Somebody please help me. I’m really, really depressed, and I don’t know what to do.
As a matter of fact, I didn’t even know I was depressed until a study came out, and I’m at high, high risk. An article by Vanderbilt and Florida State sociology professors, based on data from the National Survey of Families and Households, has concluded that parents are more susceptible to depression than non-parents.
According to the Sacramento Bee’s report, “Parents experience significantly higher levels of depression than grown-ups who don’t have children.”
I still thought I was okay, since I’m a reasonably happy man. That is, until I saw the definition of the problem. According to the Bee: “The researchers suggest that worry is a lifelong cost of having children.” And don’t think it gets better when they leave the house: “Parents of grown children (whether they live at home or have moved out) and parents without custody of minor children exhibit more signs of depression than other parents.”
If this is the “cost” of parenting, and one wishes to call it “anxiety” or “depression,” so be it. At times, I suppose it is, and if so, most of us will pay it gladly. The question that must be asked, though, is why do parents worry this way?
I feel sorry for a young man who has been rejected by the woman he thought was meant to be his wife, but I’ve never cried about it. I can imagine myself weeping behind closed doors, though, if it ever happened to my son Timothy. I’ve always loathed child molesters, and raged against the way the courts and churches so often coddle them. But I’ve never had my blood pressure accelerate the way it does when a socially awkward man kneels to talk to my son Benjamin.
I hope I don’t succumb to the sin of anxiety, of lack of trust in God. But I do worry about my sons. I hope for the best for them. I feel the weight of my example before them. Before I became a father, I felt conviction of sin when I snapped at someone, but I never felt the depression that comes with realizing that I have snapped at one of my sons.
I feel that way because I know I’m setting out paths they’ll walk in. It is a burden to know that my sons will hear Russell D. Moore in their own voices one day, just as I see Gary Russell Moore more and more in the mirror and hear him in my voice. I had an exceptionally good dad, a man who worked hard and was faithful to my mother and to us.
A friend of mine mentioned the disappointment he felt as a teenager when he saw out of the corner of his eye his father “check out” a woman walking by on the street. I never saw my dad do that, and can’t even imagine it. I never saw my mother wonder where he was at the end of the day. She knew. He was managing a car dealership so he could come home and collapse in exhaustion, to start the whole thing over the next day.
It doesn’t, therefore, depress me when my wife asks me if I am “channeling” my father, or when I glance at a photo of my dad in a stack of newly developed pictures, only to realize: no, that’s a picture of me. But it could very easily have been otherwise. And the weight of that mandate for my own children is on no one but me.
So why do parents worry this way? Because having a baby yanks them into a whole new world of responsibility, for the shaping of a life, of a family, of a future.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about this study is its claim that the “depression” and worry heighten, not lessen, when the children are grown or when they are separated from the parent by divorce. When our children are away, we no longer are training them, pruning them, preparing them for life. Instead, we (Christian or not) watch from afar, anxious to see the fruit of our parental discipleship.
Sometimes the experience is like the priest Eli’s, who heard the news that the sons he had indulged for years in their slavery to their appetites now were devoured by the just judgment of God (1 Sam. 4:12–18). Sometimes it is like that prodigal father who received back a rebel with the sobs only a hurt father can understand. And, joyfully, sometimes we get to see our children, faithful and loving, and feel something of the joy of the Father over the Jordan River: “You are my beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased” (Mark 1:11).
This sense of anxiety isn’t limited to biological parents. We can see the same thing in the “fathers” and “mothers” within the church, who love the gathered believers with a love that cherishes, and aches, like that of a parent.
The Apostle Paul can write of his “toil night and day” over the church at Thessalonica, because he loved them “just as a nursing mother cherishes her own children” (1 Thess. 2:7–9). One can sense the gravity of emotion when the Apostle John warns the churches with the urgency of a father: “Little children, keep yourselves from idols” (1 John 5:21).
But not everyone feels this. A calm comes to those who don’t wish to be parents, or who abandon their children to the welfare state, to a distant daycare provider, or to an abortionist’s sword. This freedom doesn’t startle you out of a midnight slumber, or cause you to run anxious hands through your hair in frustration. No one is watching to see how you trained up a new generation, to worship or spurn the god of your fathers.
But what an impoverished sense of pseudo-shalom this must be. It’s the peace of a beggar who is content to glean from the fields, while never risking the possibility of failing as a farmer. It is a peace that means never feeling the joys of a job well done, of gifts well used, of fields filled with growing crops, of a family supported, of workers employed and supporting their own families, and of hundreds of people fed from the fruit of your labor. That is too high a price to pay for such peace.
Every night I lay hands on the heads of my three sons, and pray for the salvation of Benjamin, Timothy, and Samuel. I pray that they would be godly men of courage and conviction. I pray that God would give them godly wives (one apiece), and that he would spare them from rebellious teenage years and from the horror of divorce.
And, when I’m really aware of my responsibility, I pray that they would be good dads. Yes, I pray for the salvation of the world, for healed marriages across the board. But not like this. They’re my boys. And sometimes, when I think about the alternative, there’s a sawing ache I never knew as a single man. There’s a sense of my own helplessness—and my own possible failure—that never kept me awake at night in a college dormitory room.
I guess you could call that burden “depressing”—sometimes it is. I suppose you could track it on a chart as “anxiety.” I suppose you could avoid that depression, that anxiety, by seeking to feed only your own mouth, to be held responsible for only your own life, or just yours and a spouse’s. But what if, in doing so, you are protecting yourself from more than possible sadness or grief? What if you are just protecting yourself from love, and all the fruits of love?
Originally published in the October 2006 issue of Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity.