I’m going to get a little extra-personal in this post, in the belief that the more honest and vulnerable I can be, the more my readers can understand the many nuances of life with mental illness.
I want to be a mother.
Of course I do. If you know me, I doubt you think any different. I have always loved children and I think I’m a pretty nurturing person. I like to take care of others. I really like holding babies. There has never been a time at which I have not thought that I would grow up to be a mom, that I would throw all my love and energy and joy and sanity into raising a family, that my husband and I would have cute babies who would grow into happy kids who would turn into sullen teenagers who, hopefully, would become the kind of adults who will love us and take care of us when we are old and creaky and grouchy. It’s always been our plan.
Ah, the plan -- that silly thing we occupy ourselves with making, and remaking, and pretending we have control over, until one day we realize that here we are, that carefully curated plan cast to the side, as we have busied ourselves with the actual, beautiful grind of just living our lives.
Before we got married, my husband told me (less than halfway joking) that he wanted to be “done having kids” by the time he was 30. Well -- almost six years later -- I am on the last legs of 29, he’s not far behind me, and there are no kids on the horizon.
I’ve grown accustomed to the questions, whether they are nosy or curious or needling or serious. “When are you thinking about having kids?” “Are you guys thinking about trying soon?” “You know if you wait until you’re ready, you’ll never actually have them.”
Please (and especially if you are a person who has asked me this yourself) don’t get me wrong. I’m not offended by the questions. We’ve been married for almost six years, and I’ve never been secretive about my desire to have kids. I’ve even offered a [very vague] time frame in the past (“oh, maybe in a year or two…”) so it seems pretty normal that as I round the base toward 30 I’d have to be at least thinking about it.
I know that I don’t need to own a home before I start a family. I know that I don’t need my finances to be in impeccable order before I think about getting pregnant. I know that nothing will actually prepare me for motherhood, because motherhood is unto itself one of the most breathtakingly difficult and wondrous things this life has to offer. I know that. Don’t tell me I shouldn’t wait to be ready; “ready” is a highly relative term.
There’s a lot of good awareness rising up lately about why it can be insensitive to ask a woman whether and when she is going to have children. She may be struggling with infertility. She may have grown up with parents who didn’t show her how love and family should be. She may have miscarried once, or twice, or so many times she can hardly count.
But did you ever think that she just might not feel that she is well enough, mentally, to responsibly bring a child into this world and care for it the way she knows she can, and longs to, and someday, hopefully, will?
Of course that’s not to say that people with mental illnesses can’t, or don’t, have happy, nurtured, cared-for children. They do! All the time! My point is simply that, just as with any other medical condition, some of us must work harder or think more carefully or wait longer to get to a healthy enough place to have kids.
On the surface, some days, I have my act together. I work full time, my house is reasonably organized and clean, I have a plan for dinner that doesn’t involve using an app on my phone to order it, I get all my errands done. I am acting like any regular adult who does these things all the time, and I think, “I’m so ready to add kids to this picture.”
Then soon, maybe the next day or the next hour even, the dark, vicious shadow starts to swirl in the air around me, encroaching on my mind, my space, my heart until it settles inside me, cloaking all of the light of my optimism, my hopes and goals in impenetrable darkness. “Of course you can’t be a mom,” the shadow tells me. “Look at you. You didn’t even shower or make your bed today. What makes you think you can be responsible for growing tiny lives and hearts and dreams when you can’t even make yourself a cup of coffee?”
Thankfully, the darkness doesn’t come as often or stay as long these days, especially compared to several months or a year ago, but it does still come. The doubts and insecurities that a healthy person might have about parenthood multiply tenfold, or more. How can someone who worries about being five minutes late for a dinner reservation possibly handle the concerns and anxieties of being a mother? How can someone who has had days of being unable to get out of bed, much less face the obligations and duties of everyday life, possibly bring a healthy child into this world and not mess it up?
Not to mention what the shadow tells me about the genetics of all of this. “Depression runs in your family. Do you really want to bring a person into the world who will experience this kind of pain and sickness? Do you think that’s a responsible thing to do? Do you think that’s fair?” No, I tell it. It sounds awful. Why would I ever knowingly give someone life when this is how they could feel once they get here? What kind of a mother would I be if I did that? What if my child had it worse than I ever have? It will be my fault. It is, in fact, desperately unfair.
Again, I beg you not to misunderstand; I don’t take these thoughts as truth. Depression lies, as we know, and it lies well, making us feel uninspired, unimportant, incapable, unworthy. I know that I will be a good mother, if I am ever blessed with that opportunity. I know that my husband will be an outstanding father. Any child we have will be showered with an absurd amount of love not only from us, but from grandparents, aunts and uncles, family, and friends. We will care for those kids, and love ‘em, and raise ‘em to the best of our ability, and no level of depression will change that. And I’m well aware that I can no more control passing on mental illness genes than I can the genes that may (or may not) pass along blonde hair and blue eyes, or near-sightedness, or the wide Finnish feet my husband’s side of the family always jokes about.
