Sheri McCord explores how long-term mental illness has impacted her decision-making around motherhood.
It was the early 90s, Kurt Cobain was on MTV Unplugged, and I was a teenager. I was hospitalized for overdosing on medication for the first of two times in my life. I met someone while in the hospital who was living with postpartum depression. I watched her sob as her husband yelled at her in front of us, patients. He was an Alan Thicke look-alike, and she was diminutive, brunette, and fragile—a scared bird with hollow bones. Alan was questioning her, “Why did you do this to us? Why? Can’t you even give an answer? Why?” He stood there over her, holding both of their sons, one clearly the latest baby, and the other about two-years old. While she sat hunched at a table, he seemed to lord the now-crying babies over her while continuing to badger. She could not hold her littlest one, and I thought that she might have wanted to, but she just couldn’t. He could not understand, and her continuous crying infuriated him. It was the kind of quiet sobbing we do when we don’t want to attract attention.
Ten years later, when I considered having children, I remembered this woman, and I imagined myself in this same state.
Postpartum depression is only one of the reasons why I am afraid to have children.
Depression is in my genes. Born in 1927 and brought up during the Great Depression, my dad had all the qualities of someone extremely depressed while also being paranoid and anxious and an alcoholic. He was explosively violent oftentimes to my mom and half-siblings and verbally abusive to us all. Children were to be seen and not heard, so in one of his lectures, he told a very stoic, steely eleven-year-old me that I “wouldn’t make nothing of myself” because I’d “have a baby in eighth grade and have to drop out.” This “pep talk” eventually drove me to do well in school. But he didn’t believe in “book learnin’” or psychology for that matter. Therapy was never brought up in our house, even when I began to throw books around my room in anger and sleep all day and night.
I eventually did get therapy. I’ve been prescribed every drug on the planet for depression and anxiety as well as snapping a rubber band on my wrist when I had negative thoughts. Eventually, I realized the rubber band method was actually punishing myself.
My psychiatrists finally figured out my medicine, and I acknowledge the tremendous time and patience of trial-and-error for both patient and physician that takes place to find a suitable cocktail. After a few years, I plateau, and then I usually need to find something else. That trial-and-error period is frightening since I do not know how I will respond to the new drugs, or if I will be pulled into a deep depression with no getting out of bed. This uncertainty contributes to my reluctance to have a child.
My mom first saw a difference in me at eleven during menarche. The joy was sucked out of me, she said. I used to be such a happy child. From then on, I was a worrier. Suicidal thoughts have run through my mind since I was 17. They still occur today but they’re more like those annoying pop-up ads on the web; they stick around for a few seconds until I click “off” and then I’m back to whatever I was doing.
Though I’m not suicidal, living with depression has kept me from attending class or work when I had no energy to get out of bed. I have been bed-bound for weeks at a time and unable to focus, read, or remember what I did day-to-day. A panic attack once sent me to the campus counseling center because I was so worried about the discussion in my Chaucer class. Most of the time, I am just trying to make it, much less form a complex thought about Middle Age poetry. But I still managed to get through three degree programs and earn a Ph.D.
Some might look at me and wonder if I just didn’t choose school or a career over children, but I can tell you it is much more than that. Depression can be all-consuming. Depression is selfish, taking away time, motivation, and energy. Many of my relationships, and one marriage, have failed because of depression, anxiety, or a combo.
Sometimes the pressure to have a child is too much but how am I supposed to raise a baby when I feel like that baby is constantly me? I’m always monitoring my mood, and more specifically, my anxiety and level of energy. I was and still am raising myself. I know I am living with depression and anxiety and who knows what else, and I just can’t see bringing another human being into my world.
Sheri McCord writes creative nonfiction, studies seventeenth-century literature, and continues to research literature, medicine, and early modern perceptions of the body. She began her teaching career in 2001 and graduated with a Ph.D. in English in 2010. She has taught across the St. Louis, Missouri, area and currently is a writing consultant at Saint Louis University writing center.
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