Help! Does My Mental Illness Mean I Would Be a Bad Parent?

Advice on manners and morals.
Aug. 23 2012 6:00 AM

Am I Fit To Parent?

My fiancé and I both have mental illness. The last thing I want to do is make things hard on our future children.

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photograph by Teresa Castracane.

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Dear Prudence,
I am getting married next year and my fiancé and I both love children and see ourselves having kids. Recently, though, I have been concerned about what having children will mean for us. Both of us have been diagnosed with mental illness that we’ve dealt with throughout our lives. My fiancé has social anxiety and is often reluctant to leave the house. He has turned to alcohol in order to cope with his anxiety, but he has rarely had an episode of binge drinking in our three years together. I have obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, and was recently diagnosed with PTSD as the result of an abusive relationship in my teens. I've been hospitalized for depression and have attempted suicide. I’m wondering if we are the sort of people who should not be having children. The rituals and compulsions I experience from my OCD are mostly linked to household activities, and I am frightened of what might happen if my child disturbs a routine. When that happens, I become agitated to the point of a panic attack or a verbal outburst. My fiancé knows there are things he can't do because of this (open the curtains, take plates out of cupboards, etc.), but I don't see how a child will comprehend this. I'm on medication, but nothing seems to stop it entirely. I work with children and would love kids of my own, but I don't want to raise kids in an oppressive and possibly abusive household. Please help!

—Don't Want To Be a Mommie Dearest

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Dear Don’t,
You should be praised for thinking through with the greatest gravity what it would mean for the two of you to have children. I hope both of you have real therapists, not just someone managing your medications. If not, as a couple you should engage someone, say a social worker, who can explore all the issues you raise. You both sound as if you’re generally stable, but also somewhat fragile. As you have acknowledged, dealing with mental illness, especially multiple conditions, is a lifetime struggle. Even with the greatest vigilance and compliance with medications, the course of an illness can be unpredictable. You love kids and have been able to overcome tremendous obstacles to work with children. But while your job has time limits, you can’t clock out at the end of each day when you’re a parent. Because of your training and experience, you and your husband might want to consider becoming foster parents. You could start with short-term placements, which would allow you both to help kids in need and see how it feels to have children living in your home. If it turns out you aren’t approved to provide foster care, that’s not a final judgment, but it’s something serious to contemplate. Additionally, you two should meet with a genetic counselor to talk about both your families’ medical histories. But you are asking for my opinion, and based on your description, I don’t think you two right now are candidates for taking on the overwhelming nature of child-rearing. I say this reluctantly and as someone who has mental illness in my family, so I wrestled with the question of my genetic legacy. Whether or not you decide to have children, you’ve already shown that those with serious mental illness can have productive lives filled with love.

—Prudie

Dear Prudence Video: Kinky Mom

Dear Prudence,
I'm a grad student in a very prestigious program in New York City. This year I received a generous fellowship, which will pay for not only my courses but also cover most of my living expenses. If it weren’t for this fellowship I couldn’t afford to stay in the New York or finish my studies. But I was shocked to find out that the money was coming from a wealthy donor whom I find morally reprehensible. The donor made their rather sizable fortune through shady and at times possibly illegal activities. I know the donor has become philanthropic to try to clean up a tarnished reputation. Even worse is that the donor personally picked me for the fellowship. I don't know if I can live with myself if live off this tainted money for the next year, but if I don’t I can’t pay my rent. What should I do?

