I'm not having children because I don't want to pass my depression onto them
Trigger warning: This article discusses depression and suicide.
I’ve always been lukewarm about having kids. For a long time I said I didn’t want them, putting my own life and freedom ahead of taking care of a child for 18+ years. And for a time between my late 20s and early 30s, I meant it. I couldn’t fathom the responsibility of having a child with the life I envisioned for myself. Then, at 35 years old, when I began facing the reality that kids probably weren’t in the cards for me, I changed my tune a bit. When you find yourself crying every time a friend has a baby, asking yourself, “What if I have kids?” it’s hard to deny that maybe you have a yearning to be a parent.
It was around then that I revealed to a few close friends that I had started telling people I didn’t want kids—because it felt better to say that than to be someone who had wanted them but just never got the chance. If I “never wanted kids to begin with,” then I could avoid the looks of pity from friends and family members when I turned 55 and was still child-free. But even as I toyed with the idea of having a child, I was still afraid that the depression I’ve suffered from would be passed on.
Then, at 37, I accidentally got pregnant. I was on the Pill but came down with a serious bout of food poisoning in Marrakech that inhibited the Pill’s ability to work. When my period was late a month later and the pregnancy test came back positive, I wasn’t totally surprised. Although I was leaning against having a baby because of my age, there was still that “what if” thought that crept into my brain: Maybe this is my last chance to have a baby.
The news of the pregnancy caused me to fall into a deep depression. It wasn’t because I didn’t know if I wanted to keep it or not, but more that I was being forced to make a choice that I didn’t want to make. I was in Barcelona, an ocean away from my closest friends and family, and my antidepressants hadn’t stayed in my body for almost a week thanks to the food poisoning. An onslaught of pregnancy hormones had also hit me. All these factors exacerbated my already fragile state. I was also stuck between a rock and a hard place: I was pregnant by a man who not only shunned me for it but accused me of lying, despite witnessing the positive on the pregnancy test.
As I lay in bed alone one night, crying and debating the pros and cons of having a child, an old worry cropped up: Did I want to bring a child into the world who could potentially experience depression?
I began to think about my own history with depression. While I was in college, I was initially prescribed antidepressants by a doctor at my university who never gave me a formal diagnosis and didn’t know what medication would be a good fit for me. It wasn’t until I attempted suicide at 25, which landed me in the psychiatric ward at Beth Israel Hospital, that the suffering I’d been experiencing since my teens was given a name: I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder. And when I went back out into the world two weeks later, I had new meds, a new therapist, and the realization that the dark part of me was just something I had to deal with.
Although my depression comes in waves and I can go days or even weeks before the bottom falls out, experiencing deep sorrow is always inevitable for me. And when it does happen, there is no seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.
It feels like walking through the densest fog, hoping to make your way out, but never really knowing when you will. Will it be three days long this time or three weeks?
I didn’t even know what the likelihood of genetically passing my mental health disorder onto my potential child would be when I found out I was pregnant—but based on what I’d been going through since my teens, I needed to know the odds. If I wouldn’t wish my depression on my worst enemy, then I sure as hell wouldn’t want it for my child.
According to various studies, depression is influenced by genetics, and someone who has a first-degree relative—a parent, for example—is more likely than the general population to end up with depression. While my parents and sister may not have it, somewhere along the line, depression must run in my family. Some researchers even believe that there’s actually a specific gene, a serotonin transporter, that makes some people more prone to depression than others.
However, not all experts are on board with the “depression gene,” as it’s been called. For example, a study published in The American Journal of Psychiatry found that while depression is genetic, the existence of a specific “depression gene” isn’t likely. But it’s important to take all of this with a grain of salt, as study results can differ based on the participants and controlled groups.
I also started to think about my own behavior. While I have my depression relatively under control, it’s hardly a situation to raise a child in when the waves of it hit hard. I couldn’t possibly be a good parent during any of those episodes, and because of that, my child would likely suffer. Although this way of thinking had always been in the back of my head, my accidental pregnancy solidified it. It was like a necessary smack in the face to get my head back on straight and help me realize that motherhood wasn’t for me.
When I left Barcelona that summer, I had a stopover in Paris for a few days to see friends before heading back to the States. My second day in Paris, I woke up to more blood than I’d ever seen—far more than a period but also far less than what you might see in a movie. At that point, I would have been about six weeks along, based on the digital tests that I’d taken. Since I was six hours ahead in France, I waited anxiously for my OB-GYN in New York to open. And based on our conversation, it appeared that my pregnancy had ended in a miscarriage.
As I spent the day in bed with my legs up and drinking lots of water, I had come to the realization that it was for the best. I knew that when I got home there was a 90% chance that I would have terminated the pregnancy. While I fell into a deeper depression than usual after the miscarriage, my OB-GYN explained to me that that bout of depression wasn’t just serotonin-related but hormonal, too. The way I felt in the weeks and months that followed further confirmed that having a child is a bad idea for me. Although I didn’t mourn the fetus, as I believe that life doesn’t begin at conception, I did mourn the “what if.”
I used to think I was selfish for not wanting to have kids so I could live my life as I please, and I was okay with that. But now I realize that, for me, it’s equally selfish to have a baby and bring it into this world knowing that there’s a decent chance that they will suffer the way I suffer. I can’t bear the idea of watching my child go through similar depressive episodes, especially when I have the capability to prevent it by not passing on my genes.
I admitted to myself a long time ago that it would be the wrong decision for me to have a baby. While my depression may not define me, it’s still a huge part of who I am, and that’s a fact. But I don’t want that to be a fact for a child I might’ve had. I’d never forgive myself.
If you or anyone you know is dealing with thoughts of suicide, you can reach The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255. You are not alone.