Staying Child-Free Because of Mental-Health Concerns

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

I asked in a previous note, “Has your mental or physical health been a factor in deciding whether to have kids?” A reader responds with a resounding “YES”:

I was raised by an extremely anxious mother who never had the self-awareness to realize her anxiety levels weren’t normal, so she never had the will to seek therapy or other self-care—beyond expecting everyone around her to help soothe her irrational fears. As an only child, it was very difficult to deal with her helicopter parenting and need for constant contact because “otherwise I worry.”

As an adult, I realize that I inherited her same level of anxiety—but I have spent a lifetime developing strategies and practices (with the help of therapy) to manage it in a healthy way and reduce the burden on my partner and others around me. Nevertheless, I am fairly certain, just based on how much I worry about our dogs, that having children would exacerbate my anxiety in ways I would probably not be able to control, and in a way that is likely to burden my children—just the way my mom burdened me.

Another reader, Liz, also feared that her mental health issues would burden a child:

I’m 48, and I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder when I was 21, when I went through my first psychiatric hospitalization. The following years brought more hospitalizations and medications and electroconvulsive therapy (shock treatments). This all happened during a time when I knew I was supposed to be thinking about family and children.

I had always wanted children. I am a very nurturing person and always imagined that I would have children scurrying around my home while I worked as an academic. But I wasn’t able to finish my advanced degree, and it took a very long time—at least a decade—to reach a place where regular relationships could happen. Then I partnered with two men (for four years and then 10 years) who did not want a child.

I got pregnant in my 30s but had an abortion. I did not have a willing partner, but I also worried that I would be bringing a child into the world only to torture that person with my own illness, which I was certain would get worse postpartum. I did not know how to go about being pregnant without my medications, which I was very dependent upon. And bipolar disorder runs in my family, so it was likely this child would one day say what I have said about my own mother: “Why did you do this to me?”

But now, as I move into menopause, I am filled with sadness that my illness prevented me from living a “normal life” and that I will move into the future without a family. I think I would have been a good mom, after all.

I have looked into adoption, but since I am a single woman with a dicey history and precarious finances, it’s not plausible. And I do know that I would need help on the child-raising journey. I do not see a future in which I am happily partnered and have enough money soon enough. I can’t be a new mom in my 50s.

When people ask why I don’t have kids, as they always do, I turn it into a joke: “I forgot,” or “shit happens.” I don’t mention the crippling suicidality that made it hard enough for me to embrace my own life, let alone that of another. And ultimately I do know the pain and wanting to die will come again, so everything turned out for the best. When I leave this earth, I will leave no survivors behind, no victims of this intergenerational tragedy.

Our own parents are the earliest and closest role models for what parenting entails, and those childhood experiences can be central to how we approach the idea of parenthood as adults. If you hesitated to have kids because of your own difficult family experience, we’d like to hear from you. And if you can relate to either of the readers above, please send us your own story and we’ll try to include it. Update: Sophie shares her dilemma:

My husband and I are both subject to seasonal depression, and we’ve been both avoiding its treatment for the past couple years. As artists and self-employed people, it just feels like something that is part of our personality, but also that’s too expensive to treat. We always joke that our children will be fucked by default by our genes, but we’ve also been postponing having some for that same reason. How could we take care of a child who suffers from depression, when we both agree that the world is a sad place and that there’s not much we can do about it? I wouldn’t want to cry in front of him, or not be able to find the words to comfort his own tears.

Nora, who’s never wanted kids, says mental health is part of her list of cons:

I have suffered from depression (and to a lesser extent anxiety) for most of my life. Rarely have I been suicidal, but most of the time I have an underlying feeling that, given the choice, I’d rather not be here. I would hate to inflict life upon someone else.

Two more readers bring up mental health as part of the family dynamics that played a role in their decision not to have children. The first one, Alex, a 31-year-old man, “knows better than to reproduce”:

Much like some of the people that were included in the original post, I had a mother (born in Japan, moved here at 25 to become a housewife) who raised three children but likely (undiagnosed) was OCD, borderline bipolar, with very high anxiety. And I feel like she passed some of that on to me. Even at a young age, I knew that staying up all night and vacuuming the house at 5 a.m. was not exactly a “normal” thing to do.

My parents fought quite a bit—either over financial issues or uncertainty that my dad was or wasn’t having an affair.

My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer when I was 15 and died right after I finished my freshman year of college. My dad’s grieving period lasted all of ~3 months, as by Thanksgiving he was with my now-stepmom. I figured maybe it was more a relief to him that my mom died.

So, all of that—topped off with my sister recently revealing to me that I was, in fact, an unplanned third child to “save” a marriage and my brother an accident middle child—sealed the deal that our family name wasn’t THAT great a name to carry on. For the record, my brother is married with two young children and is his church’s band leader. I’m waiting to see the vicious cycle return.

Marge, who is 52, had a mother who suffered from schizophrenia:

I grew up seeing and experiencing her breakdowns and following hospitalizations numerous times. My father spent a great deal of time working, and moved our nuclear family away from the extended family for career and personal reasons (he preferred living in California). We were isolated with my mother’s illness. Instead of it pulling us closer, it created an every-person-for-his/herself mentality.

My second oldest brother had three children, and my sister had three children. I never developed a desire to have kids—partly because of the fear that my children could inherit mental illness or frailty from me, partly because I felt like I didn’t have the mental and emotional capacity to raise children because of what I went through. I suffered from serious depression and food addiction, both of which I got treatment for (medication and therapy). I’m not close to my nieces or nephews or my siblings (my second oldest brother died several months ago) because of all the negative family dynamics we had.

I have had moments when I wish I had my own family, and think I might have been a loving mother. But I do think I made the right decision.   

I think my nieces and nephews have had much baggage added to their lives because of the effects my mother’s illness had on my brother and sister. I have had times when I’ve thought my parents should not have opted to bring children into the world knowing how serious my mother’s mental condition was. I know the culture at the time when they made those decisions was much different than it is now.

That’s one of the reasons we started this series, in fact—now more than ever, thanks to improved technologies for birth control, fertility measures, and other options like adoption and surrogacy, parenthood has become a conscious choice that people make. And those changes are recent enough that it sometimes, still, can feel taboo to talk about that choice. If you want to talk about it, we’d like to hear from you: hello@theatlantic.com.

Update: Continuing our discussion of mental health and family history, Farah writes that she’s never seen motherhood as a viable option:

Of course I am worried that my family’s history of mental health issues (OCD, BPD, anxiety, to name a few) would be present in any child. As it is, I have had an eating disorder for 20 years, and wouldn’t wish that on any child. I don’t think I could handle being pregnant. It would not be physically or mentally healthy to do so.

I was not very happy as a child, and thinking back on childhood rarely brings me joy. I always felt like I had to hand-hold my parents. They’re very needy; my friends tell me that one of them is emotionally abusive to me. It’s a pattern I do not wish to repeat. When you feel like you are a parent as a child, you don’t want to be a parent again.

Another reader has a painful story in that vein:

My dad oopsed my mom up in hopes that a baby would save the marriage. It didn’t. She hated me my entire childhood. My mother has told me I’m not allowed to have depression, my needs and emotions are valued the least in the family, that I caused her cancer, and that she wished she had aborted me. On top of this I was forced to raise my little brother ( another oops she couldn’t be bothered to raise) for seven years and abused for any mistake I made.

This final part is the most important, as I now experience anxiety attacks and intrusive thoughts of violence whenever I hear babies cry or young children being loud. I’d be a ticking time bomb of a parent. Much better to be a cat lady.