I spent two years in a relationship in which I was part of a family. One that wasn't related to me by blood. We did not have our own child, but I was lucky enough that the person I was with had an amazing two year old when we met, and that he trusted me to become almost like a step-parent to the child. (Clarification: the child had two very involved and loving parents already. I was just lucky to be allowed to be involved as well). My "maternal instinct", for lack of a better word, kicked in. I never thought I'd be the type of parent-figure that would get down on the floor and play silly games, make up words, have bubble fights at bath time, live for bedtime stories. But I was. Some of my best moments of the last two years involved silly family car games on road trips (or watch and sing along to Frozen in stereo on repeat for an entire 14 hour drive to Georgia...), racing around the living room playing chase with the dogs, roasting s'mores in the backyard, playing the "guess what I'm afraid of" game. And guess what? I didn't just love it. I was good at it. Me. "Crazy" me. With medications and therapy and genetic conditions that rear their ugly head. That same me. Yes, as part of a team. But I still did it. I was capable. And so, I changed my mind.
Recently, I've been given to thinking about mental health, pregnancy, and parenting (I'm not pregnant people, nobody freak out). I've been thinking about the previous times I wrote that I wouldn't want to put a child through the potential pain of having a mental health condition. Believe me, I still don't. But in giving it serious thought, there's a difference between when I was two years old and today. First, I know I have a condition and that it's genetic. I know the warning signs, and I know to start looking for them early on. I've had my condition since birth. And mental health care is much more prevalent and much less dramatic today. While it's certainly not as openly discussed as something like asthma or diabetes or cancer, it's not something avoided like the plague either. When I was two and dealing with what I know now was hypomania, the doctor said I was allergic to red food dye because I'd had some captain crunch cereal recently. He didn't even think to consider childhood mental health conditions. It wasn't something doctors discussed or brought up at all, let alone suggested treatment for. And with no known history, my family have no way of knowing what it might be. A food allergy would certainly sound more reasonable that a rapid cycling mood disorder in a two year old. But I know my history. I know now it's genetic. I know I will likely pass it on. And I know that no child's life would be worth giving up because of that. This may sound selfish, but consider this: that's like saying someone with a mental health condition would be better off not being born. Like I would be better off not being born. And I refuse to say that. And I refuse to let anyone else say that. And when I had the courage to finally say this out loud, I had a change of heart.
In order to avoid getting too high up on my angry activist horse (not sure that even makes sense but just go with it), I thought that instead of simply yelling about mental health discrimination and prejudice on this topic, as I'm inclined to do, I'd focus instead on the reasons that those with mental health conditions can make exceptional parents.
- We tend to be empathetic, caring, and emotional. I think it's self-explanatory why this is an asset in having a child and raising a family.
- We often have the "patience of Jove", so to speak. While I don't have patience sitting in traffic, or with ignorance, for that matter, I have a tremendous amount of it when I'm trying to help someone, when they're trying to learn or grow or improve. All of which is ideal for a child learning to sleep through the night, crawl, walk, potty train, etc.
- We know what it's like to feel like something's absolutely wrong, but not know what, or how to express it. Quite simply put, sometimes my depression literally causes me to cry like a baby. And sometimes my hypomania causes me to sleep like a baby with colic, which is to say, not. I've watched parents screaming at their crying baby yelling "what's wrong with you!" And I want to look at them and say "She's three months old. Do you really expect her to answer that?" Now, I get parental exhaustion (in theory, I've never been there) and I'm sure there are points in which I will feel that way too if I am lucky enough to have a child. But still, I feel I'm well equipped to understand, even if frustrated.
- I've been different, weird, an outsider. I've been stigmatized against. I've fought the uphill battle standing up for myself and others with similar conditions. I know better than many what happens when someone deals with ignorance and prejudice. Quite honestly, I think I'd be better equipped to deal with a child that's "different", in any way, than most "normal" parents would.
- I've learned to focus my energy into creativity. I cannot stress enough the value of creativity in the days in which art. music, and cursive writing are being cut from schools, in which playing board games or in the back yard is considered punishment because they don't have an on/off switch and graphics.