Losing a child who never existed: considering parenthood when you’re bipolar

Guest post by Olivia
Pills 3

I am not a mother. I have never been a mother. However, like many other women in the world, I have experienced the sorrow that comes with losing a child who never existed.

Growing up, I never believed that I wanted to have a child biologically. I felt very strongly that I wanted to be a mother by adoption only. I didn’t judge others who chose to go the biological route; I just knew in my heart that I would feel guilty creating a brand-new human being when there were so many children in the world who needed families.

And then I met my husband. I began to think about what it would be like to bring about something glorious–to bring about life itself–out of our love. My husband and I began to talk seriously about having children, and decided that we would have one child biologically, and then adopt afterward. We decided on a natural birth, co-sleeping, breastfeeding, baby-wearing, home schooling. We even decided that if we had a baby girl, we would name her Eleanor, after my husband’s grandmother. We decided to wait a few years, and then begin trying to bring our little Eleanor into the world.

I knew that my pregnancy would have to be meticulously planned, because I am bipolar and the medications I take to control my mood disorder can seriously harm a growing fetus. My psychiatrist assured me that he could wean me off of my current medication, or switch me to something different, whenever I decided to get pregnant. So that was that: All I had to do was wait until it was time to get started!

Many, many months went by, and then … the symptoms of my bipolar started acting up. What had been a well-managed disorder for years suddenly became unmanageable. The chemistry in my brain changed in such a way that no matter how well I was taking care of myself psychologically, my meds simply weren’t working as they used to. After months of trying different medications and of me barely holding it together, we finally found something that stabilized me. Sweet relief … but with a hard lesson.

If I stay on my meds during pregnancy, I risk having a child born with a serious medical problem such as spina bifida. If I choose to go off my meds or to switch meds in order to be pregnant, I risk losing control over my mental and emotional stability.

That experience, the first bipolar “relapse” I had ever had while on medication, made me think long and hard about my choice to conceive a child. While I know that many women with bipolar have successfully made it through pregnancies, I also know that there are serious risks involved. If I stay on my meds during pregnancy, I risk having a child born with a serious medical problem such as spina bifida. If I choose to go off my meds or to switch meds in order to be pregnant, I risk losing control over my mental and emotional stability. Those risks are simply too large for me to take.

And so I find myself in a position so similar to that of many women. Yes, my body may be fertile and sound, but the fact remains that I simply cannot in good conscience attempt to conceive a child. It’s incredible how poignantly I feel the pain of losing a child who never existed — I have had to realize I will never feel a baby growing inside of me, I will never experience the natural birth I imagined, I will never hold my little baby Eleanor close while feeding her from my own body. I know she never existed except in my mind, but I’m grieving the loss of her all the same.

Adoption is still in my future, for as soon as my husband and I feel ready. I try to remember during these difficult times that though one child I imagined will never come to be, that does not mean I will never be a mother. My husband and I will still have the chance to create something glorious out of our love … just in a different, equally special way.

Comments on Losing a child who never existed: considering parenthood when you’re bipolar

  1. Thank you so much for posting this–it hits close to home. My sister has bi-polar disorder (among other things) and we’ve talked about how she’s come to grips with the idea that she may only be able to give birth to one child. She’s not married or in a relationship right now, but it helps to know the possibilities and to hope (know?) she will marry someone who will be understanding and supportive.

    Thank you for sharing. Thank you for reminding us that unspeakable pain can be overcome.

  2. I know this doesn’t diminish the hurt of giving up something deeply wished for, but you’ve already made something beautiful out of your love: your family of two. I’m glad you shared your story.

  3. Thank you for sharing your story; I can’t imagine how hard it must be. I hope that you find your child when you and your husband are ready — there’s a child out there who will someday be blessed to have such a responsible and thoughtful mother.

    • I agree with the comment above – The world would be a profoundly better place if more people planned conception so carefully and thoughtfully. Sadly, there would be many women who did come to the same conclusion as you – that conceiving would be an irresponsible decision (at least at this time). Thank you for sharing.

  4. I know that similar experiences can differ vastly from person to person. That said I don’t think you have to give up on having a baby if you want.

    I too was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder at a really young age. When I was 15 I was put on some pretty serious mood stabilizers and and anti-depressants and I took them pretty faithfully through out my early 20s, and when I tried going off of them I inevitably wound up leaving a path of destruction in my wake.

    Then I graduated from college and got booted off my parents health insurance, which meant that I was booted off my medication. Perhaps there was something I could have done, and I did try a number of things to try and keep the medicine coming, but ultimately I gave up.

    For awhile it was hard. it was really hard, and I was scarily depressed and anxious, etc. BUT I started trying to take care of myself in other ways: I made sure that I exercised every day. I started eating as healthy as possible and I looked into the dietary choices that I could make, as well as vitamins and supplements (omega 3 & 6 fatty acids derived from fish oil or flax seed oil). I made sure to get plenty of exposure to the sun. I worked to reduce the amount of stress in my life. I started practicing yoga. When I did feel depressed or anxious I made sure to keep in mind that it was just a feeling, and that it too would pass.

