health

"The greatest gift I can give my potential children is to not become their mother."

Warning: This post deals with suicide, and may be triggering for some readers. 

For Mental Health Awareness Week, Rachael Keene shares the impact her chronic mental illness has had on her decision to remain childless.

I thought motherhood was always going to be part of my life. Life decided it had other plans. At the age of eight, I developed depression and anxiety, later compounded by post-traumatic stress disorder. At eight, the other girls at school dreamed of having babies. I dreamed of never waking up.

Nobody, not even me, thought anything was wrong. It was the eighties. No one knew anything about depressed eight-year-olds who hid in cupboards because they didn’t know how to stop crying. Who felt so unworthy of having a friend they bribed a girl in year three to be their best friend with a cheese-stick.

Flash forward to 1999 and my 19-year-old self was standing on the edge of the bridge over one of Perth’s major roads; my childhood home on one side of the bridge, my old primary school on the other.

Nine years of walking that bridge every day as a child had led me to this moment as a fledgling adult. I knew that if I jumped, I wouldn’t fly and I thought that was a pretty good thing. I then thought of my Dad. I crawled down and cried on the concrete floor of the bridge. I had no emotional wings. I had no emotional skin. I had so many painful emotions I didn’t know if I could keep myself alive anymore.

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But I fought, and here I am, 20 years later, and in recovery after going through hell. After 40 psychiatric hospital admissions, some lasting several weeks, some several lasting months. After 20 rounds of electroconvulsive therapy which left me with nothing, but took all my memories.

Numerous emergency ambulance trips to the ED from attempts to take my life; self-harm that left scars that couldn’t be seen. Twenty years of fighting to just see the next day. I wasn’t expected to make it. I don’t know how I did.

The most recent available data for mental health prevalence in Australia is the ABS National Health Survey, which estimated that there were 4.8 million Australians with a mental or behavioural condition in 2017-2018.

The Black Dog Institute estimates that every day, at least six Australians die from suicide and a further 30 people will attempt to take their life. Suicide is the leading cause of death for Australians aged 25-44. My demographic. Also, the demographic when most women become mothers.

My psychiatrist of 20 years advised me that if I were to become pregnant, I would need to come off most of my medications due to potential damage to the foetus. My depression, anxiety, PTSD, and psychosis would relapse, and I would experience postnatal depression and psychosis. I’m barely stable on my meds, I would die if I didn’t take them. How could I look after a little human if I couldn’t even take care of myself?

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I remember when Julia Gillard was called ‘deliberately barren’ by her male political colleagues over her decision to not have children. I remember listening to the radio about the high rate of women losing their babies to stillbirth in detention centres in Australia. The interviewer asked Natasha Stott Despoja, “You’re a mother. Does this concern you?”

When I heard this comment, I knew I was invisible.

I knew what I felt didn’t matter because ultimately, I couldn’t truly understand the sadness and grief over a child’s death because I did not have one myself.

I feel like an invisible woman; I slip through society like a shadowy ghost because I am not a mother. I am not part of the mum club. I don’t know what it’s like to give birth. To breastfeed. I can’t understand. I can’t offer advice or commiserate. I can’t take a pencil and make a line just above my child’s head on the doorframe to measure her height every six months.

I can’t give a first birthday party, make costumes for Book Week, be the tooth fairy, deal with a shopping centre tantrum from an overtired toddler. Kiss grazed knees and tend to my sick child overnight, make gooey eggs and toast soldiers and wipe my child’s messy face. I have no stories to tell.

No, I do not belong. Most women have babies. I don’t. And I have chosen that. And I will struggle with the pain of loss over not having a child, the absence, the silence, for the rest of my life, even though I know with my whole heart it was the right decision for my children. And it was the right decision for me.

My story and journey as a childless woman in society will go on forever inside me. I can’t lie and say it feels like an easy, liberating decision to not become a mother. It carries a great deal of grief and loss. Forever-grief. But the decision does feel right.

I am a childless woman in Australia in 2019.

A woman with chronic mental health issues.

But I am not an invisible woman. I am a daughter, sister, friend, aunty, writer and student.

I exist and life is good.

If you think you may be experiencing depression or another mental health problem, please contact your general practitioner or in Australia, contact Lifeline 13 11 14 for support or Beyondblue at 1300 22 4636.

Rachael Keene is a former psychologist and lives in Perth. She is studying postgraduate creative writing at Deakin University.

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