of all our own expectations of ourselves... no wonder some of us feel paper-thin and easily torn.

So what makes some workers better able to survive the pressure without succumbing to the (clinical) blues?

I look at some of the people working in childcare who don't suffer from depression, and what I see around many of them is a nice, neat box. "THIS over here, outside the box, is work. THIS, inside the box, is me."

In other words, they have a capability to leave their work at work. Whether this is because they're incredibly well-adjusted and realise that their power is limited to change some of the things that we all see as wrong in our workplaces, or whether they really don't see those things or don't think they're important and just turn up for the pay packet because it's the only job they could get, is immaterial to my point. The people who don't fall in holes seem to maintain a separation that's good for their mental health.

So those of us who do bring our work home in our heads- what on earth we can do to save a neglected or abused child, the difficulty of changing parents' or colleagues' or even society's unproductive attitudes, the daily struggles with new government regulations or with nap time chaos or with a defiant, violent 4-year-old- those of us who are still thinking about that when we should be sleeping, or reconnecting with our partner or our own children, or giving ourselves some recovery time, need to think about whether this is a desirable, useful trait that makes us a compassionate carer and a productive member of the human race, or just a painful way to burn ourselves out and be of no use to anyone.

Boundaries. We depressed and depressive carers have to be specially careful about boundaries. We have to build higher walls around our private lives- consciously, with love for ourselves and with a sense of value for our own sanity.

But at the same time, maybe we need to give ourselves a pat on the back for noticing these things that are wrong and putting ourselves out there to try to change things. Maybe there's nothing wrong with spending some of our own time nutting out solutions- as long as we recognise when to stop and give ourselves some sanity time, some relationship time, some 'me' time.

After all, one of the wonderful thing about us deeply-thinking, deeply compassionate depressives is our willingness to acknowledge shades of grey. We don't put our world into a black box and a white box. We understand that there are dilemmas. We're still grappling with WHY the child who hits does so, long after the black-and-whiters have consigned him to the black 'naughty' box and forgotten about him the moment they walked out the door (just as they consigned the compliant pink princesses to the white 'good' box). It worries us, deeply, that other people take these short-cuts. I, for one, will accept depression if it's the price of not categorising and dismissing children.

(Though I do need to learn when to let go of the thoughts that go round and round in circles. I'm getting better at it. Blogging helps.)

Another thing I notice about the 'copers' is that they often can shrug their shoulders and say "It'll work itself out in time". Whether this is a throw-away line to wiggle themselves out of having to think/care, or whether it's the result of experience and knowing that sweating the small stuff (and even some of the medium stuff) is probably a waste of effort, is immaterial to my point. Non-depressives seem to recognise and accept that sometimes you just have to wait for something outside your control to change, no matter how wrong a situation might seem.

Meanwhile, the depression-prone may leap in where angels fear to tread, standing up for what they believe even if it means exposing their tender necks on a chopping block. Well, that can be a fine and moral thing to do, as long as you do it with the understanding that the axe might fall on your neck and nothing else will change. It's great when it works, and something shifts because you stood up for your principles. It's not so great when you end up on the outer, with even less power to change things for the better.

Or maybe the depression-prone workers just despair. Feel hopeless, and overwhelmed, and succumb to despair.

So maybe from the non-depressives, we can learn some patience and moderation. We can change our own practices to reflect our philosophy and hope that others learn from our modelling, rather than pushing for systemic change straight away. We can classify more problems as 'small stuff'. We can practise saying "Whatever" and taking a deep breath, as we think about more pleasurable moments than this one right here; we can think about past successes instead of current failures, and all the painful moments we experienced along those old roads. We can remember that all things must pass eventually, and just hang in there- perhaps with slightly lower expectations of other people.

And meanwhile, we can pat ourselves on the back for caring. We can be proud that we notice things- little things, big things- that need to change, because noticing is the first step on a long journey towards sustainable, deeply-ingrained changes. And changing our own behaviour so that we are role models is the first step towards teaching others to change.

It is, after all, the people who care who change the world for the better. Just, it takes time.

I think the third part of this observation of the non-depressives is the most important. Non-depressives don't seem to care so much if people like them or not. They're less hung up on approval. They're just being themselves, and others can take it or leave it.

I think that's part of having a slightly thicker skin. In my next life I plan on being a rhinoceros, just to feel what it's like.

