My friend calls it “skinny dippin’ in the gene pool.” This is what we all do when we decide to have children with whomever we have chosen to be our child’s other parent. Some people get genetic testing when they know there is a possibility that they can be carriers of genetic disorders such as Tay–Sachs disease, Cystic fibrosis, or Sickle-Cell Anemia. Still, many people decide to go ahead and have children, knowing about these risks ahead of time.
Everyone has heard stories about a “crazy” relative swinging from a limb of their family tree, but rarely does that stop them from having children. Typically there is no name for what this person was dealing with, only hints of what it might have been. Maybe if that relative were alive today, they would have had a diagnosis and treatment and would not have been known as the “crazy” one. Even if you knew what this person had, there isn’t blood test for mental illnesses such as Schizophrenia or Bipolar Disorder, or even Autism, Anxiety or ADHD! And let’s say you knew you had a schizophrenic 2nd cousin, or even a closer relative — would that stop you from having children of your own?
My aunt tells a story of when she sought out a therapist when she was in college. As she listed her family history, she noticed the therapist had put his pen down halfway through. He sat up straight, leaned across the table, and when she was finished, he said, “You never had a chance!” What follows is the history she reported.
Her mother (my grandmother) was born to a woman with a mental illness. Nobody knows what it actually was, but she was in and out of psychiatric wards. Amazingly, she stayed with the same man, her husband, and they had four daughters. Over the years, as she was hospitalized, the girls were placed in various foster care homes. One of the girls was even born while she was hospitalized. One of the girls was later diagnosed as schizophrenic and eventually when each girl married and had children, one of those children was diagnosed with schizophrenia and one child was mentally disabled.
It seems our family history has been rewritten over the years, perhaps to protect us from the truth of what lies in our genes. My grandfather died when I was five, bu
t it was not until I was in college that I discovered that he had committed suicide. What mental illness was he struggling with? Depression? Anxiety? My grandparents had three children: my aunt, my mother and my uncle. My uncle is an alcoholic. One of his sons is a drug addict, as well as my own brother. My grandmother suffered from depression and was hospitalized several times.
Knowing my history, did it stop me from having children? Of course not. When I got married, my husband and I did have the genetic test to see if we were carriers of Tay–Sachs disease. We were not, so we carried on. I could not even tell you what we would have done if we found out either one of us was a carrier. He did not know anything about his father, so that side of his history has always been a blank slate. Six years into our marriage, already having one child, my husband was diagnosed as having Bipolar Disorder. If we knew that his father had Bipolar Disorder, would we have decided to not have children? Of course not. He took medication, attended therapy, and we had another child a few years later.
At age eleven, my oldest child was diagnosed as having Bipolar Disorder. My youngest had always been “different,” and eventually was diagnosed with ADHD, anxiety and depression, and has recently been diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder. Last year he was diagnosed with Type I diabetes. It is possible others in my family had that as well, but I don’t know who or how many, if so. Would that have stopped me from having children? Of course not!
But now, as I sit here writing this, I am very worried about future generations. Will my children have children with mental health issues? Will they be able to care for them? Will I be a grandmother raising my grandchildren? That seems to be the norm these days. Do I want to tell my children not to have children? In case you are wondering, my aunt did exactly that. She decided the pool was closed and she would not be skinny dippin’ in it!