I was about six or seven when I started to recognize my sense of self. I became acutely aware of the traits that helped to shape my character. I took pride in my honesty, my inquisitive nature, and my creativity — but I was most proud of my ability to nurture. At the time, of course, I didn't realize what I was doing was considered "nurturing" behavior. All I understood was I had this profound and innate need to take care of others. I was always the kid in the school yard consoling a girl with a skinned knee or sharing my lunch with someone who I thought didn't have enough to eat. I treated my peers the way my mother treated my sister and me — with care, encouragement, and unconditional love.
In high school, my 'urge to nurture' grew even stronger. I always had jobs that involved working with children. While some other friends my age didn't feel comfortable watching babies at our age, I couldn't get enough of it. I remember being almost envious of the mothers I worked for because I couldn't wait to grow up and be a mother one day. Motherhood was my dream. I felt like it was what I was meant to be. Never in a million years did I think I'd be 30 years old and doubting not only my ability to be a mom, but also doubting whether or not I even wanted to have children. But here I am, questioning what I thought was an absolute certainty, all because of my depression and anxiety.
Since the death of my father when I was 12, I've struggled with severe anxiety and depression. Even going through some of the worst times in my early 20s, I never really thought about my mental health issues affecting my decision to have children. For me, they felt like two completely separate realities at opposite sides of my brain — anxiety and depression in one corner and me being a mom someday in another. Two distinct, unattached parts of who I am. It wasn't until a few years ago that everything shifted for me. My depression and anxiety had erupted into something catastrophic. My moods were unpredictable and I felt like I was losing all of my control. It was traumatic and terrifying. After seeking help, I was diagnosed with premenstrual dysphoric disorder, a disorder which causes debilitating mood swings (among other things) a couple of weeks prior to menstruation. While the diagnosis was a relief and medication helps to alleviate some of the symptoms, it also triggered a fresh sense of crippling fear about having a child. It was like a dam had failed in my brain and all of these questions I had never even thought about came rushing and pouring through, drowning me along the way.
If I do decide to be a mom one day, I'm sure as hell going to try with all of my heart — and that's enough for me.
I began replaying the mood swings and periods of depression. Will this worsen post-partum? What if I can't get out of bed to take care of my baby? How can I be strong and present for a child if I can't predict when I'll get a panic attack? I reminded myself about my constant fear of something terrible and tragic happening to my wife or one of my family members. How the hell could I raise a child without smothering them like a helicopter mom on steroids? I thought about how both my mother and my late father struggled with mental health issues. Not only was it challenging for me as a child to be raised by anxious and depressive parents, but I also found myself blaming them for my own depression. Would my child inevitably suffer from some form of mental illness? Would they resent me? All of these looming questions — these unknown factors — felt like a boulder had rolled right on in my life and crushed every last ounce of hope I had of motherhood. Even still, I realized that while fear can be a relentless emotion, it cannot defeat the heart of who you are. And I am and always will be a born nurturer, and that caring for others makes me feel whole.
Being a parent, so I've been told by many, is one of the most challenging things a person can do. I imagine for someone like myself with mental illness, all of the apprehension and self-doubt is probably magnified. The truth of the matter is, if or when I do decide to have children, it's understandable and natural for me to have these questions. Even more so, I think dragging these fears out of the attic and into the light will help me be a better parent someday. Recognizing my risk factors, understanding how to cope with anxiety and depression, and building a support network are all things I can do to prepare myself for kids.
I have options, and I won't be alone. I will be one of the many strong, brave women out there living with mental illness who are successfully raising smart, loving kids. I can't dictate what is out of my control and I certainly can't change the fact I struggle with mental health issues. I can't guarantee I'll be a good mother or even a decent mother. I don't have a crystal ball to tell me whether or not having a child would be the biggest mistake or biggest miracle in my life. I don't know if I'll have enough of what it takes. I don't know if I'll have enough patience or enough love or enough energy to give wholly to another human being. What I do know with certainty is this: if I do decide to be a mom one day, I'm sure as hell going to try with all of my heart — and that's enough for me.