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.