Childless by Some Choice: Parenting and Mental Illness

Here’s the situation: I want kids. I could have them. But I’ve decided that I shouldn’t.

Lesley-Gore-Ill-Cry-If-I-Want-475313I’ve fought mental illness since I was a child—I remember being suicidal in fifth grade—and I’ve been medicated since I was 15. First for depression; after I got dumped at a birthday party and took forty-seven aspirin in the bathroom, then walked calmly into the next room and told someone I’d just taken forty-seven aspirin, I was diagnosed with bipolar II disorder. I never get the expansive euphoria a person with bipolar I might experience during a manic episode; instead, I have periods of hypomania, bursts of creative energy, domestic or work productivity, or extreme irritability, and then crash. My depressive episodes dive far below sadness, into an inability to feel anything, hours where I’m aware time is passing but utterly indifferent to it. Even when well-medicated, my moods cycle rapidly and without much reference to the world outside my head.

perscription-drug-case-1156714-mIn the past two decades, I have taken the following drugs: Prozac (twice), Zoloft, lithium, Depakote, Wellbutrin (twice), Zyprexa, Effexor, Lamictal (twice), Geodon, Seroquel (twice), Ativan, gabapentin, Lexapro, Trileptal, and Celexa. I’ve gone through an exciting range of side effects: Prozac makes me cry and/or vomit; lithium is terrible for my skin; Zyprexa made me lactate (“Oh, I’ve read about this in the literature,” said my doctor, “but I’ve never heard of it actually happening!”); Ativan is so addictive it took me six months reducing it by a quarter-milligram every two weeks to successfully get off of it, and every time I felt ill and hungover for two days. The second time I took Lamictal, in the summer of 2007, I developed gastritis which went undiagnosed for three weeks, while I threw up every day and lost twenty pounds and a cup size; I was also trying to wean myself off all medication at the time, as my psychiatrist wanted to re-diagnose me from scratch. The psychiatrist before that had recklessly prescribed far too much Ativan (an anti-anxiety med similar to Valium), destabilizing my delicate chemical balance entirely. Unable to eat, crying uncontrollably, incapable of navigating social interaction, I checked myself into a psych ward the weekend of my 28th birthday, just to give my parents a break from trying to care for me.

12-wolf1I’m mostly okay now, don’t worry. I’ve found a three-drug combination that whittles down my extremes. I’m still prone to mood swings, but I’m aware of it, and so is my husband, who’s excellent at talking me down without giving advice, soothing me with tea and back episodes of Supernatural (or, as he’s been calling it lately, Handsome Feelings with Sammy and Deano). To paraphrase Wendy Wasserstein, he’s my Leonard Woolf. I get uselessly anxious under stress, and I go through a major depression every spring. But I’m mostly okay.

This is all a long-winded way of saying that despite being biologically capable of bearing a child, doing so would risk all manner of birth defects. And I can’t stop taking my medication long enough for pregnancy and breast-feeding. Not to mention there’s a strong chance of my illness being genetic—my greatest fear, besides drowning in a cave, is having a child who commits suicide.

But I would love to have children. I know many people—well, let’s be honest, it’s mostly women who talk about this, endlessly, looking darkly at each other across an imaginary line, launching thinkpieces like missiles across the border between Kids and No Kids…so let’s say I know many women who don’t want kids. Most of them feel judged for this, that society tells them they’re less-than if they don’t reproduce. (On the other hand, a friend of mine with three kids aged five and under garners stares at the grocery store and whispers of “She must be crazy,” so there’s judgment enough to go around, more’s the pity.) I don’t frown on their decision in the slightest, but I’m not one of them. I’d love to have children of my own, smart little bespectacled critters with no athletic ability and piles of books on their bed. They’d watch Bruce Lee movies with their dad, and I’d read them Knuffle Bunny and Dealing with Dragons and The Westing Game, and we’d all play Settlers of Catan on Fridays and drink hot chocolate and generally be Team Andersen together.

Since pregnancy is out of the question for me, however, the obvious answer to my desire for motherhood is adoption. And that was the plan: “It’s just DNA,” shrugged my husband when I told him I couldn’t help carry on his genes, because he is perfect. I even read about inducing lactation with a breast pump so I could nurse an adopted baby.

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