Postpartum Depression Peaks a Lot Later Than You Think

Like most moms, I'd heard about postpartum depression, and was relieved when -- aside from a few weepy moments following the birth of my daughter -- it appeared I'd been spared. Yet a new study argues that even though my daughter is now four, the spectre of postpartum depression isn't long gone, but more imminent than ever.


After examining long-term data on over 1500 women who'd given birth, researchers from the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute in Australia found that postpartum depression peaks at four years after a child's birth. At this point, the prevalence of depressive symptoms in moms was 14.5 percent, higher than at any point in the first 12 months postpartum. The study also found that postpartum depression is even more common if the mom has only one child.

Given my own daughter is four and an only child, this study had me worried. After all, at four, most kids can pretty much feed and dress themselves, wipe their own butts... so shouldn’t moms feel like they’re seeing the light at the end of a four-year tunnel? Yet perhaps that’s the very reason depression can set in: With a child’s growing independence, moms may feel less useful and lacking in purpose.

My daughter is a prime example of this: At four, rather than clinging to  me every second, she's begun shutting her bedroom door in my face, asking for "privacy," and seeming way more excited to spend time with her friends than with me. After years of being deprived of me-time, I suddenly have plenty of it, which allows me to sit back and actually look at my life... and what I see is not necessarily so pretty.

"It is the decrease in chaos that raises many questions: Do I want more kids? Do I want to work? Am I happy in my marriage? What now?" says Lauren Napolitano, Psy.D., a licensed psychologist and author of the upcoming book Over-Scheduled & Under-Sexed: How Busyness is Destroying Your Marriage. Many experts, it turns out, say this rise in depression once kids turn four makes perfect sense.

"Growing independence in children allows the woman to focus on herself, and, if her own personal happiness is challenged, she may feel more depressed than when she was caregiving more intensely for her child," says Claudia Luiz, a psychoanalyst and author of Where's My Sanity? "In all likelihood, this depression would resurface again during empty-nest syndrome."

The lesson I took home from this study? That moms shouldn't put their lives on hold for the sake of their kids. Because if they do, they could end up depressed once their kids are grown, even as early as four. As a mom who often felt guilty over the past four years for tearing myself away from my daughter to work or see my friends, this study brings me some measure of relief. It suggests that all my "selfish" me-time may have served an important purpose as a depression deterrent. And that, of course, makes me happy.


Did you get depressed when your child turned four?

Image via Gabriela Camerotti/Flickr

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