Lost Mom Overwhelmed by the Stress of Four Children

Reader’s Question

Not sure if this is the place, but I think I need help. I have 4 children: one is going to be 13, and I have an almost 5-year-old, a 3-year-old and an 18 month old. My husband works constantly, and when he’s home he either indulges the children (lets them have snacks without having dinner), or screams and yells at them (I think only so I would think that he’s “involved”). Anyway, the younger ones are so close in age and are highly active boys. They are constantly fighting, writing on my walls and pulling apart and breaking anything they get their hands on. I was a single mother with the older one, and it never happened with them. I love these boys emphatically, but I get to a point when I see myself hurting them. I spank them more than once and the things I say are unbelievably cruel. I call them names (‘what’s wrong with you?’,’ why are you like this?’, ‘I can’t take you boys anymore’, and the one that get me so mad at myself is ‘you boys are bad — you’re BAD boys’). I know that I am screwing them up mentally. I am probably also pushing them away from me. These little boys are so precious, and I want only to hold them and nurture their caring way. But there are times when I just want to hurt them. I haven’t hurt them to a point where they have bruises or marks (physically), but I am afraid that is a big YET. I am on Zoloft because I sometimes say these things during my episodes, things that are purposely hurtful — things that I regret and make me hate ME. Today, I just want to divorce my husband and walk away from my kids because I feel like they’ll be better off without me. I also know that I need counseling, but I go to a 12-step program (clean and sober for 12 years) twice a week, and my husband comes home around 10:30-11:30 p.m. on the other nights. During the day, the boys are home. I live 2 hours from family, so babysitters are not around; there are no local kids around.

Please help me,
Lost Mom

Psychologist’s Reply

You’re not lost — you’re overwhelmed! You are the primary caretaker for four children, with three of them under six years! To make your situation worse, your husband is only marginally helpful, you have no babysitters, no child friends for the children to play with, and no family support.

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(Please read our important explanation below.)

You are describing the symptoms of a stress-produced clinical depression. We commonly think of depression as a reaction to a loss or event such as loss of job, death in the family, divorce, etc. In clinical practice, the most commonly encountered depression stems from our prolonged exposure to a high level of stress, obligation and responsibility. You’ve accurately described such a situation.

With prolonged exposure to the stressful obligations of parenting four children (with no break and minimal help), the brain begins to deplete its level of Serotonin, a neurotransmitter. As less Serotonin is available for body regulation, we develop more severe depressive symptoms. In the early stages, we have irritability, poor concentration, and social sensitivity. As the condition gets worse, we have sleep problems (brain won’t stop thinking), appetite loss/change, chronic fatigue, emotional exhaustion, social withdrawal, loss of humor, crying spells, emotional/behavioral outbursts, loss of sexual interest, and a sense of gloom and doom. In severe cases, such as yours, our brain speed increases, we become preoccupied with escape/danger/harm/death, we experience physical symptoms such as temperature flushes, and have feelings that our children would be better reared by someone else. We become preoccupied with guilt — things we did and said, ruining the children, etc.

Taking Zoloft is a good start, but probably not enough. Zoloft is a medication designed to increase the availability of Serotonin in the brain. It works very well, but it’s often prescribed at low doses when provided by a family physician or OB/GYN. You were probably provided Zoloft due to symptoms of post-partum depression following the birth of the 18 month old child. With your level of stress, your current dose is clearly not high enough. Some recommendations:

  • Ask your physician to reconsider the Zoloft by increasing the dosage or switching to a more aggressive antidepressant. If that doesn’t provide some symptom relief, consider consultation with a psychiatrist.
  • Enlist the support of your husband. Don’t worry that he’s indulging the children — just appreciate the break. Also maximize the time out of the home. Have dinner with a friend before your meetings twice a week, that kind of thing.
  • Find a babysitter! You need a break, and your marriage needs the private adult time.
  • Recognize that thoughts of running away from the husband, home and children are normal escape fantasies when under stress. Having such thoughts is a warning, however, that your stress level is so high that impulsive, self-damaging acts are possible. I recently responded to a question from a very stressed individual who left her home one morning and impulsively drove 752 miles (one-way) following one of those escape fantasies. While having escape fantasy is normal, you need to recognize that this is a dangerous time for you. When depressed and stressed, it’s not a good time to make life-changing decisions.
  • Remember that stress increases and amplifies our resentment, bitterness, and anger. During this time, until you stabilize the symptoms, you may be prone to overreacting to the children, yelling and screaming, or punishing too severely. If your children make you upset, before doing anything, activate a one-to-three minute kitchen timer. Decide what to do when the timer goes off — not before. This will reduce the chances of an impulsive reaction you will regret later.
  • Continue your 12-step meetings but also consider adding a counselor for parenting and personal stressors. 12-step meetings are often topic-focused, and you could benefit from counseling that is focused on your specific stresses and issues.

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