Pregnancy & mental health; or how one psychiatrist told me I shouldn’t have kids

When I participated in an inpatient program, I met a woman whose family had a doctor perform a full hysterectomy on her when she was eighteen (she was now in her late fifties) because of her bipolar disorder. Her family and doctor both believed that she would be an unfit parent and they didn’t want to risk her having a child that could also develop the disorder. I was terrified by this story. This woman had not only endured a debilitating mental illness, but she had to endure it when compulsory sterilization was a reality for those in psychiatric hospitals.

quotes-1109Fast-forward to 2012, a Massachusetts woman with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia was forced to have an abortion and be sterilized. In 2013, an Italian-born woman had her baby forcibly removed by ceasarean and taken into child services by the UK government because of her mental illness.

As a woman who is married and still deciding whether or not I want to have children, the stigma toward pregnancy, motherhood, and mental health is concerning. But until two years ago, these were just stories I had heard or read about. Then I had my own, although much less traumatic, experience.

It was December (I remember because it was my birthday) and I had a consultation with a new psychiatrist. Like I said in a previous post, I’ve never met a psychiatrist I liked and I was certain this was going to be just another name on my list. I never thought it would probably be among the worst psychiatrist visits in my life.

As I sat in the waiting room, I knew who was waiting for me. It was undoubtedly going to be a man (they’re always men). He was going to have glasses (they always have glasses). He was going to be slightly disheveled (they’re always disheveled). He was going to ask me questions about my history that I feel guilty and embarrassed about. I was going to cry. He’d ask me why and I’d incoherently try and explain myself through my tears. It would be awful, but then it would be over.

You might be wondering, why is a psychiatric assessment so terrible? It’s because it’s not just just a doctor glancing at that mole on your shoulder. You’re sharing your most personal and more often your most shameful experiences.

Facepalm

When it’s so embarrassing, you need a double facepalm.

Imagine the most embarrassing moment of your entire life. Maybe it was that time you farted during your sixth grade presentation or that day in tenth grade when you walked around with your skirt tucked into your tights ALL DAY. Whatever it is, imagine that moment and remember the fear of judgement, the embarrassment, and the shame you felt. Now imagine retelling every mortifying moment to a stranger on the bus.

And you’re not just retelling the story to a passive audience, your listener is asking questions. What did the fart smell like? What did you have for lunch that day? Have you ever farted in public before then? Does your family have a history of public farting?

These questions make you relive not only the embarrassing moment itself, but all of the moments that led up to the incident. Now you regret eating beans at lunch because you should have known better. Your family has always whispered about your Uncle Frank’s 1965 broccoli incident.

And as he asks the questions and you answer, he takes notes. Endless notes. You try and peer over his clipboard to see what he’s scratching, but you can’t see. He holds it close to his chest. And with those notes, he makes files – files that you are never privy to – even when you ask (trust me, I’ve asked).

That’s what makes the process of retelling your history to one psychiatrist excruciating.

When my name was finally called, I followed him into the office that now felt claustrophobic with the two of us inside. I quickly launched into the gory details of my illness. (It’s like ripping off a bandaid – do it quick and the pain lasts only a second).

We sit silently for a moment as I dig through my purse looking for a tissue (it’s not a psychiatrist visit without some tears!). Just as I find an errant tissue, he inhales and asks, “Are you thinking of becoming pregnant?”

I pause, momentarily stunned by the question. I’d seen a lot of psychiatrists, but none of them had ever asked this before. After a moment, I reply. “Not any time soon.”

“You know it’s dangerous to become pregnant while on these medications,” he replies, ignoring my response as he makes more notes on his clipboard.

“Yes, I know the risks involved.” My back is up, I’m feeling defensive. “But I’m not thinking of getting pregnant soon.”

“Good, because it’s dangerous and not just for you. We don’t know the risks of medication use on the foetus. It could cause birth defects and other issues. It’s not 100% but there’s still a risk. You need to know all of this before you become pregnant.”

“Yes, I’ve spoken to my doctor about it before. But since I’m not planning on getting pregnant any time soon, we figured we could revisit the issue when I’m making that decision. I don’t even know if I want kids anyway.”

He looks up at me, cocks his head to the side and adjusts his glasses before looking back down at his clipboard. “You know that your disorder is genetic.”

I nod, feeling my cheeks flush. He interprets my silence as misunderstanding. (I forgot to mention that psychiatrist’s are always condescending too).

“That means that it’s passed down,” he speaks slowly, emphasizing every syllable, “through the family…”

“I know what genetic means,” I spit through my teeth. There’s nothing worse than people thinking that you’re stupid.
“So you know that there’s a possibility that your child could turn out like you.”