—Dirty Money

Dear Dirty,
Let’s say you’re living in 15th century Florence. You’re an impecunious young artist named Mikey Angelo, and the rich, ruthless, all-powerful rulers of Florence, the Medicis, take an interest in your work. Being patrons of the arts enhances their reputation and their glory, and thinking you’re a talented kid they offer to underwrite the start of your career. Let’s hope you don’t turn them down out of misplaced moral superiority. Now, as fine a scholar as you may become, it’s unlikely your work will be the equivalent of the Sistine Chapel. But there’s no reason that somewhat dubiously gotten gains like those of your university’s patron shouldn’t go to someone like you who will use the money to bring the highest standards to your field. Perhaps while in New York, you’ve enjoyed the glorious paintings at the Frick Collection. I assume you don’t think art lovers shouldn’t gaze on these fruits of great wealth, even though Henry Clay Frick himself was a prick. If you don’t take the funds, you either will have to withdraw from the program or pile on the debt while living in a hovel and eating cabbage. Explaining to the administrators of your program your distaste for their donor will not impress them. They will just have the embarrassment of telling a patron whose money they think is just fine it’s necessary to select another recipient. The only thing changed by your refusal will be the prospects for your career.

—Prudie

Dear Prudie,
A friend and I just graduated from high school and we have become close since we started working together. Last year we noticed he seemed to have a girlfriend in his life but he wouldn't mention any details about her. Then last month he told me the truth. He had a sexual and emotional relationship with a 30-year- old female teacher and on several occasions she got him drunk. To prove it, he showed me Facebook messages and texts between them. He broke up with her, and now she won't leave him alone and she says she loves him. My friend has a promising future, and when he told me, he swore me to secrecy. I feel bad for my friend who was taken advantage of by an authority figure. My friend's dad ran out on him, his two sisters got pregnant as teens, and his mother has had cancer. Obviously he shouldn't have ever told me, but what obligation do I have not only him but to future students?

—Freaked Out

Dear Freaked,
You are very perceptive to see that this teacher is a predator and she chose as her prey a vulnerable, fatherless boy. You are also right that such people tend to be serial abusers and other susceptible boys will likely follow. I know you were sworn to secrecy, but then you were told about multiple crimes. I’m afraid your obligation to your friend and to future students negates your vow of silence. But this is not a burden you should have to carry alone. It’s the responsibility of the adults around you to take action so that Ms. Hotpants is not writing her name on the chalkboard when the new school year begins. So tell your parents and ask them to help you report this to the authorities. You can start with the school principal, but if you don’t get an immediate response, call the police. Do give your friend a heads up about what you are doing. Tell him this teacher is sick and needs to be reported, that what happened isn’t his fault and he needs help dealing with this. Yes, all this will be painful for a boy who has already suffered too much. But he will ultimately be better off for not having to fend off this sicko and bear this secret.

—Prudie

Dear Prudence,
My wife sets various clocks around the house to different times, some at the correct time, some five minutes ahead, some 10 minutes. For example, the clock in the bathroom is 10 minutes fast so she has “more time” when doing her hair and makeup. I like knowing what time it is when I look at a clock. I don’t want to have to remember to subtract five or 10 minutes depending on what room I’m in. The kicker is that she isn’t tricking herself because she knows that the clocks are set fast. Usually, I’m ready to go and she still hasn’t dressed. I don’t want to just deal with it because these are my clocks, too.

—What Time Is It Now?

Dear Time,
Darling, if you have a gripe with something I’m doing, please don’t write to Dear Prudence, just mention it to me over dinner. This letter is from my husband, right? Because I am exactly the woman you describe. And as with the woman you describe, none of it works. Because I know which clocks are five minutes fast and which are 10 minutes, I factor that in to my toilette and am always late anyway and loathe myself for it. The real issue is here your wife’s behavior, so don’t make the mismatched clocks a ticking time bomb in your marriage. I understand your annoyance, and maybe you need to give her a nonnegotiable deadline: You’ll leave without her if she’s running more than 15 minutes late. Otherwise, forget trying to synchronize the timepieces and keep peace in your home by wearing a watch.

—Prudie

Note from Prudence’s editor: I've tried the “leave without her on a deadline” strategy in my own domestic setting, and paid dearly for it. It was considered a worse crime by my wife than her tardiness, regardless of the terms we'd previously agreed upon. True, I can't always expect her to operate like clockwork. But surely I can expect my clocks to!

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Emily Yoffe is a regular Slate contributor. She writes the Dear Prudence column. 

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