So the reason my husband and I are choosing to wait, to not have children at this exact moment of our lives and in our marriage, is not the fear that these thoughts are true. It’s the reality of the illness that causes them, the truth about where I am in my slog through the swamp of depression. I’m learning about myself, about my illness, about ways to treat myself better and cope with my emotions and change my behavior to allow for improvement in how I feel and think and live. In this way, no, I am not yet ready to become a mother. And yes, someday, hopefully soon, I will be more ready -- at least psychologically -- to step up to the task. And I need to be more ready, because there’s also the idea of what my hormones will do when I become pregnant, the need to taper off of medications I’ve come to rely on for the duration of my pregnancy, and, of course, my super-increased risk for serious postpartum depression. It’s a lot to think about, so yes, I want to be more ready than I am right now. I want that baby to grow inside a happy, healthy mama, and come out to be mothered by a woman who is strong, and graceful, and resilient, and rational, and self-loving. There are ways I can work on becoming those things for that baby now, so that I am more ready to evolve healthfully as a mother when the time comes.
But one of the biggest lies we learn from our culture, from social media, from the entertainment industry, is that life is a race -- that we must keep up with the neighbors -- that we must meet all of life’s milestones at the same time and in the same way that everyone else does.
A dear friend once shared with me the quote, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” (Google tells me that Theodore Roosevelt actually said it.) But I’m learning to live it. My children, whoever they will be and whenever they will come, will benefit far more from a mother who learned to live and grow and breathe and cope within her mental illness, rather than one who rushed into parenthood because she felt like it was supposed to be the right time. I will content myself with the knowledge that as I wait, and work on myself, my health, my recovery, my soul, I am becoming the mother that I will someday, Lord willing, actually need to be.
I’d love to be ready now. It’s hard to watch cousins and friends and former classmates announce pregnancies and start to grow their sweet families. Some days it actually really sucks. But most days it’s just another day to cherish being married to my best friend, have the chance to sleep in on weekends, be overly affectionate to my cat and focus on becoming well. “Ready” means different things to different people. Maybe these words can add a new layer of context, an extra tinge of compassion, the next time you wonder why that happily married, baby-loving couple hasn’t made their own just yet.
for my husband, with gratitude, on the eve of our fifth wedding anniversary
From our bed, under the covers, I hear the front door to our apartment open. It’s around five in the evening, and I’m in some semblance of pajamas. I have not showered. Maybe I didn’t shower yesterday, either. I have no makeup on, or else it’s remnants of mascara from days ago, transforming my bleary eyes into dark smudges reflecting the chaos I feel inside. You are home from work and I have not worked all day. I have not touched the piles of laundry scattered across the floor, sorted during a more ambitious time. I have not thought about dinner, let alone made anything for you to eat. I have not even pulled the curtains open in our bedroom.
Upon hearing the door creak open, I instantly feel relief that you are home and I have a vague idea that it is good you are here, combined with shame that I am not dressed and have not done anything productive with my day. I roll over to face the bedroom door and you appear, greeting me with a gentle smile. You come to sit on the edge of the bed next to me, reading my body language to make sure it’s okay. You brush the hair away from my face and kiss my forehead. You might say that you’re sorry it’s a “dumb day” -- our lighthearted way of referring to the monster in my head that takes over at any given moment, seemingly, at least temporarily, stopping my life in its tracks. You ask if I have eaten or what I want to eat. You ask what we can do to make me feel better. I shake my head, hovering somewhere between distressed and wildly agitated. I want to tear my hair out and scream, but instead I sink into you, hiding my face in your chest, wishing tears would come but knowing they won’t.
You kick your shoes off and crawl into bed next to me, holding me if I let you and just being there if I won’t. After a little while I might pick up my phone or my Kindle, seeking distraction, or else I might just sort of stare into space. You browse the Internet on your phone and sit quietly with me. I’m sure you’re hungry, or could be working, or maybe catching a game with the guys, but instead you sit. If I talk, you listen. If I don’t, you don’t force it. You might ask if I want to watch something on Netflix or offer to get some dinner for us. More likely I will fall asleep with my head nestled against your shoulder, and you will refuse to move because you know that I need you there. You will do everything you can to let me sleep, because you know there I will find peace. You will be quiet and still, you will pray that tomorrow is a better day, and you will be there.
In the morning, you wake up ready to see who wakes up beside you -- will it be the woman you married, who lives with joy, and loves to cook and plan meals and entertain friends and spend time with family? Or will it be this woman who fell asleep on you last night, who was broken and devastated by the voices in her mind who convince her that she is not okay? Whichever one awakes, you will love and protect her, making sure she feels safe, with no demonstrable bewilderment, confusion or frustration at how you came to be married to both of these people.
Our wedding vows were traditional ones, and I doubt either of us thought that “for better or for worse; in sickness and in health” meant days like this. I know it wasn’t in my rosy, optimistic, newly-wedded vision for our marriage. And while I’m sure neither of us would choose for me to experience this kind of sickness, you are able to tenderly remind me, when I need it, that the what-ifs won’t change the reality that is my illness or our marriage.
“I love you,” you insist when I question how you live with the uncertainty, the volatility of who my depression makes me. You almost laugh when you say it, because to you it is so obvious, how you live with it. It’s because you love me. Everything you are for me, to me -- your patience, your flexibility, your calm, safe presence next to me -- all falls in line because that is the fact that precedes all the rest.