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Wonder Woman perfectly encapsulates my outrage

I stare at him aghast, floored by the words coming out of his mouth. Apparently he thinks I’m some kind of monster that shouldn’t procreate! Would it be so terrible if I had a kid and they had bipolar disorder? I wouldn’t wish my disease on my kid, but my life isn’t horrible. And I imagine that if my child did have a mental illness, I’d have the tools to help them cope.

I suddenly tried to imagine my life without children. Where once it seemed like a choice, now it seemed like it was something being forcibly taken away from me. Anyone who knows me knows that I hate being told what to do and this doctor was suggesting that I shouldn’t have children.

For the first time in my life, I desperately wanted children. I wanted a hoard of them. I wanted to raise them to be healthy and happy and then I wanted to thrust their beautiful cherub faces at him as proof, see they’re fine! I can be a mother!

I was so angry, and hurt, and completely shocked by his implications that I don’t even remember how the appointment ended. All I can remember is leaving the hospital with tears streaming down my face, thinking, it’s my birthday. He ruined my birthday.

It’s been two years since that appointment and I have shared this story repeatedly to illustrate the pervading stigma and fear that exists towards those with a mental illness. My experience is no where near as traumatic as someone who was given a forced hysterectomy or a forced abortion through the collusion of families, friends, and doctors. But I tell this story to illustrate the point that medical professionals are still deeply uneducated when it comes to discussing mental health and parenthood. These comments came from a man who is supposedly educated in the field. This is a man treating a vulnerable population. This is a man who is using his authority to spread fear and misinformation.

Although my husband and I still haven’t decided if and/or when we’ll have children, the hurt and anger of this encounter linger. Some days, when I see my friends with their babies, I think “I could do that. I could be a mom one day.” And then I hear his voice, “but they could turn out like you…”

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19 thoughts on “Pregnancy & mental health; or how one psychiatrist told me I shouldn’t have kids

  1. The world should be so lucky to a have a kid turn out just like you. It is unbelievable that the people that are supposed to be the most knowledgeable about mental illnesses are the most dim witted. If you wanna spew out babies then go for it. I have a friend who is Bipolar and she has two teenagers that are doing well (the son is not without his problems but is still a doll none the less). So tell that doc to go sit on a pole and rotate.

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  2. Wonderful post, thank you for sharing. It’s upsetting knowing that people who should have the most understanding and compassion have the least. You’re a great person. I hope you have many wonderful children. Also, your fart analogy made me giggle. 🙂

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  3. Thank you for posting this. I know it must have been tough to write. I have bipolar II and am currently 39 weeks pregnant. I’ve been very lucky with my psychiatrist and MFM (the OB doc you will work with). if you do decide to have kids, I hope you have the same medical support that I have had. Also, you’ll get to go in for a lot of extra tests (if on lithium, like me), but a healthy you and baby is totally worth it. Best of luck and someone who thinks as much as you wold be a great mother.

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  4. I don’t know about you, but I’ve always found psychiatrists to be the worst! I love a trained psychologist (Ph.D. or PsyD preferred). They “get” it more. Psychiatrists are condescending and diagnose based on expectations rather than realities. I say this because I was diagnosed as Bipolar II. After I moved to Illinois from Florida and found myself pregnant, I tried to get a psychiatrist appointment. (Where I live there is literally a 2 year waiting list so I had let my primary doctor take care of my meds until then. Once pregnant, they make you a priority.) When I got in and went over my history, I realized that the doctor and his student doctor didn’t really listen to me and were quick to think I was Bipolar I. I’d run into this before….(I had a suicide attempt once upon a time that seemed highly manic. It wasn’t but they all assume it was.) The suggestions he made about my medications during pregnancy, etc pissed me off. Why? Well, my psychiatrist in Florida (who did listen to me) had discussed all my options with me and I had been off mania meds for over 9 months at this point (5 months before the wedding to test the waters).

    Anyhow, sorry to vent, but it still pisses me off to this day. Anyhow, now I’m not sure I’m even Bipolar II. I’ve been off mania meds for 6 years and not one hypomanic episode (even being on Zoloft the entire time because I definitely am a clinical depressive). In that time, I’ve had 2 beautiful girls and am pregnant with baby #3. I never went back to the psychiatrist or found another. I’ve let my primary doctor monitor my meds with me. It helps that he has some specialty training in mood disorders.

    Do what your instincts say to do, and I suggest you find a psychologist who can refer you to a psychiatrist he/she can consult with and will actually listen to you instead of judging. No one deserves that crap!

