Mad Mommy: The What Ifs

She lost her babies because of a what if. Actually several what ifs.

“I couldn’t see living the rest of my life worrying and wondering what had happened, or what if she hadn’t taken her medicine, or what if she relapsed,” said Ms. Baker, who has four children of her own.

Ms. Baker was the gestational surrogate of twins for Amy and Scott Kehoe. None of the four adults involved in bringing the children to life are genetically related to the twins, but the Kehoes are the ones who chose the sperm and egg donors, chose Ms. Baker as a surrogate, and paid for all her medical expenses. Ms. Baker had previously served as a surrogate for other couples, and at first, days after the twins birth, stood in front of a judge and relinquished custody of the children to the Kehoes. But then she changed her mind*. Because of what ifs.

She changed her mind because what if Amy Kehoe, a woman who through some biological quirk could not have a child through her womb with her egg or her husband’s sperm, didn’t take her medication for some mental illness? What if her medication stopped working? I mean, what if she went all Susan Smith on her kids, or Andrea Yates, or Amber Hill? Women who all, because of mismanaged mental illness, went on to do the unspeakable to their children, children they were genetically related to, children they birthed from their womb.

Amber Hill was actually on her way to the hospital when her mismanaged depression got so severe to cause a psychotic break that factured her grip on reality.  I remember the day things, my depression**, got so bad that I knew I needed – must – go to the hospital. The day after my 28th birthday, I dropped my kids off at day care. I sat in my living room. And it felt like my world had come to an end. It had been building; the sadness, the hopelessness, the profound sense of nothingness. I was in so much pain – my body from fibromyalgia, my spirit from a sense of being very far from God. I wasn’t sleeping, I wasn’t eating, I couldn’t concentrate. For the first time in my life, I was seriously looking for an exit plan. And at that moment, I knew the only way to save my life was to get someplace where I could totally let go and not even be responsible for me anymore.

Thank God I never felt I could do anything to hurt my children, but I doubt Amber Hill did either. Described as a lovely woman who loved her kids, her depression was simply (if that word even remotely captures it) not managed, and the depths of what was occurring in her brain caused a major malfunction and her children were the casualties. For most people with non-managed depression, they themselves become the casualty, as I thought I was going to be on March 18, 2009. But once its managed, usually with medication and therapy, most people with mental illness live like… well, most people. Up days and down days. Happy days and sad days. Days were you (figuratively) feel like you want to kill your kids. (Just joking. Really just joking.)

Does a history of mental illness, knowing what we know non-managed mental illness can lead to, make a woman unfit to be a mother when the child is not coming out of that woman’s womb? Or when a custody battle arises – what kind of information do we think is relevant to show whether a mother would be fit or not? I don’t think I’m getting divorced any time soon (if you know differently, I hope y’all got my back), but it is always in the back of my mind that with the right lawyer, the fact that I spent a week on the psychiatric unit of a hospital when my children were 1 and 3 years old surely cannot bode well for me. Or that I take 4 anti-depressant/anti-psychotic medications daily to manage bipolar disorder, and given my history, will likely need to take them for the rest of my life to function “well.” Or that I have to see a psychologist and psychiatrist on a regular schedule or that I’ve been in a day program.

I feel for Amy Kehoe, the woman who lost the babies in the surrogacy case. She’s had her illness under control for 8-9 years, and takes her medication faithfully. While Ms. Baker, the surrogate, has a genuine concern as she voices her what ifs, I hoped someone reminded her that life is all about what ifs. What if her husband got hit by a car and died as he rides his bike to work? Then the twins wouldn’t have the two parent home Ms. Baker imagined. What if she got breast cancer, and had to go through treatment, meaning the twins didn’t get the kind of care Ms. Baker expected them to receive. What if one of their other children developed mental illness, and perhaps became a threat to the babies? Then what?

And so what if Amy Kehoe did have a relapse, and dealt with it? Sometimes, I’m what what my therapist calls “fragile-stable,” meaning I’m okay, but I’m teetering near the edge. But I’m still parenting the best I know how. I’m still living. My kids are still growing and learning and laughing. And they are living too. No childhood is perfect. No family is perfect. No parent is perfect. No mother is perfect. I wish Ms. Baker, instead of worrying about the what ifs, had instead focused on the here and now, and saw in Amy Kehoe a woman who simply wanted to be a mommy.

* The law on the Kehoe surrogacy case concerns the fact that some states, like Michigan, do not enforce surrogacy contracts, so people like the Kehoes have no legal remedies when the surrogate decides to keep the babies, esp. when they have no biological ties to the children.

** I hope you all know, but I want to make clear – people like to throw around the saying, “I’m depressed.” Most times people mean they are sad, in the dumps, upset, about something. What I am talking about, and what these women were experiencing, is/was clinical depression, something that may or may not have been triggered by some event. Clinical depression has certain symptoms, that many times you cannot simply “get over” on your own. I was not depressed about anything. Contrary to popular opinion, while I may have been tired because I have two kids and am in grad school, that did not “cause” my depression. I’ve had depression since I was 16 years old, and probably developed Bipolar II in college, way before having kids or being in grad school. Depression is something in the brain, out of my control, although I can manage it, but not caused because I “do too much” (although doing too much can trigger symptoms). I really despise when people say that. I didn’t cause my depression or Bipolar because I’m ambitious or because I work too hard. I think all of it was already there. Now I am working to find out who *I* am under all the labels, and allow me, myself, and I, along with befriending the illnesses, to have a peaceful coexistence.  [Okay, off of my soapbox.]

