Published on May 14th, 2020 | by Elizabeth Drucker1
My Bipolar Baby Decision: Who Should Be a Mother?
When she rapped on the door and stepped into the examining room, I wasn’t sure what to expect from my latest gynecologist. I immediately noticed that except for her long white lab coat, she didn’t look all that different from most of my college friends. She wore leather boots that nearly reached her kneecaps and her hair was set in a loose bun, with every strand in place. I dreaded the possibility that she could be exactly like the last gynecologist I had consulted about the problems I was having with my mood swings and erratic menstrual cycle. But because Dr. B looked so authentic, and maybe even stylish, or like someone with an infinite amount of humanity, I immediately trusted her. I was exhausted from making the rounds to psychiatrists, endocrinologists, and gynecologists, hoping that someone could give me some answers. I desperately hoped that she would say that even with the cards stacked against me, I could still find a way to get my periods and hormones stabilized—and to be a mother one day, when the time was right.
By the time I was sitting half-naked on her examination table with a flimsy pink robe sliding over my collarbones, I felt tense. My thoughts kept returning to what Dr. B might say if I dared to bring up my desire to get pregnant. During my last gynecology consult, the doctor had nearly broken my heart by discouraging my efforts to have a baby because of one thing: I have bipolar disorder. After some more judgmental comments from medical professionals who clearly knew little about my disease, I had adopted a new approach to consulting doctors by offering very little about how my illness has affected me.
Most doctors know the bare bones about bipolar disorder: it is often a long roller coaster ride of mood swings that requires a lifetime of mood-stabilizing medications like lithium or Depakote. Even if these professionals didn’t know me, doctors hear bipolar and immediately jump to crazy. They envision lives full of uncontrolled mood swings, suicide attempts, shopping sprees, and meltdowns. I would never say that life with bipolar disorder is easy. But after living successfully with this illness for so many years, I am living proof that people do get better. I’ve even made it my mission in life to help other people see one important thing about this very misunderstood illness: bipolar disorder can be managed. Life does go on.
And I had achieved something I had never thought was possible when I was so sick that I could hardly leave my own bedroom. I had overcome a pattern of rapid-cycling mood swings that had me plunging from euphoria to despair quicker than I could even explain what was happening to me. I can say that many of my mood episodes nearly killed me. During this fight for my sanity—and my life—I kept returning to the hospital because my doctor couldn’t find a way to keep me alive in any other way. I remember feeling terrified that I would never be able to snatch back the reins to my own life. What if I never graduated from college, married, or had children? Luckily, with the help of excellent psychiatric medication and weekly psychotherapy, I started putting the pieces of my life back together again. And then, my life opened up to me and things started to become possible again.
I will be the first person to say that bipolar treatment is not so easy. Growing up, I never had to think twice about my weight or what I was putting into my body. As a teenager, I was able to eat whatever I wanted. But now, after gaining a significant amount of weight from my medications, I am busy counting points on my Weight Watchers app after every meal or snack. Sometimes, my medications also make me feel exhausted and make my hands tremor. But when I swallow my assortment of capsules and tablets throughout each day, I know that I am doing the right thing: I am taking care of myself, my health, and my hope that one day I will be able to move on to something bigger than myself: that I may be able to start a family.
After discovering the optimal treatment that worked for me, my mood lowered and brightened at the same time. This was the me I had been searching for as my illness got so out of control in high school and college. I could finally sit in my own skin again, without feeling like I needed to peel the flesh from my body.
I so much want to be like everyone else, and it’s still hard for me to accept the fact that my illness does make me different. It took me over ten years to earn my bachelor’s degree. When I graduated, I found myself clutching a transcript filled with withdrawals and incompletes. Before I knew it, a wave of my friends started getting married and having babies while I was just trying to take every dose of my medication and stay out of the psych ward. I could hardly even keep up with all those snapshots on Facebook of exhausted friends rocking their babies on the labor and delivery floor. I kept asking myself: why can’t I have that too?
Is it asking for too much to want to be sane and get advanced degrees and have a family? Am I a horrible person for feeling so jealous of my friends because they have families and I don’t?
During a routine meeting with my psychiatrist, Dr. A, I decided to bring up something that had been on my mind for a while: what would it take for me to carry a pregnancy with bipolar disorder? She spun around in her swivel chair like she always does when she is deep in thought, and then sighed. She explained that while, in theory, it would be very complicated for me to carry a pregnancy, it was not entirely out of the question. Some of my essential bipolar medications, like Depakote, the bluish gray tablet that stabilizes my moods, absolutely cannot be taken during pregnancy. And going off my medications, even temporarily, is not an option for me. I’m not sure if it ever will be.
Without medications, I’m terrified of what my life might look like. But on medication, my stability is complicated by my deep ache to become a mother.
Dr. A thought my menstrual cycle was complicating my mood. Enter Dr. B. When she encountered me in her examining room on that chilly February day, Dr. A had prepared her with an email summarizing my case.
Dr. B also had some thoughts about my getting pregnant. If this did happen, I would most likely not be able to stay on my medications. I knew that I never wanted to pace the halls of a psych ward again. After Dr. B considered all of my options to regulate my menstrual cycle, she decided to put me on a hormonal medication to bring my periods back again. Even with different formulations, each time, my mood swings returned with a vengeance. I would get extremely irritable, screaming at anyone who even dared to approach me.
Dr. B also explained that with the fertility treatments I would most likely need, I would need to do two things that could potentially destroy me: take those dreaded hormones and stop taking most of my mood stabilizing medications. This could end up being a recipe for disaster that would most likely bring back my highs and lows.
And, of course, genetics must be considered when planning a family. It was possible, maybe even likely, that I could pass my own bipolar mood disorder to my child, just as my own father had done to me. I brought this up to Dr. B most times I was in her office, longing for some reassurance. Many times, I wanted her to simply lie to me and promise me that my child would not be born with this illness. Our twenty-minute appointments quickly turned into an hour.
The truth is, if I did have a bipolar child, whether biological or adopted, I would always strive to be the best mother that I could possibly be. I might have to accept the fact that biological motherhood might not be the best option for me. I have never been like everyone else, and maybe it’s time for me to stop wanting to follow the crowd. And, even if I adopted a child, he or she could have any other problem that would still require my love and compassion. Bipolar complicates my life in many ways, but I will always seek to find alternative ways to reach for the things that are most important to me.