It is often said that we are in a mental illness epidemic. Such language is sensationalist, but there is no denying that the world in which we live doesn’t always seem designed to facilitate psychological wellbeing. One in four of us will experience mental illness in our lifetimes, and the conversation around it is increasingly open. For my generation, there is far less shame attached to “admitting” that you have experienced anxiety and depression (though it is worth noting that there are other mental health conditions that are far more stigmatised), or have seen a therapist, or are taking medication. This can only be a good thing, and when I suffered my own bouts of mental illness – two episodes of post-traumatic stress disorder in my twenties – I was moved but not surprised by how many friends and relatives opened up about their own struggles.
There was one part of life, however, where I did feel that historical stigma, and that was when I was weighing up whether or not to become a parent. Parenthood, after all, would mean being totally responsible for the life and wellbeing of a child, and I was haunted by the idea that I might negatively impact that child’s life were I to become unwell again.
I had friends who were struggling with the same question. Some of them had made the decision to go ahead and become parents – usually with some support in place should they need it – and others had decided not to. Whichever way they chose, they had all been responsible in their thinking. Far more so, too, than some others with no mental health history, who went in spontaneously with no thought to the consequences. Only afterwards did they discover how hard it can be to look after a baby, including the pressure that sleeplessness can put on your mental health.
Yet I had seen little discussion of this question in the public domain. It was too painful, too visceral, and most of all – if my own experience was anything to go by – too frightening for that. What was I afraid of? After all, I had fought off the man who tried to kill me, which is what caused my PTSD in the first place. And I frequently wrote very openly and personally about all kinds of issues, risking the censure and judgement of readers. I was, in some ways at least, quite brave. Yet I feared making the wrong decision in this case, that I would decide to become a mother and find myself unable to cope, or suffering another episode triggered by a traumatic birth. I worried that I would be an anxious mother who was too fearful to let her child play and explore as he or she needed.
And I feared the reactions of others, that they would call me irresponsible and an unfit mother. I thought about the novel About a Boy by Nick Hornby, which tells the story of 12 year-old Marcus who is lonely and unhappy because his mum – who eventually tries to end her life – is depressed. I thought about all the cases in the news about mothers who fall apart with tragic consequences. I thought about Sylvia Plath. It felt so sad to me that any child should have to carry the burden of their parent’s mental illness when they should be able to be happy and carefree.
That I should have felt this way despite being mostly well again shows the extent of the stigma that still exists. For those with ongoing mental health problems, it must be even more of a concern. Yet if you look it up on the internet, you are confronted with information about how poor parental mental health can cause negative developmental outcomes. This can happen, but it is by no means always the case. It’s even worse on forums such as Mumsnet, where parents who are struggling are often treated with disdain. It doesn’t help that mental illness has become something of a sensationalist plot device. There are few depictions in TV and film of normal family life in which parents are living with and successfully managing a mental health condition; this needs to change.
Women especially are told that motherhood requires total sacrifice, and I don’t think this idea helps. You are supposed to be a pillar of strength and resilience – the latter is a word I have come to dislike because of its frequent use by government and policy wonks. But in life we all experience difficulties, whether we have a mental health history or not. A sudden bereavement might throw a previously well dad into a deep depression; a mum who struggled with low mood in the past might find happiness in caring for her children. I hadn’t considered that. The stigma that I was carrying was so strong that it was as though I felt that I had somehow been branded as an unfit and unworthy mother.
Which is why I’m speaking openly about it now, and why I have written a memoir – The Year of the Cat – about how I wrestled with that question. Ten months ago, I had my baby boy, and I am so glad I made the decision to become his mum. It was frightening at times, and there have been hard moments, but I have also experienced a joy I never thought I would ever feel. More importantly, he is happy and secure.
Not every story has this outcome, but it’s not one we hear very often. So I wanted to offer these words of reassurance, to those who are struggling with the same decision as I was: you are not your mental illness. And with support, you may well be able to give a child the life they deserve.
‘The Year of the Cat’ is available now