I always feared my mental illness would impact my ability to be a mother. That all changed once I had stepchildren and learned I'm capable of being a present, loving, and caring parent.

By Lauren Kennedy, as told to Bonnie Azoulay
May 27, 2020
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The author and her family.
Courtesy of Lauren Kennedy

I've been struggling with my mental health since I was a teenager—and I was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, a major mood disorder, when I was 25. I'm 28 now. There's a spectrum of the severity of symptoms that people experience and the way in which they experience them. Depression is what I struggled with for the most part for quite a while. Then symptoms of mania started to break through where I'd feel really great and had elevated moods and energy. But that came with some of the worst effects of mania too like not sleeping, risky behavior, and overspending.

And then I started to have hallucinations. Initially, I would just hear my name spoken aloud—even when I was completely alone. I brushed this off thinking that it was just my imagination until it started to get worse and I began to start smelling things that weren't actually there. Then the voices started to progress to be more than just my name.

When I'm taking medications, my symptoms are fairly well-managed. I still get breakthrough symptoms. But when I go off medications they really get out of hand and I start having hallucinations, delusions, and paranoid thoughts.

I wasn't sure that I ever wanted to have kids just because I was worried about passing on my illness. Also, I feared I wouldn't be an adequate mother. I didn't know if my illness would get in the way of being there for my kids. I was terrified that my kids would see me in a psychotic episode, a traumatizing experience I didn't want to subject them to. I was scared that because of the symptoms, I wouldn't be as present as I'd like to be in my kids' life. I was worried I just wouldn't be able to form the connection that I wanted to form.

Building a Family of My Own

That changed once I met my partner, Rob, in May 2018 who has two kids; they're now 4 and 7. Coming into the situation and trying to find my own parenting style has been a challenge, but it's been a really great one. I really learned a lot from my partner Rob about how to be a great parent. I've also learned a lot from his ex and their partner about how to parent.

And there's a dad with schizophrenia in the Schizophrenia Society of Alberta (where I live) who is a parent and I've gotten his perspective on it all. He had really positive things to say and really emphasized the importance of having a strong support network. I've really taken that to heart in terms of the role that I have as a mother.

The kids are a really integral part of my support network. They're really supportive if I need rest or anything. Just having them in my life is a really protective factor because I want to be well for them. I'm really encouraged by them to take my medication, too.

It's been incredible becoming a mother. Those kids have opened up my life to more love and connection. It kind of helps that they're not biologically my kids because I know that I can't pass on my illness to them. I do sometimes still fear that I'm seeing warning signs in them, but I think I'm just being overly sensitive to that because there's no way they could get it from me.

In terms of abating some of my other worries about being a parent with schizoaffective disorder, I'm really learning how to balance everything with my partner and the kids and how to acknowledge and accept my illness in the face of challenges.

My Advice to Other Parents with Mental Illness

I would encourage parents with schizoaffective disorder or schizophrenia to spend a lot of time just doing some internal reflection and coming to a place of acceptance of their diagnosis. Acknowledging and accepting that the illness is a part of your life is really important in terms of being able to be there as fully as possible for your kids.

I want to be as open as I possibly can be with the kids about my illness. I really want to foster good communication around everything, but especially around mental health. They know that I struggle with my mental health sometimes and we talk to them about what mental health means and that they need to take care of their own. I don't think if we were to tell them what schizophrenia is they would really be able to understand or grasp it yet so we're holding off on telling the specifics until a couple more years down the road. But we are definitely still laying down the foundation to have those conversations.

Rob and I are thinking about having a kid of our own. I am learning that I am capable of being a good mother to the two children that we already have, so some of those fears have been alleviated a little bit. But the risk of passing it on is probably still a lot more of the fear, as well as fearing the stress of actually giving birth and if that will induce psychosis or not. We've been talking about it with my doctors which is another important piece of advice—to be open with your doctors about any concerns you have around this and go into it as knowledgeable as possible and putting as many safety nets up as possible.

I've gotten several comments from people that it's selfish of me to want to be a parent with my illness. The ones that really impact me the most in that regard are the ones who comment about their negative experiences of having parents with schizophrenia. Just understanding that that can very much be a reality too is hard to handle but I just have to remind myself that people have negative experiences with parents, sometimes regardless of their mental illness status. I also remind myself that I'm really trying my best and I feel that I'm being a good mother to my kids.

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