Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Parenthood and Mental Health

As I was cleaning up my office I came across an article from 2006 I had printed out when I was doing the research for Two Is Enough: A Couple’s Guide to Living Childless by Choice. It’s titled “Parenthood Ups Mental Illness Risk” and was written by Jasmine Karalakulasingam, M.D. a medical reporter for ABC News.

As I read this article, which reported a higher risk of mental illness during the first three months after birth, I was thinking why don’t people talk about this?

In 2003 actress Brooke Shields went public with her crippling post-partum depression but when I attended birth classes with a young woman I was mentoring that same year I didn’t hear any warnings of the mental heath risks of parenthood. The nurse who was teaching the class warned about post-partum infection, breast-feeding challenges, and what to expect when you bring your newborn home but not a thing about being alert for signs of mental distress or illness.

Shortly after I had re-read this article I received an email from a woman who admitted that although she felt, even as a young child, that she didn’t want children when she got married she thought she might change her mind and discussed the possibility of having a child with her husband, who had a daughter from a previous relationship. But her mind did not change and after finding out she was pregnant she knew that she couldn’t handle the stress of birthing and raising a child.

“The thought of being a parent actually scared the hell out of me,” she admits. “I did not want to be pregnant or keep the child. It was in that moment I knew that I did not want to be a parent and I knew that my mental health would not survive having a child as I suffer from depression and general anxiety disorder.”

After discussing it with her husband they decided to terminate the pregnancy, and he arranged to have a vasectomy so they wouldn’t have to worry about birth control. They now have custody of his seventeen-year-old daughter “working through the challenges of teenage life.” She feels they made the right choice for them even though she still hears things like ‘You’re still young, it’s different when they are your own,’ but she knows that it won’t be different because she knows how the stressors of step-parenthood have impacted her mental well-being and her life: “To this day, I do not regret my choice and I believe my marriage is better off for it. I know my mental health is better for it.”

Whether you agree with this woman’s decision to terminate her pregnancy, or not, what are your thoughts on her consideration of her mental health in the process of her decision-making? Is this something you have considered in your fertility decision making?

Flickr Photo by Giarose


Kathy said...

My mental health is probably one of my top 5 factors in choosing to be childless. Both my husband and I struggle with depression and I know for a fact that having a child would increase this struggle. It is not something that we need to put myself, my spouse or my child(ren) through. For us, having a child would be the ultimate selfish choice. As you discussed in your book, I believe that the world would be a much better place if those who choose to have children would think through their reasons as much as those of us who choose to remain childless do.

Unknown said...

Mental health was definitely a factor when my husband and I decided not to have children. I grew up in a very turbulent home with a mother who is bipolar and refuses to take medication. My father is also schizophrenic - I suffer from mild depression. I knew that the stresses of parenthood are OK for most, but with that sort of genetic line running in my family - I wasn't going to risk it.

My primary reason for not wanting children is because I have already given up so much of my childhood because my parents were mentally ill, I feel like I deserve to hold onto every little piece of myself that I have left.

Courtney Mroch said...

What a great post! I could relate to the woman who decided to terminate her pregnancy. I've never had that clock ticking, must procreate kind of feeling. I'm great with kids and like being around them, but I never had the desire to be a parent. A lot of it had to do with how I was raised.

But that's beside the point. I remember when my husband and I had a pregnancy scare one time. He was actually excited about it. I was bawling my head off all the time. I always suspected I would be the kind to suffer from post partum depression, but it was not a factor why I never had kids.

I loved that you shared this. Thanks!

Bridget said...

My and my husband's mental health were a major factor in choosing to be childless. Not only for ourselves, but also for our potential children. After what I have experienced with depression, I do not want to pass that on to another person.

Anonymous said...

I have suffered from acute depression at times throughout my adult life, and experience a constant low-lying depression in between. That is a big factor for me in choosing to be childfree. I read years ago that a child with one parent with depression is twice as likely to have it themselves; with both parents suffering, the risk is quadrupled. Why would I inflict such hell on an innocent life, one which I'd actually chosen to create?

I know my mother suffered awfully when I was tiny and I suspect I would be the same. As for why post-natal stress is not discussed, could that be because the child-worshipping world we live in has promoted the mother to such an extent that no cloud can possibly sully her horizon? Conversely, I suspect, that this very attitude serves to foster the creeping mould of depression; she is no longer a woman, her own self, she is a mother and must have no other identity. Mothers are amazing, but they are not goddesses, they are human beings who need to be supported as much as their children.

Vulpine Vixen said...

After hours of googling I came across this page and I'm glad that I did. My story is similar to other peoples.

I'm mentally. Had mentally ill parents etc.

I've been ill for over a decade. I don't see it going away even with treatment. I've even been told that it may be a case of learning to with it mental illness. I am technically disabled because of it. I'm 25.

I want to get sterilized. Something my partner is against. It's a risk... I might change my mind... It's infringing on his rights as a person, and his free will, to have a child etc. But what about my right to health? Happiness and a good life? There are also all the 'you'll change your mind' arguments.

People don't realise how hurtful they're being. If I were well I'd LOVE to have children. But I'm not well. I really do feel I'd have had a better start in life if my mother, who was mentally ill, had decided not to have me. It's not about what I want. It's about what's right! It's not an easy choice for some people to be child-free; so telling them that they'll change their mind is an insult.

I really don't like my self-less choice is being talked-down by other people and their agendas. No matter who they are and how close they are to me. Respect works both ways.

I see that the positives on my health will out-weigh any upset I may feel about not having a child. A child-free life isn't an empty one.

The article was excellently written and just what I needed to read at this point in my life. The lady who aborted did so for her own health so I can understand why she did it. In all it's an eye-opening article about a taboo subject.

Mel said...

Yeah, I don't think that abortion was necessary the answer in this case. I don't want children for this same reason -- because of my depression and anxiety. But I have accepted that if I do become pregnant, that it was just meant to be. Or I would at least consider adoption. But it's not that child's fault...

Laura S. Scott said...

All very valid perspectives! Am am touched by the really personal and heartfelt assessments of the ability to parent in the way we idealize and how some of us feel we might fall short.

tanya said...

Thanks for sharing this story. Even before I got married, I was leaning in the direction of not having children. For one, I didn't have a drive to be pregnant, and I had watched my sister and my cousin suffer greatly for having children (e.g., being trapped in bad relationships, disabling financial problems, scary pregnancy-related physical problems.) I've also suffered from constant low-level depression, and it takes everything I have just to make sure that I can go to work and keep on top of my own physical health by having the time to cook healthy meals and exercise.

I got married in my 30's and got pregnant early on accidentally. When the *severe* morning sickness kicked in, I became extremely depressed and full of unbearable anxiety. I truly believed that the pregnancy would kill me, plus I was completely freaked out at the physical changes I was beginning to experience. I wanted to be knocked out for nine months or checked into a mental hospital permanently.

I knew of the monolithic demands and sacrifices that I would have to go through over the next few years if I did happen to survive that long. Needless to say, my new relationship would have been obliterated as I had quickly become a bed-ridden, beyond-miserable person. Everything was beginning to go in the opposite direction of where I was trying to go in my life. I had worked so hard for my life to end up like this at my young age?

It was a mutual decision between me and my husband to terminate the pregnancy. He knew I couldn't take it and he fully supported me. Instantly, the morning sickness, depression, and anxiety lifted. I had my life back. We have never completely ruled out the idea of having one child, but now 38, I don't see how I'll be any more ready to be pregnant in the next couple years.

DowagerLadyUrsula said...

I wish this was something more people took into account before trying to have children.