    I haven’t taken any medicine since 2006, and I’m healthy, happy, and doing better than I ever was before. I’m happily married, I have a successful career that I enjoy, I have reasonably good relationships with family and friends. I still have mood swings, I still have bouts of depression, i still have moments of anxiety, but I now know how to take care of myself when these things come up, and I don’t think that I experience these symptoms much more than any of my other non-bi-polar friends.

    I’m not saying that this is the right path for everyone. Some people really do need to be on medication (my father is one of these people, so I totally get it). However I was told time and time again by doctor after doctor that I would ALWAYS need to be on medication, it was only when medication was no longer an option, that I discovered that all the doctors were wrong.

    You could try talking to a naturopathic DR about your options. If getting off your medication is something that you want to try again, just realize that it’s not easy, it’s like any other substance withdrawal. You are bound to have mood flare ups and feel a little scared. You need people around you who support you and understand what you’re going through, and you have to be diligent about taking care of your self in other ways. Again, I’m not saying that this is the right path for everyone, but for me it has been incredibly empowering.

    • I totally understand this view. I was diagnosed with a mood disorder when I was 16 (I’m 25 now, and they still aren’t extremely sure of what exactly I have – bipolar 1, 2, cyclothimic disorder, ect.) I took meds for two years, and they were the most miserable years of my life. I research my options, and made an informed choice to stop medication.

      I do a lot: I have cognitive therapy, nutrition therapy, accutonics, bi-feedback, yoga and meditation, ect. It works well for me. I have not had a major episode in 7 years, and hopefully child-bearing is in my near future.

      I don’t believe that anyone should feel bad for choosing the pills – not at all. I have friends who were saved by the pills. And Olivia – all my best to you and your family. It may be super cliche to say it, but you have somebody who already loves you – and love really can stablize and heal us.

  5. Thank you so much for sharing this, Olivia. I’m currently medicated for anxiety and depression while trying to conceive, and I think a lot about the same issues you raised. I hope you and your husband are able to add to your family–you sound like such a thoughtful, compassionate person, and the world needs more of that.

  6. I can relate to this because I am unable to conceive a child and it took a very long time for me to let go of the dream. It was a fervent hope for so long. I am blessed as a stepmom and a mom, just not biological. I am simultaneously at terms with it and never quite satisfied.
    Thank you for sharing.

  7. I struggled with infertility for 6 years before finally conceiving my son. He was born at 29 weeks due to severe pre-eclampsia which was caught entirely by chance — we came within a few days of endangering both our lives. An 8-week NICU stay and almost 3 years later, he is a happy and healthy child, and the light of my life. I always thought I’d have two or three children, but the difficulty I had conceiving and carrying him made me question that decision. DH and I finally decided we would be happy with our one child. We briefly considered adoption, but at the age of 39, with the entire decade of my 30s spent battling infertility-related depression, I’m just done with the uncertainty and potential for loss that even adoption can bring. I’m ready to move on with my life.

    So I also spent some time grieving the loss of the child I’ll never have, of the sibling my son won’t have. For a long time I felt like there was a person I was supposed to help bring into the world, and because I’m so weak, I’m letting him or her down. I still feel that way at times.

    I don’t know if that makes sense, but I can definitely relate to your story! Thank you for sharing it.

  8. Thank you so much for posting this. 3 weeks after my son was born, I was diagnosed with severe posr partum depression which, through a series of very bad fights, rage attacks and mental breakdown, was fianlly correctly diagnosed at bipolar disorder. I now constanlt worry about my ability to be a mother and a wife, both of which are still very new to me. I can only imagine the pain of never having a child you so wanted, but I hope I can relate because of my constant fear of ruining my sons life with this disorder… sometimes i feel trapped by my love for him and my fear for his health. My sympathies. Keep your head up, you’re not alone!

  9. Wow. This hits unbelievably close to home. I’m a bipolar mama myself – I was diagnosed when I was 27, several years after my son was born. I was told I would never have any more children because I could not be stabilized. I won’t get into details of everything we went through, but after a few years of being totally stable and a med switch I was able to have my daughter (her name, believe it or not, is Eleanor). A lot of thought and planning and research went into the decision to have her and we were well aware that it could have gone completely sideways at any time. We were fully ready to have to call the process off if I had an episode during the initial med switch and we were all on high alert during my pregnancy and postpartum period, but happily everything has gone well. More than well, in fact.

    I hope you can find a way to become the mama you feel meant to be, however that comes about. If you need a friend who has been where you are, I’d be happy to lend an ear.

  10. Few people have the courage to make such a hard decision. You have done what is best for yourself and your family as opposed to what you personally would like the most. You should be so extremely proud of yourself! One day when you do decide to adopt and become a mother you will be the kind of parent who can lead by example. You are an outstanding person who has an incredible sense of responsibility. You are going to be a WONDERFUL mother!
    Thank you so much for sharing your story.

