When an actress like Sarah Silverman comes out saying she isn’t going to have biological kids because she doesn’t want to pass on her depression, it’s easy to dissect the sentiment clinically. She’s little more than just a famous comedian to most of us, so we can debate it almost hypothetically.
But for lots of us out there, it’s a very real decision we come to make at some stage of our lives. I did. I rolled the dice twice, and some would say I lost one time out of two. My eldest has depression, while my youngest is ‘normal’. He gets mad, sad and bad to know like any other kid, but he’s generally a happy-go-lucky boy.
So I read with interest the resulting internet debates on whether or not a depressed person should reproduce. It’s a question I’ve asked myself – I was certain I wouldn’t have kids for this reason, right up until the day the biological clock kicked in and demanded I make babies immediately. As one poster in the forum commented, she thought her friends were being a bit over the top by deciding not to have kids and risking passing on depression. Back then, I decided I was too.
When my eldest was about five and sobbing his heart out about nothing one night, I tentatively shared with him the words that best describe it for me. He looked at me with an expression of relief that said I had nailed it exactly - “I have the pain in my heart today.” It felt like having an ice cold bucket of water thrown over me. It was terrifying, and heartbreaking.
I have a long history of anxiety and depression. In high school, I often cried, even on the bus home sometimes. Not because I was bullied, not because I had a hard life. I’ve learned over time I’m just wired that way - sometimes I get into a sad place for no real reason and I don’t know how to get back out of it. I’ve been a student of depression for long enough now to know mine is clinical, inbuilt like my eye colour. I have a close relationship with my GP, I take medication and I see a therapist if anything starts to feel a bit out of whack. My extended family is very supportive and a big part of my wellness.
I’ve been a student of depression for long enough now to know mine is clinical, inbuilt like my eye colour
But this about my son. He's amazing. He's bright, he is funny, he is remarkably popular (I assumed he’d be shy, but he's not at all - he’s quite outgoing). He's not afraid to stick up for the underdog. A friend of his recently got kicked out of a group at school because he kept beating the leader at a game, so my son said he was resigning from the group and left with him. He's very kind and very thoughtful.
But before you question if I’ve merely projected my fears onto my child and he doesn’t have depression, I’ll set you straight. My son can have a great day, then sit in his room and cry for an hour "just because he feels sad". My son struggles to fall asleep until late, and needs a night light and a book (trust me, they aren’t the things that are keeping him up; we’ve tried it the other way). He's also been diagnosed by two professionals.
But before any depressed potential parents hang up their reproductive parts, I'd like to make this very clear: I don't regret having my son. Our day-to-day life is like anyone else’s. I'm not so arrogant as to assume our lives are any harder - it's life, people, and shit happens. On the plus side, I knew enough to get him help early, and I’d never dismiss his feelings and tell him to just cheer up. Child psychologists are amazing - what ours did for my son in just a single one-hour session was noticeable, and he loves seeing her. He doesn’t see it as an ‘intervention’; he just sees her as a grown-up he can trust that makes him understand his feelings, and how to turn them around.
I also want paint an accurate picture. My son doesn't get around with a permanently long face - most of the time, he’s like any other kid. It’s just that when he gets sad or anxious he has trouble snapping out of it, and there's often no real reason for it.
I'm actually excited and optimistic that early intervention is going to make the difference for him. It may not stop the feelings from hitting him at times throughout his life (though I hope it does), but I do believe it will make the road so much less bumpy than mine.
I adore being a mother, and, like every other mum out there, I do the very best I can with the cards in my hand. I’d never call it perfect, but then, I doubt I can dump that all on depression's door!
If you're struggling with the decision of whether or not to have kids, why not talk it through with a psychologist and your GP? Visit www.psychology.org.au.
Has mental illness made you reconsider your family planning? Discuss on the Essential Baby forums.