Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Moms with mental illnesses

In an email newsletter I get from Mental Health America today, there was a link to an article regarding the children of parents with Bipolar Disorder developing mental illnesses more frequently than children whose parents did not have Bipolar. My mother has Bipolar Disorder, and has had a lot of problems throughout my entire life, and before my life. I figured a long time ago that mental illness runs in my family. A lot of my family members can't drink without drinking too much. A couple are diagnosed as Bipolar. And then there's me. I'm the only one that I know of who has been diagnosed with Schizophrenia in any form. But I don't think it is just a coincidence that several other people have battled with mental health issues. In a Facebook group I've been a member of for some time, which is geared towards adults whose parents have mental illnesses, I've frequently noticed the way the adult children often have mental illnesses themselves. In fact, I think that it's pretty obvious when you get into a conversation with anyone who has a mental illness that they are not the only person in their family to have one.

But sometimes a person can read too much into this. My sister-in-law informed me some months ago that she didn't want to have children, partly because my family has "bad genes", meaning "mental illness". That was frankly extremely insulting to me. She didn't think a kid was going to be worthwhile if the kid might be, well, like me. I thought it was a very rude thing to say about my family and also knew that it was a statement based on ignorance. My sister-in-law didn't know anything about Schizophrenia or mental health research or the age range for when the average person might develop a mental illness. She didn't realize that there might be cures for Bipolar Disorder and Schizophrenia in twenty years. She just assumed. It's never wise to assume. (My sister-in-law has since become my soon-to-be-ex sister-in-law as she and my brother are getting a divorce, but not because of mental health issues).

The last time I saw my gynecologist she asked me if I thought I would ever want to have children. The reason she asked is that it might not be possible, since I haven't gotten a menstrual cycle in about a year and a half or so, due to side effects from my antipsychotic medication. I realized when she asked me that it's a question I mentally bypass most of the time. I purposely try not think about it. In some ways, though, I don't think it's up to me. I think it's not really an option. I think about what would happen to me, and further, to a fetus, if I was off my medications for nine months. I'd very likely kill myself within the first month or two, so I don't see that progressing well. If I stayed on the medications throughout a pregnancy, I'd be creating a toxic kid, and would have to worry forever that the kid was going to have all sorts of issues because of my medications. Then, I have to consider the amount of energy and patience and time and health that it takes to be able to raise a child. Not to mention that it is helpful to have a father in the picture. So basically, I guess I'm not having a kid. I guess not ever.

It's kind of a sad thing to realize, in some respects. I think I might have actually made a decent mother. I would have tried to raise a healthy, happy, well-rounded, socially conscious individual, and I would have done my best at it. But at what cost? I might not ever finish college. I might not ever be able to work full time. I cannot manage the same number of tasks that I could if I had good health (physical and mental), and that fact is something that always needs to be considered. And I would possibly be creating another person with mentally ill genes. But of all the reasons I don't think I could have a child, that last one isn't pertinent. I don't want to purposely weed out mentally ill people from the population. Rather, I would like to see a cure or, at least, very effective treatment without heinous side effects, be developed in my lifetime. I think that curing mental illness is possible, and that a cure would be the optimal way ot remove the illnesses from the human species. Obviously, evolution doesn't always work in a nanosecond, and it might take a few thousand years or more before that takes place - unless genetic engineering becomes more widely used, which it probably will.

All in all, I do think that a person with a mental illness can be a "good" mother. I think that it if a person is actively psychotic they can't provide a stable life for a child, however. And I think for a person who is dealing with psychosis, being a parent on top of every other life responsibility is probably a nightmare. So, I guess it is for the best, but I think I will always wonder what would have been or could have been, if things had worked out differently. I think I would have liked being a mom to someone. Such is life.


  1. Hi Jen,

    Sorry I haven't been around for a while.

    I was just talking about the question of schizophrenia and motherhood with my therapist on Wednesday. I had an idea about writing an essay on it called "The Choice" along with other essay ideas related to schizophrenia and I was going through those ideas briefly with her.

    We both agreed that the big problem, as you pointed out, is that you have to pretty much go off your meds and risk returning to acute psychosis for a minimum of 9 months (that's if you got pregnant immediately, which these days is not always likely). So, in effect, all the progress one makes while responding positively to the medications gets taken away and after you give birth you have an incredible responsibility laid on you. One that you may or may not be prepared to handle. It flat out sucks really, especially for a relatively young person who has come far in her recovery.

    By the time I was several years into acute psychosis, I was also entering middle age and I gradually came to terms with the fact that I would not be having a child. But if I were younger, I know it would be a very hard choice to make and I have a great deal of sympathy for all the women out there who suffer from mental illness and who have to make that choice, including you. I'm very sure you would have made a great mom because you are bright, caring and very responsible.


  2. Hi Kate~
    Thanks for stopping by; I haven't heard from you in a while! It is interesting that you had thought of writing an essay on this. It would be a subject that one could talk about at length, I think. I turned 35 recently, and that makes me think, you know, if I was going to have a child I would need to have things in place to do so soon. But it's not really in the cards. I appreciate your compliment, and you would have made a good mother too. At least we both have cats! Really, I do feel rather disappointed about the whole thing. It's not that I wanted to be a mother more than anything, but I wanted to at least have the option of doing that. I don't really feel like I have the option though.

  3. It just sucks. I'm 25 and my sister's pregnant because she gets to have a baby because she's pretty much the poster child of mental stability.

    I try and not think about it too much because suicidal no more, indeed. To me, it's just not worth taking a chance of going down that road again.


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