  11. I have actually always, since the time I started thinking of things such as kids, was convinced I would adopt. I still feel called to, because of a lady who came to my church to talk about girls in India that are forced to be prostitutes {And at an age as young as 5, even!}.

    Anyways, a lot of my friends started getting pregnant. I actually did get pregnant, and knew I was not yet ready, not even living on my own or being financially stable {Please keep your comments about this to yourself. I am still getting over this. I was using protection and am no longer having sex}.

    After all of that I suddenly very much so want to have at least one child of my own. It’s something I’ve been looking forward to.

    Then my fiance informed me he had a disease in his spine that causes the “sponge” in between his discs to go away, and possibly become paralyzed. His mom has it, so he says it’s genetic. Which means he does not feel morally right having his own kids.

    I’m still getting over this, so I can sympathize. I know you’re going through so much more, because I know bipolar individuals. My heart goes out to you, and we’re all in this together.

  12. thank you for sharing your story, olivia. bipolar I disorder was one big reason i fought the biological clock for almost five years. in my case, switching meds (to Lamictal) failed the first time, but succeeded two years later.

    i really understand, and support, the decision not to biologically procreate based on experiences (and fears) as a bipolar person. in my case, though, i decided to take the plunge, partly due to the meds change, but greatly due to feeling reasonably confident in a dozen years of therapy, exercise, adapted Chekhov technique, and the many means i use to manage the disorder.

    i am now the crazy-ass bipolar mama of a 7-week-old son.

  13. ps: i also appreciate you calling it your nonexistent child – that’s how i thought of mine, too, and wrote about that grief on the Nymphe blog – some people really could not understand grieving someone who never existed, and i’,m glad to see the offbeat mamas posting here really get it!

  14. I’m bipolar too & having an out of control pregnancy scares me to death. It’s my second greatest fear. My first being to give my child my illness because it’s hereditary. My case isn’t extremely severe but I know pregnancy can bring out the worst. I don’t want my child to suffer as a pre-teen & adolescent as I did. I pray it will bypass them. Another part of me realizes if my child is unlucky & does develop bipolar disorder, who better to help them to cope & manage their emotions than me: their mother & fellow sufferer.

  15. I think you might be able to breastfeed an adopted child (if you adopt an infant, obviously an older child wont need it) but I THINK you can get a shot to lactate. It doesn’t always work, but its worth a try. But with your meds, that may still not be a good idea. And you may not want hormones shot into body. Just a thought ^.^

  16. I loved hearing your story. I think that there need to be more stories of people with psychiatric issues, especaiily bipolar disorder, making responsible and wise decisions to counter all the sterotypes we see so often.

    I, too, am diagnosed with bipolar disorder. In addtion, I am a therapist and witness daily the effects that unmanaged parental mental illness has on kids and families. I don’t beleive that psychiatric illness precludes one from being a good parent but I fear that my own illness would once again rear its ugly head during a pregnancy. I’m well managed but I can’t use hormone based birth control because progesterone can have reduce the efficacy of Lamictal and because I get really nuts when my hormones are out of whack.

    I don’t doubt my ability to restabilize after a pregancy, but my tendency to go take the express train to crazytown when my meds are off scares me. I can’t fathom being in the middle of an episode while pregnant or giving birth because of the storm of chaotic feelings that I wouldn’t want to share with a developing child…

  17. I currently have bad bi-polar and I have just started weaning off my meds to try and conceive. It has been going good so far but I can tell a difference. My husband is very supportive on the fact that we have to adopt. I also have endometriosis which will make trying to make a baby even harder. We are trying to get me off my mood stabilizer and just on my anxiety meds. It does make me feel better to read your post and realize that the world wont end if I cant get pregnant. I can still be a mom. Which is my want in the long run anyway.

  18. Your article really hit home with me. I am also bipolar, have been since early childhood, and have bipolar 1 with schizophrenic tendencies. I also have four children. I wasn’t medicated for the longest time, my parents didn’t believe in it. Three of my four pregnancies were unmedicated. My last pregnancy I was on the meds that I had been on for the past 6 years. I had to carefully screen my meds, be under a doctor and psychiatrists care, and I prayed like crazy. I am still stable (with a newborn) and still take the same meds, although no mood stabilizers (in pregnancy or now). My kids are all healthy and well-adjusted. Although I’ve been hospitalized a few times over the years, I work really hard at trying to keep life “normal” for my kids. They are happy, well-adjusted little people and they save me from myself in more ways than I could ever thank them for. In the times when I am too depressed and suicidal, they give me something to live for besides myself.

  19. I hate this lie! I was told this lie for years by old school doctors who didn’t know better. I’m 22 weeks into a happy, healthy, type one bipolar pregnancy. I met with a psychiatrist who specializes in pregnant women and mood disorders. The risk of spina bifida and cleft lip are only 1% than the neurotypical population. Obviously, not all meds are safe for pregnancy…but so,so many are! I really hope you reconsider meeting with a specialist or a new psychiatrist.

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