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Parenting with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), Part 1: Valid Concerns

Two days ago was the winter solstice: the day of the year with the shortest amount of daylight in the northern hemisphere. That’s a problem for me, because I have Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Sunlight increases the production of serotonin (a happy brain endorphin) and decreases the production of melatonin (the brain chemical that makes you sleepy). The lack of sunlight in the winter causes me to go from tired to exhausted to depressed to severely depressed.

I’ll never forget when I first figured out that I had SAD 8 years ago. It was such a relief to finally know why I had recurring depression and to understand the cause of it! Not everyone who suffers with depression gets a definitive reason for it and the ability to give a scientific explanation about chemical reactions of the body to an outside source. I had those, and I was also able to look back on my life and put pieces in place that did not previously make sense. To think back to difficulties in my childhood and disparities between my personality and behavior in the winter versus summer and be able to understand what was going on in my life! Oh, it was priceless.

But as cathartic as it was to figure it out and make sense of things in my past, it was also a daunting diagnosis when thinking about the future. This is a recurring condition. I was going to go through the exhaustion/depression every. single. winter. It would affect my life every year. It wouldn’t just go away if I thought positively or exercised or drank more coffee. I would have to figure out treatments and follow through every fall through spring.

Even back then, I started to think ahead to life as a parent. It was a natural extension of my previous concern: How was I going to raise children when I would occasionally get depressed for no reason I could understand? Now that I understood the whens and whys of my depression and exhaustion, my concern about raising kids as a mother with recurring depression was still a valid concern. And back then, I didn’t even take into account how the SAD would affect my pregnancies and postpartum time.

When I first started looking into information about SAD, the treatments and any helpful advice about living with the disorder, I didn’t find much relating to being a parent with this disorder. In fact, the only thing I remember finding was that the therapy light was too bright for developing eyes, so infants and young children should not be around it. (I have since learned that young children are okay around it, so long as they aren’t staring at it.) I wasn’t too worried at the time, because we hadn’t even started on our long journey of trying to conceive.

But I had heard stories from people who had a parent who suffered with depression. I heard about mothers locking themselves in bathrooms to cry, meanwhile the kids think they did something to make their mom sad. Or of fathers who basically disappeared somewhere in the house in a dark room and didn’t interact or respond to their kids, who didn’t understand what was wrong with their dad. Most of all, I heard about how the depressed parent wouldn’t name what was wrong or talk about it, making the kids think that it was some big, dark, shameful secret.

Depression shouldn’t be a dark, shameful secret. It’s hard enough to deal with as it is, especially when it’s so hard to reach out for help while you are depressed. Depression should be understood as a medical condition that limits what a person can do. Depression should be treated and talked about and supported as a family, the way diabetes or some other medical disorder would be.

Even before I had kids, I was determined to be open about my SAD with my family and close friends, and definitely with my future kids. But how to do that? What is age appropriate to tell them? How will I find time for my light therapy with young children? How will I deal with the winter while the sleep deprivation that infants and young children bring? I had so many questions, and I still do, but no one to ask.

Every year since I was first pregnant, I’ve googled combinations of SAD and parenting to see if I could read anyone else’s experiences and/or tips. I haven’t really found any that go into the information I wanted or the depth I wanted. So after 4 winters as a parent, I’ve decided to write my own experiences. I apparently have a lot to write, so I’m going to do it in parts, including discussing the treatments that work for me as a parent, what it was like to go through pregnancy and the postpartum period, what it’s been like parenting young children through the winter, and my goals for the future as the kids get older.

Maybe these posts will help someone out there struggling with SAD as a parent. Maybe it will help my friends and family who don’t know what I go through understand what the winters are like in caramama’s casa. Definitely writing these posts will help me, since writing about things and putting it “out there” tends to be cathartic for me. And since it’s winter now, I am going to do all I can to help myself, which in turn helps my parenting and my kids.


TheHappySon said…
Having always struggled with SAD myself, it concerned me greatly to see the signs and symptoms of SAD in my young son. It can manifest slightly differently in children than they does in adults. While adults just want to sleep often children can not fall or stay asleep. Find yourself at !
Melba said…
Been thinking about you lately caramama, noticed you haven't been quite as active in the bloggosphere as you normally are, wondering if it had anything to do with your SAD.

Living where I do, in the most northern major city in North America, we all up our Vitamin D in the winter time and even then it starts to feel bleak with so little sunlight this time of year. And I don't have SAD. I can't imagine what its like for someone who does.

Anyway this was a really good post and I like the idea - if there's too little info out there on something, and you have experience in it, then good for you for putting it out there to help others and yourself at the same time.

