It Would Be Better If I’d Never Been Born: Depression and Parenthood

Perennially controversial comic Sarah Silverman touched a nerve this week in a TV interview that set off a new round of commentary on modern parenting. The Week magazine rounded up the perspectives under the online headline “Is it irresponsible for the depressed to have children?”

Silverman, who has flouted the American habit of keeping quiet about personal struggles with depression, announced that the trouble has led her to decide that she doesn’t want biological children.

While she says she’d love to adopt, she says she won’t have biological children because she fears passing the trouble on to them. “I know that I have this depression and that it’s in my family. Every family has their stuff but, for me, I just don’t feel strong enough to see that in a child.”

Commentators, including contributors to the websites Mommyish and Jezebel, conceded that the choice to have children (or not) is a very personal one that, in general, should not be impugned by outside parties. Writer Anna Breslaw sympathizes with Silverman because of her own experience with depression. Since the latest science does indeed point to the fact that depression has a genetic component – people with immediate family members who suffer from depression (especially repeated bouts) apparently have an off-the-charts risk of developing it themselves – it’s not unreasonable that people who have experienced depression should think twice about conceiving somebody new.

Kudos to Sarah Silverman for talking openly about depression, and promoting adoption. But immediately after reading the commentary on her interview, I strongly felt that I had to speak up as a person who has suffered from depression on and off for about twenty years and still wants to start a family.

Fears of burdening our children with depression are a valid topic, but I’m afraid that this debate about whether or not depressed people should have children oversimplifies a lot of the issues.

I can’t speak for other people, but I can comment on my own long history with this terrible problem. Nowadays kids are stuffed with all kinds of drugs at the first sign of melancholy or distraction, but when I was a kid in the eighties and nineties, depression was not necessarily a diagnosis that parents and pediatricians were on the lookout for in very young people. But having carried cycles of the same devastating feelings from grade-school to my senior year of high school (when I saw my first psychologist), I know without a doubt that I was depressed as a young child.

The first major bout of depression that I distinctly remember (defined in retrospect, of course) was at about ten or twelve years old. Since then, I’ve cycled in and out of pretty severe depressive phases every two or three years, alternating with a fairly relentless case of generalized anxiety disorder. So I suppose that by the dictates of modern science, that makes me a pretty high-risk future parent.

By now, the symptoms of my recurrent depression are as familiar as a head-cold. My habitual anxiety loses its grip to a listlessness that infuses everything from my relationships to my work. Everything seems strangely drab and the things I usually enjoy, like writing, seem pointless. Whether it was school-day classes back then or days on the job as a journalist now, I feel a distinctive mental fuzziness and drift, as if I’m a hologram of myself and not really part of whatever’s happening around me. I find it difficult to maintain my customary focus during interviews, and articles that I can usually wrap up in an hour become a day-long effort. Putting my fingers to the keyboard feels like trying to touch the wrong ends of magnets together.

The thoughts that accompany these changes are as stupid and pervasive as reality TV.

I’m a failure.

The world would be a better place without me.

I’m always going to feel this way.

My joints ache as if I’ve got arthritis, I skip meals because I can’t muster the energy to cook or eat, and I don’t call or message anybody unless I have to. It all lasts several weeks at least.

I’ve been on lots of medications over the years, but I never saw noticeable improvement from any of them. Their most notable effects on me seem to be the flat-lining of my remaining mental and physical faculties and a burgeoning obsession with suicide.

Other people may find the antidepressants helpful and that’s fine. But now I stick to therapy.

One reason the don’t-have-kids-because-you’re-depressed viewpoint worries me is that it reduces depression to a factor of our genes.

The first problem with that is even if you’re genetically predisposed to depression, it’s not a guarantee you’ll suffer it. Secondly, “genetics” is increasingly becoming the answer of choice for so many disorders, when we really should be considering a range of environmental or situational factors in addition to our bodies’ hard-wiring.

