2012: A Massachusetts woman with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia was forced to have an abortion before being sterilized. 2013: A woman in the United Kingdom has her baby forcibly removed by caesarean section and taken into child services because of her mental health issues.
As a woman who is married and still deciding whether or not I want to have children, the stigma toward pregnancy, motherhood and mental health is concerning. But until two years ago, these were just stories.
It was December, my birthday actually, and I had a consultation with a new psychiatrist. I’ve said it before: I’ve never met a psychiatrist I’ve liked. So while I didn’t go in with high hopes, I never thought this visit would be among the worst in my life.
As I sat in the waiting room, I knew who was waiting for me. It was undoubtedly going to be a man. (They’re always men.) He was going to have glasses. (They always have glasses). He was going to be slightly disheveled. (They’re always disheveled.) He was going to ask me questions about my history. I was going feel guilty and embarrassed. I’d then start to cry. He’d ask me why, and I’d incoherently try to explain myself through tears. It’d be awful, but then it’d be over.
When my name was finally called, I followed him into the office that now felt claustrophobic with the two of us inside. I quickly launched into the gory details of my illness.
Getting a psychiatric assessment is not like having a doctor glance at your mole. You’re sharing your most personal, and more often shameful, experiences of your life.
Imagine your most embarrassing moment. Maybe it was that time you farted during your sixth grade presentation, or when you walked around with your skirt tucked into your tights all day. Whatever it is, remember the fear of judgement, the embarrassment and the shame. Now, imagine retelling every mortifying moment to a stranger on the bus.
And this isn’t a passive audience. Your listener is asking questions: What did the fart smell like? What did you have for lunch that day? Have you ever farted in public before then? Does your family have a history of public farting?
These questions make you relive not only the embarrassing moment itself, but all of the moments leading up to it. Now you regret eating beans at lunch because you should’ve known better. Your family has always whispered about your Uncle Frank’s 1965 broccoli incident.
And as you’re answering, he takes notes. Endless notes. You try to peer over his clipboard to see what he’s scratching, but he holds it close to his chest. With those notes, he’ll make files – files you’re never privy to, even when you ask. (Trust me, I’ve asked.)
It’s like ripping off a Band-Aid – do it quickly and the pain lasts only a second.
When I’m done, we sit silently for a moment as I dig through my purse looking for a tissue. Just as I find an errant tissue, he inhales and asks, “Are you thinking of becoming pregnant?”
I pause, momentarily stunned by the question. I’d seen a lot of psychiatrists, but none of them had asked me this before. After a moment, I reply. “Not any time soon.”
“You know it’s dangerous to become pregnant while on these medications,” he replies, ignoring my response as he makes more notes on his clipboard.
“Yes, I know the risks involved.” My back is up, I’m feeling defensive. “But I’m not thinking of getting pregnant soon.”
“Good, because it’s dangerous and not just for you. We don’t know the risks of medication on the fetus. It could cause birth defects and other issues. It’s not 100 percent, but there’s still a risk. You need to know all of this before you become pregnant.”
“Yes, I’ve spoken to my doctor about it before. But since I’m not planning on getting pregnant any time soon, we figured we could revisit the issue when I’m making that decision. I don’t even know if I want kids anyway.”
He looks up at me, cocks his head to the side and adjusts his glasses before looking back down at his clipboard. “You know your disorder is genetic.”
I nod, feeling my cheeks flush. He interprets my silence as misunderstanding.
“That means that it’s passed down,” he speaks slowly, emphasizing every syllable, “through the family…”
“I know what genetic means,” I spit through my teeth.
I stare at him aghast, floored by the words coming out of his mouth. Apparently he thinks I’m some kind of monster who shouldn’t procreate! Would it be so terrible if I had a kid and they had bipolar disorder? While of course I wouldn’t wish my disease on anyone, my life isn’t horrible. And I imagine if my child did have a mental illness, I’d have the tools to help him or her cope.
I suddenly tried to imagine my life without children. Where once it seemed like a choice, it now seemed like something being forcibly taken away from me.
In that moment, and for the first time in my life, I desperately wanted children. I wanted a hoard of them. I wanted to raise them to be healthy and happy and then I wanted to thrust their beautiful cherub faces at him as proof. See they’re fine! I can be a mother!
I was so angry, hurt and completely shocked by his implications that I don’t even remember how the appointment ended. All I can remember is leaving the hospital with tears streaming down my face, thinking, It’s my birthday. He ruined my birthday.
It’s been two years since that appointment and I’ve shared this story repeatedly to illustrate the pervading stigma and fear existing toward those with a mental illness. My experience is nowhere near as traumatic as someone who was given a forced hysterectomy or abortion, but I tell this story to illustrate that medical professionals can be deeply uneducated when it comes to discussing mental health and parenthood. These comments came from a man who is supposedly educated in the field. This is a man treating a vulnerable population. This is a man who is using his authority to spread fear and misinformation.
Although my husband and I still haven’t decided if and/or when we’ll have children, the hurt and anger of this encounter lingers. Some days, when I see my friends with their babies, I think, “I could do that. I could be a mom one day.”
And then I hear his voice: But they could turn out like you…
A version of this post originally appeared on Mad Girl’s Lament.