And congrats on getting over the December 21 hump. It's all uphill from here!
SarcastiCarrie said…
How did you figure out you had SAD? I'm always a wreck at Christms. As in, I hate it. I thought maybe I just don't like Christmas, but the more I think about it, I think I hate winter and the short light. Maybe it's not even hate. Maybe it's depression? And I can be fixed? Maybe? I changed out the lights at home to ful spectrum lights in the hope that having something bright and cheery make me less rage-y. I think it helped some because I no longer walk around thinking it's dark at noon, but I'm still all full of rage and tears.
Jan said…
For whatever it's worth, my kids (5 and 6) are accustomed to my light therapy light. I usually read near mine in the morning just after I get up. Sometimes they want to snuggle with me (they know not look right at it) and sometimes they use the quiet time to do something on their own. They are WELL AWARE of why I use it -- in simple terms, it helps me be less cranky and have more energy to do stuff. I haven't made the wintertime association with them yet, but when I stop using it in the spring, I'll probably tell them why.

For better or worse, I let my kids see me cry, even when it's "for no reason". I honestly don't know if it's the right thing to do or not, but I think kids pick up on stuff and I really don't want them to think that crying is a shameful secret. If they ask me why, I tell them that I'm tired or that I had a hard day. I think kids "get" crying because you had a hard day. :)

It occurs to me now that I've written a full-length novel here, that you didn't actually ask for advice, did you? Ah well. Ignore at will. :)

Anonymous said…
SIL here:

1. I <3 you.

that's all : )
Melba said…
Gawd, I meant to say its all DOWNHILL from here. As in easier. Whoops.
Cloud said…
Good on you for writing this. This sort of sharing is one of the things that makes the internet great.

From where I sit, it looks like you are doing a great job parenting with SAD.

I wish I could fly you out here for some winter sun! Although you wouldn't have gotten much the last two weeks, just a bunch of rain. At least it is sunny now, and it looks like we're going to have a sun-filled Christmas. But maybe better than here would be Cabo San Lucas or some place close to the equator, where the days are still long. Or even better! You could fly to the southern hemisphere and be transported to summer! Now, we just have to turn you into a millionaire so that you can afford to do that....

Seriously, big hugs.
caramama said…
@TheHappySon - Thanks for letting me know that the symptoms in children can be different than adults. I know that SAD can be hereditary, so I plan to watch for it in my kids also.

@Melba - Yeah, this is as far north as I can live. Someday I'll move south again, but never more north. And yes, every winter I tend to be less active in every area of my life including the blogosphere because of the SAD. But I try to keep up somewhat. (I knew you meant easier!)

@SarcastiCarrie - It became obvious to me after living in the south for some years and then moving back to the DC area. Actually, it took a radio ad for an SAD study which said, "Do you have trouble sleeping when the seasons change?" Lots of people have some winter blues, but when the tiredness, irritability, and even depression starts interferring with your life, then it's gone beyond winter blues into SAD. When I lived in Georgia, I have about a month of poor sleep, moodiness, rage, and feeling down. Moving north made it more pronounced. You might want to look into it.

@Jan - I can't thank you enough for your comment! What you wrote is EXACTLY the type of anecdotal stories I've spent years looking for! Leave as many long comments as you want--I welcome them all. Also, I always tell my daughter that she can always cry if she wants to, and the same applies to me, so I'm with you there.

@SIL - Awww. Thanks! You know I love you too!

@Cloud - Thanks! It's my big goal in life to become a "snow bird," one of the people who flies south every winter to Florida. Someday, I plan to have a house in Florida where I spend all winter. Probably not till after the kids are grown and Londo and I are retired, but someday I'll do it!
Bravo for writing about this. Depression is isolating, even if you have a diagnosis that explains it, and parenting when you are dealing with something that hard is difficult (even though I'm with @cloud; from here, it looks like you're doing great). I think it is brave and important to write about your experience. Wish I could send some sunlight your way... though we don't have much here in Paris this year!
paola said…
My dad was telling us recently that his father(who lived in a Northern Italian village high in the Dolomite Mountains, and probabaly got very little sun in the winter months) drank non-stop for three winter months a year, every year. During these months he didn't function at all and he should have done seeing he was a widower with 7 kids. During the rest of the year he did function, he worked endlessly and managed to feed 8 mouths.

From my vague understanding of SAD, I suspect my grand-dad was probably a SAD sufferer like you and self-medicating. Nobody would have believed it if you told them there was a name for the condition that made you want to block out reality for a good part of the year, back then.

Anyway I think you are doing something great for other sufferers, especially parents with SAD. Am looking forward to reading more about this condition and how it is managed.

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