When I was first diagnosed with depression, practitioners emphasized to me that I should view it like a medical illness that I have no control over. A big part of depression is undoubtedly rooted in our brain chemistry, so there is merit to this view, especially given the unfair stigma that depression sufferers continue to face from luckier citizens who believe that, given the willpower, one can just “snap out of” those desperately blue weeks, months or years.

But now that I’ve lived with bouts of depression for many years, I would say a key to managing it is realizing that, like many illnesses, there are measures you can take that make you more or less susceptible to its ravages.

Just as diabetics or heart patients or those with certain auto-immune disorders can avoid foods, lifestyles or activities that exacerbate their symptoms, folks vulnerable to depression should realize that their environment and actions can hurt or help.

My secret to managing those dark bouts is to keep working no matter what. That might not be right for everybody, but forcing myself to focus and be productive, even when it seems impossibly hard, keeps my demons at bay until some light seeps back into my existence, as it usually does after awhile, often as the winter turns to spring.

I am not at the mercy of my depression as a dictate of my genetics. It can be managed like a chronic illness. An awareness of having climbed up out of the depths before eventually helps me remember that the worst phases aren’t permanent. I try to dwell on this instead of dwelling on the hopelessness.

This is not to say one can simply wish oneself out of a depressive episode. And my experience may be milder than others’. But whether it’s you or your kid, I don’t think anyone should sit back and say, well, it’s just a matter of genes. The truth is somewhere between your genetic destiny and the environment and lifestyle you cultivate.

But I’m worried that that middle-ground truth is getting trampled if we declare that depressed people shouldn’t be passing on their genes.

Besides, what makes depression so special? We’re hardly calling for people with a family history of cancer or diabetes to eschew child-bearing.  Speculating on depression as a worthy reason for not having a family, when you’d want one otherwise, just seems to increase the disorder’s stigma.

“Sarah Silverman Considering Adoption Makes Me Respect the Crap Out of Her” is the headline of Alexis Rhiannon’s piece on  Silverman’s comments on depression are part of a larger discussion on her support for adoption.

What I hope folks realize, as they debate her comments on adoption in light of her depression, is that adopted kids don’t have a blank genetic slate because you didn’t birth them.

Adoption is a fabulous thing. My own mom was adopted in infancy.  But I don’t think parents who adopt should do so assuming that their kids will then be free of problems. That’s a glib, de-humanizing view of adoptees, in my opinion. Everyone is predisposed to something. If you choose to try to avoid whatever medical boogeyman runs in your family, who’s to say something else doesn’t run in your adopted kid’s genes?

I accept that any kid of mine will have a heightened risk of depression. I hope that with sensitive and empathetic parenting efforts, I can recognize the signs and, with the help of my own experience and caring professionals, get my kids the help they need, just as I would if it turns out they have asthma or celiac disease.

I dislike the implication that life can’t be lived with depression. I and millions of other people prove every day that it can.  Like other illnesses, it has many dark days. But even if it’s recurrent, as my condition seems to be, it’s not insurmountable – whatever society says about people who are depressed. While I still fall into some pretty bad places sometimes, the bouts of depression I have now do not last as long, and are not as intense, as the ones I had a decade ago. I think awareness of my weaknesses, as well as my strengths, in addition to productive coping strategies, help over time.

If we took everyone who was ever depressed out of the world’s history, we’d lack for some brilliant writers, artists, thinkers and leaders.

The stigma of depression is surely alive and well if, by the time we’re discussing its possible genetic roots, we’re suggesting that it is better not to be born than it is to be at risk for depression.

I don’t buy that. So my future kids can take their chances.

P.S. check out “Adventures in Depression” at one of my favorite blogs, Hyperbole and a Half. 



Add yours →

  1. Right on Alaina! And for what it’s worth, I’ve read (and my intuition agrees) that attachment parenting practices, which keep babies close to their parents and respect infants’ communication of their needs, can affect brain chemistry in a real, long-term way.

    • Alaina Mabaso June 5, 2012 — 9:52 am

      I am hoping that when I have kids I can work out something healthy between traditional American parenting and attachment parenting. I want to provide more physical/emotional support to my kids than the traditional American parenting model, but from what I understand about attachment parenting, that would totally wear me out because I’m a person who needs her own space to recharge. Maybe if we attachment-parent the baby can be attached to Lala while I rest…Thanks as always for weighing in.