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  5. Pingback: Pregnancy and Mental Health: How One Psychiatrist Told Me I Shouldn’t Have Kids — Everyday Feminism

  6. I know you’ve probably had a hard life, but you sound very selfish and egotistical for wanting to knowingly have a child who could have a serious disorder. You don’t need to prove to anyone that you’re not “some horrible monster who shouldn’t procreate.” Having children shouldn’t be about your ego and proving your worthiness to the world. If you want children, why have you not considered adopting? Your genes are not better than everyone else’s. If you know you have a genetic disorder, have compassion for your unborn child and take the chance that you could save a soul from a more difficult life. Mental illness is extremely difficult to go through. Why decide to give it to someone else whom you will proclaim to have so much love for? There are plenty of healthy children who have already been born who need homes. If you’re stable and able to provide a loving home for them, they need you.

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  7. Just want to let you know that my mum has bi polar (and came from a shitty childhood where her mum left her to be raised by her dad and 4 brothers) and my dad killed himself through depression (when I was very young). I am not exaggerating here but my mum is one of the best mums I have ever met and is the kindest most loving person I’ve ever met too. Not only was she a single mum, dealing with the death of her husband but also dealing with bi polar. Sure she has had a few episodes where she had to go into hospital for a short period when i was growing up but I’d visit her with my grandmother and we got through it, through love and humour. She hated her meds but took them to be well for me. Because of her I am married to the best man, have traveled to over 40 countries, have a masters degree and am a positive person. So seriously, if you are dedicated to staying healthy, whether thats through meds or therapy and know when to ask for help go for it. Don’t let anyone put you off. The only advice I would offer is to have discussions about mental health as your child grows up so they know not to be afraid of it and they can also learn the importance of taking care of themselves mentally and physically. Touch wood I am now 30 and have no mental illness, I occasionally suffer from anxiety but it’s mild. I don’t believe it’s fully genetic. Sure perhaps I had a predisposition but with a good life and my mum always made sure I talked about my feelings, something she struggles with there is a big chance your child wont develop a disorder. People can develop disorders without family episodes! Like any parent you’ll just do your best and fill it with love. Ignore the people who don’t understand and immediately think your child will develop a mental illness, it’s simply not that straightforward.

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  8. Just want to let you know that my mum has bi polar (and came from a shitty childhood where her mum left her to be raised by her dad and 4 brothers) and my dad killed himself through depression (when I was very young). I am not exaggerating here but my mum is one of the best mums I have ever met and is the kindest most loving person I’ve ever met too. Not only was she a single mum, dealing with the death of her husband but also dealing with bi polar. Sure she has had a few episodes where she had to go into hospital for a short period when i was growing up but I’d visit her with my grandmother and we got through it, through love and humour. She hated her meds but took them to be well for me. Because of her I am married to the best man, have traveled to over 40 countries, have a masters degree and am a positive person. So seriously, if you are dedicated to staying healthy, whether thats through meds or therapy and know when to ask for help go for it. Don’t let anyone put you off. The only advice I would offer is to have discussions about mental health as your child grows up so they know not to be afraid of it and they can also learn the importance of taking care of themselves mentally and physically. Touch wood I am now 30 and have no mental illness, I occasionally suffer from anxiety but it’s mild. I don’t believe it’s fully genetic. Sure perhaps I had a predisposition but with a good life and my mum always made sure I talked about my feelings, something she struggles with there is a big chance your child wont develop a disorder. People can develop disorders without family episodes! Like any parent you’ll just do your best and fill it with love. Ignore the people who don’t understand and immediately think your child will develop a mental illness, it’s simply not that straightforward.

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    • Oh and she’s even visited me three time in South Korea (where I’m currently living and working), stopped smoking after 20 odd years and looks amazing for her age! I think a part of this is her accepting that the mental illness doesn’t define her and I think shes pretty proud she was and is an ace mum! Part of this is also luckily in the UK the stigma is decreasing slowly thanks to social media especially.

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  9. I’d get a new doctor for sure. You have every right to have children if you want to. My mom had paranoid schizophrenia and raised four children. It was definitely hard in those days as there was not nearly as much support and treatment as there is today. Our family has had mental health issues but I am so glad we are all here and managing to live full, productive, and fulfilling lives. Great blog post.

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    • Marlena, thanks for reading & I’m so sorry you were subjected to a similar experience. It’s really sad when these people are often dealing with people in crisis and they can be so cold hearted.

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  10. Pingback: Do mental illness labels matter? | Mad girl's lament

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  12. I am schizoaffective and just had a beautiful baby boy. Fortunately for me, my mental health prescriber (a psychiatric arnp) was very supportive as was my ob. I was considered high risk because of one of my medications, but that meant growth scans so now I have lots of ultrasound pictures. Also, latuda, a fairly new medication for bipolar and schizophrenia, is class b. In fact, it is the only class b atypical antipsychotic.
    I hope YOU and your husband make the decision, and that your providers support you when you do.

    Liked by 1 person

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