Podcast: Becoming a Parent with Mental Illness
Having children is a deeply personal choice and one that should not be taken lightly. Ensuring that you are financially able, emotionally stable, and mature enough to withstand the rigors of parenting is something that every person must do. All that said, how does one factor their own mental illness concerns into the decision?
Should people like Gabe and Michelle – one who lives with bipolar and the other, schizophrenia – have children? Is the risk of passing on the burdens of mental illness too great of a risk? Does having mental illness mean you can’t be a good parent? Where is the line?
Our hosts discuss all this and more in this episode of A Bipolar, a Schizophrenic, and Podcast.
“I have to make sure I can take care of myself before I can make sure I can take care of a kid.”
– Michelle Hammer
Highlights From ‘Kids’ Episode
[00:30] Gabe and Michelle discuss having children.
[3:00] What did Gabe decide about bringing children into the world?
[7:00] Does Michelle think she can take care of a kid?
[9:00] Gabe is a loop-hole grandpa.
[12:30] Gabe was told he couldn’t baby-sit his friends’ kids because he is bipolar.
[18:20] Gabe teaches his 4-year-old niece about mental illness.
[21:00] What did Michelle decide about bringing children into the world?
Computer Generated Transcript for ‘Becoming a Parent with Mental Illness’ Show
Editor’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.
Announcer: For reasons that utterly escape everyone involved, you’re listening to A Bipolar, a Schizophrenic, and a Podcast. Here are your hosts, Gabe Howard and Michelle Hammer.
Michelle: Welcome to A Bipolar, a Schizophrenic, and a Podcast. I’m Michelle and I’m schizophrenic.
Gabe: I’m Gabe, and I’m bipolar.
Michelle: Gabe, tell me about your balls.
Gabe: We’re not talking about my genitalia but we are talking about Gabe and Michelle’s decision about children. So I’ve made the decision not to have children. I’ve had a vasectomy and I’m over 40 so that die has been cast. Michelle, on the other hand is significantly younger. That’s actually a good question, Michelle, have you decided to have children?
Michelle: You know, I really hate that question. As a woman you’re always asked, “Are you going to have kids?” you know especially when you’re like in your 30s like 30 or 31. Are you gonna have kids? So when are you going to have kids? And I’ve known people that have gone to the gynecologist and say like I’m not planning on having kids and the gynecologist has said things like well you’re a woman, that’s what you’re supposed to do.
Gabe: Supposed to do? Like you’re just an incubator for human life? That’s your only function in the world?
Michelle: Yes. Yes, my only thing in life is to cook a baby and pop it out. So there’s also the factor of I’m a woman so I always get asked if I’m going to have kids and then I am mentally ill, so it’s, “Do you really want to have kids? Because if you pass it on. . . “
Gabe: That’s an interesting juxtaposition that you’re talking about there because as we know our society has a lot of misogyny in our society. Now this isn’t a feminist podcast so we don’t want to fall too far down the rabbit hole, but I think many young women agree that their reproductive status being made public is annoying because people want women to have babies but then when you have mental illness all of the sudden they take all that away. They want all women to have babies but you.
Gabe: You’re double stigmatized.
Michelle: Yeah. So it’s like I’m supposed to have kids but now no, don’t have any kids. You wouldn’t want to pass that on to your child. So I’m just like are you going to pass on your like bitchiness to your child? Leave me alone.
Gabe: Let’s pretend that both of us agree to have children tomorrow. Not with each other.
Michelle: Not with each other! Not with each other. Could you imagine that child.
Gabe: Oh my God.
Michelle: Oh my God I feel like it would be a gigantic red headed Jew. I think our child would be a superhero or something.
Gabe: But for the purposes of this little segment right here we’ve decided to have children. Not together. What part of us should be worried about that? I mean we know the stats. You know you can just google what are the odds of me passing along bipolar disorder? What are the odds of me passing along schizophrenia? And so we know there’s a chance, and the chance changes based on who your actual partner is. But there is a chance. Let’s say, and this is not a real number, but that chance is 25 percent. You have a 25 percent chance of passing on schizophrenia, Michelle. So there’s a 75 percent chance that your children have no symptoms whatsoever, they have no schizophrenia. Do you want to have children? Is that worth the risk?
Michelle: Twenty five? Oh yeah. Totally.
Gabe: So now what if you have four kids.