7 thoughts on “Mad Mommy: The What Ifs

  1. LaToya, thank you for this. As you know, I work with, and have been working for years with, the mentally ill. I have seen and experienced first-hand the good and bad days. I’ve had clients who have been the highest functioning people when it came to daily living skills, but were the most psychotic in terms of the symptoms they experienced. I’ve had others who were not as “sick”, but you’d think they were afflicted by 18 different diagnoses because they simply gave up and chose not to live their lives to the fullest.

    Medication and therapy work!! Sure, there is no surefire treatment for ANY disease (mental or physical), but there are courses of treatments and therapies that have proven to work for the majority of people, making life as enjoyable and “normal” as possible.

    The thing with mental illness is that there are genetic components in most cases, so as parents, we feel responsible for what we pass onto our children. I just read that there is more than likely an obesity gene, or at least a mutation in DNA based on being obese, that can be passed onto children. This is scary for me, just as the idea of possibly passing on mental illness is to someone who is sick.

    But then, the what if comes into play. What if it doesn’t get passed down? What if someone CAN function just fine as a parent and raise beautiful, healthy, well-adjusted children? Shouldn’t we focus on the positives and the hopes? We have to also be realistic too, and acknowledge that not every person with a mental illness is fit to be a parent. And sometimes, no amount of therapy or medication can change that. There are a number of memoirs written by people who were raised by mentally ill parents, and it isn’t all roses.

    I understand what you are going through. For about two years, I was buried deep in a serious depression. Fortunately, I never did anything to hurt my son, but when I reached the point where I realized I was screaming at him a bit more than I probably should, I had to make adjustments, some of which are in play now. We have to be conscious of our limitations, when dealing with ANY affliction, because in the end, whats best for the children should be our priorities.

    If you ever need me, you know how to reach me. This has become my life’s work, and I’m getting pretty good at what I do 🙂

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  2. Wonderful post. Powerlessness is a bitch, so we’d all like to believe that we can control everything and nothing bad will ever happen. It just isn’t so; no matter what we do, how ever many precautions we take, bad stuff can and does happen.

    My youngest child is mentally ill. He’s my fourth, after three healthy, typically developing kids. People are constantly trying to figure out how it’s my fault because they can’t imagine that it’s just a cruel reality with no one to blame. We want to believe that we can control everything, especially parents. The surrogate mother and her husband do not understand that they have no more power to guarantee the twins’ a great life than do the Kehoes.

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  3. I put a premium on being who I am, warts and all, without being ashamed; it isn’t always easy. I tend to gravitate towards people who are who they are, unapologetically. Even when their personality isn’t the greatest, I admire their acceptance of who they are. Mental illness is something people don’t ever want to talk about, and as a result, people who struggle with mental illness are often forced to deal with that aspect of their lives alone. LaToya, I applaud you for discussing this part of your life, without holding back. I am inspired not only by your strength, but by the power you wield by claiming all parts of your life; not just those parts that are perfect, or put others at ease.

    The belief that just because somebody struggles with mental illness means they can’t be a good parent is sad to me. And this bias against mental illness is reflected in the law all the time (although I understand that here, the legal issue is that Mass won’t enforce surrogacy agreements). Either victims are not taken seriously when they experience emotional pain, or we assume that unlike other illnesses, mental illness cannot be managed. It just shows you how little progress has been made in our understanding of mental illness as a society.

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  4. I often think about the genetic component of mental illness. I notice things about both of my children that are very much like me and wonder if mental illness is also something they they will inherit from me. But you know what? Sometimes I think having these illnesses were the best thing that happened to me. Because they taught me the preciousness of my life. I live now in a way I never did before. There is something so NEW in me that I am am so grateful for. Benee, I know that you know appreciate the value of your health because you’re dealing with your health in a way that people who have not struggled with weight will never know. Adrienne, your child, once his or her illness is well managed, will have something special others won’t and your other children will be loving and compassionate in a way other children will not.

    I also tend to be drawn to who I consider to be “real” people – life is too short.

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  5. This is difficult for me to truly relate to because all of the mentally ill people in my life growing up never were formally “out” as mentally ill to me. I applaud your efforts to seek the kind of help that you need and that you are not shrouded in silence/secrecy. That type of silence can be very painful for a family.

    I’m learning now, through my experiences with Mekhi’s education and learning “difference,” to be, at the very least, aware of labels. I wonder if you ever feel as though the labels are something you could “overcome” or “avoid?”

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    1. Mental illness runs in my family too, and it’s only my generation now that we are getting diagnosed and treated. It’s in my parent’s generation, and their parent’s generation too, and some of them have been formally diagnosed, and other have not, though we have attached formal labels to the ones who haven’t.

      I think I have overcome many of the labels simply because my illnesses, when well medicated/treated, leave me very high functioning. The few months before I was hospitalized was the one time in my life where I couldn’t get my school work done – all other times when my illness came up the one thing I could do was socially isolate myself and do my work. Something changed this time where my brain couldn’t concentrate and instead of sleeping too much I couldn’t sleep at all and those things collided to me having to tell professors that I couldn’t turn in my work. I think had that been my common experience with my illness, the label of “mentally ill” would be much more damaging. But since it was obviously the exception instead of the rule, everyone was just so concerned. Once I got it together – and have it together – I am very conscious now that I can never let that happen again. Simply because I know that if it becomes the rule rather than the exception, the label could get attached, and then even when I’m well, everyone’s going to be waiting for when it happens again. And then the label becomes a stigma.

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