Can You Be A Good Parent If You Have A Mental Illness?

“It’s a 24/7 job that I can’t walk away from. Can I handle that?”

When you write personal essays for a living, people believe they can and should comment on the decisions you’ve made in your personal life. In some ways, this is true. Pushing aside my vulnerability to write about my love life, family, regrets, traumas, sexuality, and mental health is an invitation for discourse — I mean it to be. 

The majority of my readers have told me they’re thankful for my frankness, because they feel a camaraderie that didn’t exist before, or that my experiences have helped them to change their own lives for the better. They’ve been supportive and loving, and I hold each of their messages close to my chest when it comes time to share again.

Others, though, are the blunt embodiment of “don’t read the comments,” especially when I wrote about my decision to become a mother one day:

Any fetus you and [your partner] conceive would be better off aborted.”

“A pregnancy at this point in your life is not what anyone needs.”

“No baby would want you as a mother. At least wait until you're out of debt and not scared to leave the house to pop one out with your latest boy toy. Babies are expensive in both money and emotional labor and you — a broke crazy person — are definitely not at a place to become pregnant.”

These are actual messages I’ve received. I wish I could say that reading them didn’t bother me, but it did. I’m a person with feelings, like any other, and being attacked or ridiculed for such a personal and joyful decision left me simultaneously enraged and pained. Maybe they’re right, I thought. Maybe I’m simply incapable of being a good parent.

But instead of stopping there (for long), I decided to find out for myself. 

I’m a person who needs to know the facts. I bring a notebook with me to every doctor’s appointment. I record important meetings. The research list for my memoir is pages long. Why should pregnancy be any different? And so the research began.

I learned that 18.5% of all US adults live with mental illness, in any given year. The sheer number — 43.8 million — gave me comfort. I always know that I’m not alone with my diagnoses, but the idea of tens of millions of others warmed me. 

Hopes lifted, I dug into my own conditions: 2.6% of adults live with bipolar disorder, 6.9% have had one or more major depressive episodes in the past year, and 18.1% experience an anxiety disorder, including PTSD. The words reverberated in my head, a comforting mantra: not alone, not alone, not alone!

“But,” a voice intruded, “how many of them are parents? How many people living with mental illness are crazy enough to have kids? Pun intended.” My inner critic can be cruel, but I admitted the point and continued looking. 

Then again, what would the impact of my diagnoses be on a future child? Would they suffer when I suffered? How would my partner and I explain instances of depression, mania, lack of focus, and being triggered to a toddler? An adolescent? A teenager?

Again, the numbers were easy to swallow: 65% of women living with mental illness were mothers. Wanting to have a child was not abnormal for women like me. In fact, we’re more likely to become parents than women without mental illness. If they could do it, so could I.  

But the real issue wasn’t the number of women living with mental illness or the percentage of those women who went on to have children. Despite how encouraging the statistics felt, I needed to know more. I’ve struggled with suicidal thoughts, self-harm, manic impulses, inability to focus, and panic attacks. Could I give these to my son or daughter along with the gift of life?

Research shows that children of parents with recurrent depression (my particular flavor) are 4-5 times likelier to develop it than the average person. Anxiety disorders do tend to run in families, but it’s unclear whether or not the cause is mainly genetic or if children learn to be anxious from their parents. Research on bipolar disorder is mostly forthcoming. A 2014 study suggested that the risk for inheriting BD from a parent could be as high as 50%, but information from April 2016 states that most people with bipolar in their families do not inherit it. 

It seemed like a dangerous roll of the dice, but perhaps if we prepared in advance, got ourselves into the best possible stage of mental health ahead of time, we would be the perfect caretakers for a child with mental illness. 

Then again, what would the impact of my diagnoses be on a future child? Would they suffer when I suffered? How would my partner and I explain instances of depression, mania, lack of focus, and being triggered to a toddler? An adolescent? A teenager?

“What happens if I can’t handle a newborn?” I asked him. “They’re going to be up at all hours of the night, crying, needing to be fed and changed, messing with my sleep schedule, probably adding to my anxiety…” 

We were sitting in bed in our pajamas and I looked down at my hands in my lap, wrung into worried twists. 

“It’s a 24/7 job that I can’t walk away from. Can I handle that?” 

I don’t remember his responses as well as I do my questions. I do know they were reassuring. I know he told me that I would love our child, that every parent deals with stress and anxiety when they’re raising a kid, and that I’ve come a long way with my studies of mindfulness and self-regulation. He said that when I was overwhelmed, he would step in, that he wouldn’t let me falter.

I continued to worry, but the resources I found for mentally ill parents were straightforward, their expectations reasonable: 

  1. Tell your child that mental illness is real, that it’s not their fault, and that it’s treatable.
  2. Let them know that you go to the doctor and take medicine for the same reasons they do.
  3. Explain that any strange behavior is because of the illness, and that treatment and medication helps.
  4. Most of all, make sure your child knows they are loved.

When my partner and I first discussed having a baby, we knew it wouldn’t be as easy for us as it would be for others. But, we knew that any decision to become a parent comes with new challenges, difficulties, and the need to step up, to be the best person (and parent) you can be. 

It would be wrong to say that I’m not worried about motherhood anymore. Any parent-to-be has anxieties about whether or not they’ll be any good at raising a person. But I am more educated about what to expect and what I should plan for, and, regardless of the illnesses I live with, that’s the best any to-be-parent can do.

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