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.

Then, a couple of years ago, I got tired. Tired down to my bones and deeper, flu-intense fatigue that lasted for weeks and brought with it full-body pain and stiffness. It hurt to type. I hobbled around like an octogenarian, because every footstep required effort. At the time, I was living in Brooklyn and working at an independent bookstore in Grand Central Terminal (hi Posman’s! I love you!)—my bosses were incredibly understanding, letting me do things like lie down on the buyer’s office floor during lunch, but I still missed a lot of work. And my sick days were unpaid for the most part, so our income took a hit even while my employers scrambled to fill the gap I left when I had to stay home.

My doctor tested for everything: my first bout of exhaustion was in winter, and I turned out to have a pretty serious Vitamin D deficiency. On enormous doses (50,000 IU taken once a week), I bounced back, and thought all was well. But the tired came back, and the pain. I spent most of my wedding reception in fall 2012 sitting down, unable to summon the energy for our first dance to “So This is Love” (YES I’M A SAP SHUT UP.) Finally, my doc diagnosed fibromyalgia, which I still find somewhat embarrassing, as it’s the whitest, middle-aged-ladiest disease possible. It’s also not especially treatable; the gabapentin I was already taking as a mood stabilizer does help with the pain, but mostly I just need to rest.

I managed to rebound for that holiday season—and believe me, December retail at Grand Central is every bit the special level of Hell you think it is—but kept feeling worse through that spring. Eventually my boss persuaded me to take medical leave from the bookstore, during which I received short-term disability, a possibility I didn’t even know existed until she suggested it to me.

Greater action was needed, though. I couldn’t just keep working for a few months and recuperate for a few more—that was unfair to an employer, and hard on us financially. New York City was starting to get to me, the smell, the pace, the constant noise–our apartment was literally next to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, so my life was never silent. So we packed up ourselves, two cats and a rabbit and moved to my mid-sized hometown in Kansas last June, and lived in my parents’ basement for the next nine months. The new American Dream.

For a while I felt fine—good, even. I started to think it had just been the city, that being in a slower environment was what I’d needed, that I wasn’t even sick. My husband became a rural mail carrier (yes, this is the funniest job in the world for a man born in Stamford, CT, who spent 13 happy years in NYC), and I got a part-time gig as assistant to an insurance agent. It wasn’t a bookstore, but it was all right. I was doing yoga and writing slash fiction (Destiel shippers say hey), and I started roller derby training with the ICT Roller Girls, hotpants and all. After I learned to skate, a crucial step, I planned to adopt the nom de derby Eustacia Violence, because everybody loves a Thomas Hardy pun.

Then there was a day in November where I felt kind of off all day. I skated for two minutes and started shaking and panting from the effort. At first I thought it was the flu, although I had no fever; but as the exhaustion stretched into weeks, and my hands and thighs started aching even after days of rest, I knew that it was the fibro, that it was real, and that I had another chronic disease to add to my list.

I quit my job, unable to put in even 20 hours a week. It took probably a month to recover to a point where I wasn’t in pain, longer to regain the energy to run an errand or hang out with friends. These days I can generally manage to leave the house once a day, if I don’t do anything for hours afterward. I feel, on bad days, like my life has been stolen from me, that I’m a burden to my husband, that I’m worthless as an animal, that I give nothing to the world.

And there’s no way I could care for a child. Just being around my niece and nephew, or my friends’ kids, while fun, tuckers me out after a few hours, and it’s a relief when I can disengage. I couldn’t do this with my own kids, obviously, not without a full-time nanny; I’d be an absent sickly mother from a Victorian novel, and I can’t do it. So I’m not going to. It breaks my heart. It sucks. I don’t know what to else to do.

There are advantages to remaining childless, of course. We can buy a smaller house, in that imaginary future time where we’re financially stable enough to buy a house. We can have married-people snuggle time whenever, since we can ignore the pleas of kitties shut out of the bedroom without it being terrible people. And as my husband said, “If we don’t have kids, I’ll have more time to do the things I want to do.”

(“For my vanity’s sake,” he said when I discussed this essay with him, “make it clear when you quote me that I’m not a man-child.” I assure you, he’s not. He has boyish enthusiasms: terrible movies, reading and drawing comics, endless clicky games of Civ 4. But he works hard to support us, and he takes good care of me. If you’d like a pop-culture analogue, he reminds me of Ben Wyatt. Cute, too.)

I’m shaky about writing this. While I’m open about my illnesses to family and friends and employers (the latter likely to a fault), I’ve never talked about this to strangers, and I’m terrified to put opinions about parenting and mental illness on the Internet, because There Be Flame Wars. There are other women like me out there, though: women who long to have kids, to create tiny experimental people and help them become adults, women who aren’t infertile but have made the conscious decision not to give in to this desire, forced to do so by circumstances beyond their control. Women whose childlessness is not by choice, but by tragedy.

I want to tell them they’re not alone.

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