Will I Pass My Mental Illness to My Children?

October 1, 2018 Kristance Harlow

Am I selfish for wanting to be a mother?

Confronting the fear of passing mental illness to my children.


I love children. Their laughter, their sweet sorrow. The way they look at the world for the first time. Rapt attention upon new discoveries. Imaginations so large they could create entire universes. Hearts so big the world fits inside. I want to protect them and to be there to guide them when they need. The cognitive strength they exert is incredible, with each new idea their worldview shifts and settles anew. The pain they feel when embarrassed or afraid, it’s real and it’s tragic when not alleviated with the learning of new skills and the comfort of a safe home.

Anyone who could ever hurt a child must be a very broken person, indeed. Anyone who could look at a child, anywhere, and think that child does not deserve goodness and safety and health, is a person I cannot and do not trust. I am a wonder with kids. I always have been. I know how to talk to them, how to relate to them, and they seem to instinctually know I am one of the adults they can trust. Even when I was a kid myself, I found myself looking after the ones littler than me. Innocence must be protected.

I want children of my own, but for the past few years I have been afraid that I would pass this on to my offspring. I feared how will my body handle the hormonal instability of pregnancy? Can my mental health handle it? What if I get postpartum depression? I want kids, but I don’t want to pass on my illnesses. I don’t want them to be sad. I don’t want them to be sick and not know why. I know I will love my children, if I have any, but maybe I am selfish for wanting kids. I can’t stomach the idea that I should risk it because the risk is a child in pain.

No matter how good I start to feel, the homesick melancholy always comes back. Without rhyme or reason, it returns to me. The self-loathing and the feeling of not wanting to be in my body. It always comes back. Guilt for feeling happy, that comes back. I begin to again feel embarrassed and ashamed of myself and my words and my actions. My motivation is drained from my body and all the tools I’ve learned in therapy and AA are inaccessible. The only thing I can do is stare, and if I’m lucky or not too far gone, I can write about it. Why does it have to be so hard?

The sorrow throughout my life has followed me around the world and through the years. It lives in my gut; how could I give that to anyone else?

Spoiler alert: I can’t give this to someone else.

The homesick feeling in my stomach is not the flu, it is not an infectious illness I can pass along to someone else. The homesick feeling is just a little girl who is lonesome. She is part of me, but she isn’t me because she hasn’t grown up. She’s frightened, and sad. I’m learning to see this separate but connected self as being as equally important as I am.

Child Kristance being held by mom
This is the little girl, she’s been frozen in that state.

She’s a child and hasn’t experienced the safety and love that I now know of. She’s just a little girl and she’s long been neglected. She is only three or four years old.

I would never become frustrated with a small child who felt lonesome, but I’ve been unwittingly doing that exact thing for years. Upon this realization, I felt compassion. I felt compassion for her and for myself. I no longer feel afraid of becoming a parent. But first, I must nurture and care for that little girl.

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