  2. A brave and wise post. I agree with you. There are no guarantees in life about anything and most things are a nature/nurture mix.

  3. Your article with personal insight is amazing. From my developmental psychology and abnormal psychology courses (I hate the word abnormal, but anyhow), even if say, two parents with schizophrenia give birth to a child, the child only has a 25% chance of manifesting this as many other factors such as protective and risk factors come into play. And the scariest thing of course is that even with all the protective factors in the world, it does not guarantee you are ‘safe’ from a mental illness. So I mean, it’s like a crap shoot pretty much. We can’t genetically determine who gets what. Too many articles, pop psychology and the like, make sweeping statements without much research or scientific analysis. And then, lo behold, it becomes a mass opinion. It’s sad really, and I really wish writers of such articles would consider the impact of their opinions… 😀


  4. Thanks for your candid honesty. As a pregnant woman with OCD (and medicated for it), I have thought about how I would never want my child to suffer with the pain of this disorder. However, studies are still inconclusive regarding the impact of genetics vs the effects of one’s psychosocial environment on mental illness. I am beingclosely monitored by several docs as I taper my (incredibly helpful) medication down and risk worsening symptoms to avoid having a baby born in withdrawal. This has been a difficult but empowering decision and I feel incredibly supported. Ultimately, if my child ends up with OCD, who better to support, educate, and empathize with her than her own mother? As a child some of my anxiety revolved around feeling different and a code of silence regarding mental illness in my family. I’ve broken the taboo and know that destigmatizing and talking about OCD with family can provide much-needed bonding and supportive conversations.

    • Alaina Mabaso June 5, 2012 — 4:51 pm

      Thanks so much for sharing. I wish you the best for your pregnancy and motherhood. I think you’re right about the value of empathy in supporting a child who turns out to have your illness. There’s so many things that can affect a human being – wouldn’t it be kind of providential if it turns out to be something that the parent is very knowledgeable about? I never heard of a kid with zero health problems – why not have a kid with your health problems? at least you have some experience…

      I can imagine what a curse OCD can be, especially if you feel like you can’t talk about it. Good for you for instigating the discussion.

  5. Thank you Alaina for another insightful post. Your experience clearly has given you strength and wisdom. Your willingness to share your story helps so many.

    • Thanks. I hear from some quarters that sharing so much about my life might not be a good choice. But my intention is always to help others who might struggle similarly, or help folks think about something important. Your comments are always welcome.

  6. I guess I am just too alive to the fact that most of our suffering in life, when you look at it cumulatively is nothing but petty drudgery. And is meaningless to any broader contexts. Eat today for strength to work today, so you can make it to tomorrow, eat tomorrow to work tomorrow. Work today to buy food today to make it to tomorrow to work to….. This self perpetuating….gift? It’s all there is, you don’t get the balance due to you in Heaven. so if there is a good chance of misery and self sabotage, I say pass. I wish there was more to life than kill yourself, work hard, or be miserable. There isn’t anything I find inspiring among those. Does working thru decades of depression make the child a better person than Hanna Pollyanna? Does being a better person matter outside your better head? How emotionally invested do you get, in a sand castle built at low tide? The moon will twitch in 2 hours and swamp it! There is no scenario in which it benefits the kid, your best bet is to let happy people make happy people. If we all realise that we are all unhappy, or at least unsatisfied, well, the better.

    Depressed people have appalling thoughts, africans have appalling birth rates. As a depressed African I try to focus on my core constituencies. Trying to lead to a better future for all concerned, although if pushed I will admit my antinatalism is universal.

    • Sand castles are fun while they last, even though they do get washed away by the tide

      I can relate to the feeling that there’s nothing but suicide, hard work, or misery in life. So far I’ve avoided the suicide, and hard work seems to be the only thing that keeps misery at bay (at least while I’m working). So I do a LOT of work.

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