So, depressives of the world, repeat after me:

1. It doesn't matter a jot whether I'm liked by people I don't respect.

2. The only people who are universally liked are the ones sitting on the fence.

3. Fences are uncomfortable places for people like me, therefore some people will not like me.

4. Being popular is not an indicator of being right.

Got that? Good. Please make me repeat that to myself next time I'm in a hole, because this is one of my huge problems. (Star sign Libra, harmony and peace, blah blah blah, you get it. I don't do good discord.)

And there's one last thing. People who don't get depressed seem to be a bit better at saying no. That's probably because they're not hung up on approval. That's probably because they're not hung up on saving the world single-handedly.

Meanwhile, the depressive types are often overwhelmed because they said 'yes' too fast. They see a million things that need to be done. They feel responsible for all of them.

This is where all of us depressives should go and take a cold shower. The sky is not going to fall if we say "Let me think about that" instead of "yes" or "no" (especially if it's "yes" when we really want to say "no").

Go on. Stand in front of the mirror and practise saying "Let me think about that". It might be the most important thing you need to do today, because a carer who's overwhelmed and thus in the depths of clinical depression is likely to underachieve on everything.

Right, then... that's done... now, there are a million things I should be doing today instead of writing this blog post, so that I meet everyone's expectations and make everyone else happy- so I'd better get on with it.

Oh, wait...


  1. i honestly don't have that much to add. as a fellow depressive type, i really thank you for parsing this out. i agree with you wholeheartedly about the trying to be liked all the time. oy vey. that has gotten me into a lot of trouble. february also tends to get me into trouble, depression wise. but its MARCH now. and it also helps me to remember that things change--its taken a lot of practice with mindfulness for me to get that on occasion, that we live in a world with natural ups and downs, natural winters and summers. i think half the problem is expecting ourselves to always be happy, productive and thriving, or at the very least, not depressed. that sort of homogenous life just isn't reality. nothing alive works that way.

  2. Honestmom, February is a bad month for me too!! Here it's the season of floods and biting things- very trying at the best of times, almost unbearable when the Black Dog bites.

    Oh, is it March already? I hadn't noticed yet...

    I will remember that line. "Nothing alive works that way."

  3. Thank you Aunty. This blog says a lot I haven't thought through before. On first read through though, I'm not convinced that it's all so black and white (or pink)
    I know precisely where you're coming from, and on the price we black dog owners have to pay includes a tax on caring... What I don't get is why some people appear to care as much and sometimes more (it's not a competition) as we depressive-prone and not pay that tax.

    1. Oh, it's not black, white or even pink really, Mark. I've tried to capture the material worthy of a thesis in a page or two (good luck with that).

      Truly, it is not a competition. I've tried to express in this post that the non-depressives are sometimes simply better equipped to deal with a cartload of dung, and we depressives can maybe learn from them- somewhere there has to be hope for improvement. I think the difference may be something to do with genetics, something to do with personality, something to do with life history. Certainly some people naturally cope with challenges better than others; I have a friend whose life is an unbelievable soap opera of tragedy after tragedy, yet she's only succumbed to depression once and was out of it eight weeks later. My family, unlike hers, is dotted with people who are prone to depressive episodes, so I'm a sitting duck genetically. Others within my profession have simply been completely gutted by life events, and their skin has been thinned out, but I think there must be in inherent tendency in our makeup towards depression which is unrelated to the ability to give a damn.

      But it's odd that so many depressive types seem to have clustered in one caring profession, no? A testament to the risk factors of the job.

  4. Here are my favorite lines..."We understand that there are dilemmas. We're still grappling with WHY the child who hits does so, long after the black-and-whiters have consigned him to the black 'naughty' box and forgotten about him the moment they walked out the door (just as they consigned the compliant pink princesses to the white 'good' box)."


    1. I'm glad that rang true for you. It's certainly something I struggle with every single day that I work.

  5. Now you've made me think, and here I was giving my mind a rest :)

    As one of the depression prone early chilhdood teacher types, I find that working with the kids at preschool helps to keep me sane, despite the stress.

    While some days it is hard to get out of bed to go to work, once I get there I hit the ground running. Time flies, my head is in 5 places at once and I am constantly on the go. Rather than continuing to feel sluggish, it kicks the sluggishness right out of me. I don't think about myself all day - only the kids - which helps because often depression prone folk like me live too much in our heads.

    I also find the energy of the kids contagious. When I don't feel particularly lovable, the kids remind me that I am, indeed lovable - all day long with their hugs and smiles and cuddles.

