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Turning Sadness into Contentment

Feelings of sadness, including depressed mood, are common among mothers. For example, at least one in eight will experience clinical depression, and some studies have found that roughly half the mothers of young children today will suffer many of the symptoms of dysthymic disorder (milder but more chronic depressive feelings). Everybody feels sad sometimes, just like some days are cloudy, and often your mood will change on its own. But when an emotional "low front" settles in and stays with you longer than it should, it's time to take a more active approach for the sake of your well-being.

Mourning Your Losses
Most women would say they're supremely grateful they had kids, that they could never have imagined how wide open their hearts would become, that their children have brought an inexpressible richness to life. But that doesn't mean there aren't always losses as well, whether it's needing to put a hold on your career, less closeness with your partner, or simply never having a free hour to yourself. Mothers often find it very hard to give way to the feelings they have about such losses, if only because they think that would be selfish or self-pitying. But those emotions can't simply be brushed over, or they will drag your mood downward. Each of us needs to acknowledge losses and allow the feelings that come with them to flow and be released in a healthy way.

Below you'll find a six-step process for letting go of feelings of loss. You can do these steps in one sitting, or spread them out over several days or weeks. Feel free to adapt them to suit your own needs.

Unlearning Helplessness
Because there's so much about mothering that's beyond anyone's control, a mom can begin to acquire a sense of "learned helplessness," a feeling of powerlessness and pessimism that lowers her energy and mood, and makes her feel less confident about taking action to solve her problems. Many studies have found that learned helplessness is a powerful source of depression. The antidote is "learned optimism," an attitude that focuses on what you can do, on your successes, and on the future. With learned optimism, you believe in yourself and your ability to make good things happen either out in the world or inside your own head. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy: when you think there's a fair chance you'll succeed, you're more willing to try.

Therefore, try to pay attention every day to the good news about:

  • Yourself: your positive qualities and virtues, your honest efforts, the results you did indeed produce, and the ways you've been true to your deepest values. For example, if you're feeling depressed about a hassle with your in-laws about where the children go for Christmas, you might focus on the patience you've shown, your sincere attempts to resolve the issue, the fact that you got people at least to agree that you'll spend Christmas morning at home, and that you've always been motivated by wanting the best for your children.
  • The world: the resources available in your partner, extended family, friends and neighbors, other mothers, church or other institutions, libraries, and the natural world. For instance, if you feel stuck with a child care situation that isn't working well, you could think about the many other forms and settings of child care, including home day care, nursery schools, after-school programs, baby-sitting co-ops, swapping with other families, adjusting work schedules with your partner so there is more time to take care of your kids yourselves, or doing home day care yourself.
  • The future: the positive scenarios that could realistically happen. Let's say that your three-year-old son is extremely stubborn and hates transitions. You might reflect on these facts: he will naturally become more flexible and easygoing over time, he will gravitate to friendships and situations that feel predictable and safe to him, and that's all right, and his strengths of thoroughness, determination, and caution will bring him success in school and adult life.

Learned optimism means redefining the game into one you can win, focusing on what is in your power to accomplish rather than what is not. Once you have goals you can succeed at, take some sort of action, either inside your mind or out in the world. When you're active, rather than passive, you feel better and you keep learning how to be ever more skillful at coping. For example, if you have to get up with your colicky daughter, you can use the time to fantasize about nice ways to refurnish the room when she gets older, or to come up with new funny songs to sing to her. If you're tired of changing diapers, but potty training your two-year-old is going nowhere, you could reframe your purpose to seeing if you can stay completely calm during a diaper change.

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From Mother Nurture: A Mother's Guide to Health in Body, Mind, and Intimate Relationships by Rick Hansen, Jan Hansen, and Ricki Pollycove. Copyright © 2002 by Rick Hanson. Jan Hanson, and Ricki Pollycove. Used by arrangement with Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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