Yes, You Can Be A Mentally Ill Parent...If You Want to Be

When it comes to handling tantrums, counting to 10, cooling down, and all the other tricks needed to handle kids growing into themselves, some of us crazies are old hands.
Publish date:
April 18, 2013
parenting, mental illness, fun times in crazytown, genetic testing

A Redditor, take-the-cannoli (great user name BTW), recently posed a question that’s obviously been weighing heavily on her mind: “Am I too crazy to have kids?

She goes on to explain that she’s a geneticist with a history of mental illness, and she’s weighing the social and scientific factors involved in having kids: “Could I sentence a child to life like mine (basically miserable all the time)? Like that of my mother (basically unaware that she is nuts, but bastshit all the same)? Like that of my boyfriend's brothers?”

It’s a touchy and complicated question, and the responses in the thread are really mixed. Mental illness is such an individual experience that it’s something every mentally ill person has to answer on a personal basis, after much careful thinking. After all, this isn’t a choice you’re making just for yourself: there’s also a small person to consider.

To my eye, there are two questions people might ask themselves: Do I want to have children at all? And, if I do, do I want to pass on my genes, knowing that there are genetic factors in the development of mental illness in addition to environmental factors?

To kid or not to kid

I’m mentally ill and I’ve chosen not to have children, but not because of my mental illness. I know that I don’t want children, that I would probably make a great fun weekend aunt to the children of my friends, but I don’t have the traits necessary for good parenting. I’m also acutely aware that the symptoms of my mental illness would definitely have the potential to interfere with my ability to parent.

But I’m also confident that if I really wanted children, I’d deal with that. Mentally ill people can and do parent successfully; look at Bassey, who lives with bipolar disorder and parents her son. People may need some support in some cases, they might need to make some life adjustments, but they can make it work, because having children is what they really want, and they’re going to make it happen for themselves and give their children the best lives possible.

In fact, many mentally ill parents I know are especially sensitive to moods and environments because of their concerns about their mental illnesses, which can translate to really focusing on the needs and safety of their children. When it comes to handling tantrums, counting to 10, cooling down, and all the other tricks needed to handle kids growing into themselves, well, some of us crazies are old hands.

I could say, for example, that the symptoms of my mental illness would also have the potential to interfere with my ability to work, and specifically to become a writer, a solitary occupation that involves a lot of self-driven work. But I decided that was what I wanted to do, and I made it happen, largely on my own. I fought for access to health care, I fought for the kinds of jobs that would work well for me, and I keep fighting, every day.

So I know I have the capacity to fixate on something and make it happen, just like scores of mentally ill parents across the world who decide they want to have children and make it happen. Were I to have a child forced upon me, it would be a different story; I would really struggle, and I wouldn’t give that child the life they would deserve, because my heart wouldn’t be in it (with one exception -- the child I agreed to godparent in knowledge of the fact that if something happens to her parents, I will adopt her).

Which, by the way, is a reminder that yes, access to full reproductive health services including contraceptive options and abortion is critically necessary for society. Because I can say with 100% confidence that if I were to (quite miraculously, given the fact that I’m sterilized and not hanging out with any sperm) get pregnant right now, I would get an abortion. Not because I’m crazy, but because kids aren’t right for me.

But what about genetics?

That mental illness has a genetic component is indisputable. And for people who experience their mental illness as suffering, misery or torment, these are all pretty compelling reasons to not have genetic children. In the case of take-the-cannoli (stop, you're making me hungry!), the argument seems pretty clear: She should maybe consider adopting or using an egg donor to have children, and given that her boyfriend also has a family history of mental illness, sperm donation might be a good call.

However, the way we approach mental illness is shifting. We are identifying symptoms of mental illnesses earlier, and we are developing more effective ways to treat them. I know I’m not the only mentally ill person who can relate stories of struggles in childhood directly related to undiagnosed and untreated mental illness.

Would I want to spare a child that? Heck, yes. But what if I had been diagnosed earlier and treated more effectively? What would have been different, for me?

The issues start to change when you consider whether two responsible adults who are clearly on track for brilliant careers want to have genetic children together in awareness of the fact that they have a family history of mental illness. Being aware of the issue, and working on creating a good environment for their children, they might be able to identify problems early if they arise, and act on them promptly. Their kids don’t have to experience years of flailing in a situation they’re struggling with, and neither do the parents.

On the other hand, not everyone views mental illness in the same way. Members of the mad pride movement, for example, actively embrace it, and others view it as a part of themselves and their lives that can be managed, and is also part of who they are. I wouldn’t be the person I am without my mental illness, which doesn’t mean I don’t want to punch it in the face sometimes, but also doesn’t necessarily mean I’d want to be magically cured of it, either.

It's impossible to know how your kids would feel about their mental illnesses when we're talking about hypothetical kids and hypothetical mental illnesses. Raised in a supportive, loving environment, they might have very different lives than you did. But maybe your personal experiences with mental illness are so raw and so intense that you're not ready to handle the risk of having mentally ill children. That's okay. You're not a bad person for feeling that way.

And thinking carefully about your parenting choices means you're really weighing and considering your decisions, which is awesome. And it's worth checking around in some forums, like those on mumsnet, to connect with parents and prospective parents including those with mental illnesses, to find out more about their thoughts and experiences.

Individual experiences with mental illness, thus, play a key role in whether people want to risk the potential of possibly passing on some genes associated with the development of mental illness. And a good place to start with assessing those risks, whether you’re in the mad pride movement or you struggle with severe depression, is to consult a genetic counselor and find out more about your genes, your family, and what might happen.

My advice to take-the-cannoli

Take-the-cannoli says she has treatment-resistant depression and she’s uneasy about passing that on to her kids: understandably so. Treatment-resistant mental illnesses can really suck, and she’s in a position to know that firsthand. Hey boyfriend’s brothers have severe mental illness that interferes with their ability to live independently.

She definitely has concerns about the future of her child or children: for her personally, not having genetic children might be a good choice, but I don’t think she’d make a bad parent, at all, and obviously neither does she, because she mentions that in her original post.

Adopting could be a great option for her to have children, raise them in an awesome environment, and receive the rewards of parenting, because that’s clearly something she is interested in. It’s heartening to hear testimonies in the thread from mentally ill parents talking about their own experiences and assuring the original poster that she can totally have children if she wants to have them -- she’s not “too crazy.”

So I say explore adoption and fostering (Emily can testify that it's possible to be an awesome foster mom with depression), because they sound like good options for her personally. But I know we have a lot of smart commenters who may have different takes and thoughts of their own based on their experiences as parents, and as mentally ill people (and as both).