    Depression can also be isolating, as we can want to hide.
    There is no place to hide at preschool! It is also a place that is all about relationships and connections - with the kids, their families and the other staff members. It is hard not to feel a sense of belonging and value and connection when you step in the gates.

    Giving and nurturing - they can suck the life out of you but they can also help you to focus on someone other than yourself which is a positive thing to do for those with depression.

    So while a day where you are so busy and so in demand that you often forget to drink or go to the toilet can leave you feeling drained - or buzzing - I know that I have LIVED a day with special little people, and made a difference, no matter how small, and have engaged in social situations all day long which does my soul a lot better than where I might be sitting in an office at the computer.

    I think that's all! Thanks for your thoughtful post - I'm still thinking about it :)

    1. Jenny, I love your comment. And the truth is that I also feel like that most of the time when I'm actually working! As a casual these days, though, I find I sink pretty fast when the work isn't flowing to me- that's when I start the unproductive thought processes.

      Perhaps it's the combination of difficult life situations and the heavy demands of our work that triggers some who are working every day? Food for thought. Certainly I had problems when I was being bullied at work; I think bullying is probably a common trigger for everyone who's susceptible.

  6. Hello, a new follower here. I am a depression prone caregiver too, but have done a lot of work on it over the last 8 years. A lot of what you noticed about non-depressives is what they teach us in the depression classes. So you are right on. And I notice the same thing as Jenny - working with preschoolers makes me feel better. It's when I'm overwhelmed with too many things at once that I go under job, family, commitments, life . . . . So i try very hard to find balance. It helps.

  7. Thanks, Shygirl... glad I'm on the right track!

  8. Hi there
    I don't know why but I've been feeling down off and on for a while now. I know my grandma would have said "count your blessings" and my well meaning friends think that we should keep an account of what I'm thank full for as a reminder to myself of all the good things that has happened in my life. I don't think they get it though. It's more than that. I know I've got so many good things in my life including wonderful children to look after. My husband is wonderful and tries to take things off of me. (he works with me) But I just want to curl up under the duvet and stay there for the duration. No I don't want to kill myself but I often feel like I want to run away. But I don't have the finances to support that. Besides I know the business would fall apart with me gone. I'm not on medication as I can at times be fine or even if I'm not I can turn it on to appear fine. Even when the children "play up" at times I'm ok with that as it is all part of them learning how to be what the world says they should be. (yes I do tell them off and give them time outs in their training). I know we don't run the business the way the government wants us to with the following them on the Early Years Foundation Stage (uk) which shows where they should be in their development (and we are supposed to improve on that too) and part of me wants to kick me into touch and just get it done while the majority of me can't be bothered. Don't get me wrong the children are looked after properly, in fact we have a lose system going for their care needs. The government expect us to do more than that though obviously. I wish I could just hand it all over to my husband at times and not be a part of it. (love children and realise I'm in a privileged position working from home) I just want to be the one that's looked after. I've just realised something. Maybe it's because I became a mum when I was young. Really too young. I was 19 when I had my first child. She is 25 soon. Sorry I'm rambling on. I wasn't meant to but I feel I need to speak to someone about this who possibly might understand a bit more than the "count your blessings" type. I fear that the business may fall.

    1. Here is the sentence that speaks loudest to me in what you write: "I just want to be the one that's looked after. " Wow. Self-diagnosis star there.

      Here is what I've learned from spending the last year fighting cancer: YOU need to take the first responsibility for looking after yourself. It's okay to put yourself first. It's not selfish. It's sensible. You can't do a damn thing for others if you're in under-the-duvet mode yourself.

      So, my dear Anon, it's time to prioritise yourself. Here are some things I'd be looking at:

      1. Exercising. Every day, first thing if you can to set yourself up for the day, and do it daily without fail. Find something you love to do that involves movement and ask your husband to watch the kids while you spend half an hour just on pumping some endorphins through your body. It's awfully hard to feel miserable when you're fit.

      2. Saying yes to yourself in non-destructive ways. So I don't mean eating a whole box of chocolates. I mean YES you can sit down and read a book for half an hour- set things up so that's possible. Or YES you can sit and play with the kids instead of doing the ironing.

      3. Eat less processed food. It brings you down, I promise you, as well as making your body unhealthy. Try to buy beautiful fresh food that you love. Prioritise that, because you are important.

      Just try those little things? They've really helped me get through a terrible year. Your own mental and physical health is FAR more important than anything the government wants from you. It's more important than your business. It's more important than your money situation, though I'm not underestimating how hard it is to be poor (been there). Time for some heavy duty self-love!

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