Michelle: It’s different every time. No, because every time you have a kid it’s still 25 percent. Just like when you’re having a boy or a girl it starts again at 50 percent.
Gabe: Very true. I’m impressed that you know that. Which makes me a dick.
Michelle: You’re such a dick.
Gabe: I know. I know. Just don’t text that to our friends anymor. But it is a risk. I mean if you were a mom and your child had a 25 percent chance of something bad happening to them if they rode a roller coaster would you let your child ride the roller coaster?
Michelle: Yeah yeah.
Gabe: I mean let’s say that roller coaster had a 25 percent chance of maiming your child?
Michelle: I mean you sound like my Jewish mother right now. Like let me live
Gabe: No, I sound like somebody who is risk adverse.
Michelle: Let it be, let a bitch live like come on.
Gabe: So. So you’re really like by the odds. So if you had a 49 percent chance of dying and a 51 percent chance of living the odds are in your favor you would do it even with I mean walking away has no chance of dying?
Michelle: To do what? What can I do?
Gabe: It doesn’t matter. You just I have an activity that looks like fun. You have a 51 percent chance of living a 49 percent chance of dying. Got to say yes or no.
Michelle: I am not really sure about that one.
Gabe: Because the odds are getting closer.?
Gabe: But 25 percent doesn’t scare you at all?
Michelle: No. Twenty five doesn’t scare me.
Gabe: What about 35?
Michelle: Because, you know what is helping me? I’ve been watching Little Women LA. It’s about little people that live in L.A., of course. And when they have kids, it’s a 50 50 percent chance of having a little person or an average size height. And that doesn’t stop them, doesn’t stop them at all.
Gabe: And I so much respect people like that. Truth be told I really I respect you for this, Michelle because I ran like a coward. I was so terrified of passing bipolar disorder and psychosis and anxiety onto a child. I literally had a vasectomy. I didn’t even just make the decision not to have kids. I went in for surgery to make sure that I didn’t accidentally have kids because the idea of creating a life that would suffer like I have was just more than I could stand.
Michelle: How old were you?
Gabe: I was twenty seven.
Michelle: Why would a doctor do that tow a twenty seven year old?
Gabe: Remember the beginning of the show when you talked about you know misogyny and all of that stuff? So if you’re a 27 year old woman wants to have her tubes tied, they’re like oh no that’s wrong. You need to talk to your husband, you’re going to regret it. When a 27 year old man wants to have a vasectomy, they’re like that makes sense. He’s made a decision, he’s in control of his body.
Gabe: Yeah, I had no problem getting a vasectomy whatsoever.
Michelle: Was that painful?
Gabe: I mean they did cut open my testicles it wasn’t fun.
Michelle: How long was the recovery?
Gabe: A week.
Gabe: I know this is kind of a really personal question, but this is what our podcast does. Michelle, you’re in prime fertile years you could have a baby tomorrow, no problem, but you are getting close. You are getting close to when it’s going to be harder to get pregnant. Except are you planning on being a mom? Will Michelle Hammer have a little child, that’s a human, don’t tell me about your hamster.
Michelle: I have a hamster.
Gabe: Are we going to get a Michelle Hammer child? Are you going to be a mom?
Michelle: A baby Hammer? You know, I can barely take care of myself. I mean and I have to make sure that I can take care of myself before I have a child to take care of. Maybe I can have a baby and I like give it to my mom and then she can get it back to me when it’s ready.
Gabe: You said that you can barely take care of yourself. I love you, Michelle. And that’s just not true. It’s not true. You do live with schizophrenia and that is a very difficult disease to manage and you manage it. You live alone. You don’t have a caregiver. Nobody takes care of you. You know, you don’t live in a group home. You know, you are in fact taking care of yourself. So when you say that you need to learn how to take care of yourself, this has nothing to do with your schizophrenia. You’re just kind of wild. That’s a deliberate choice that you’re making, you’re not sick.
Michelle: Yeah, but like if a baby is crying in the middle of the night, I just feel like I would go to bed. I’m taking a nap.
Gabe: You really think you’d be that way? I know you are joking, but honestly, would you let a child? It’s not even OK. It’s not even your child at this point, all right. You’re at a friend’s house and you’re babysitting and a little 9 month old is crying. Do you actually let the 9 month old suffer? Now you’re trying to pretend that you’re just like this uncaring person, but would you torture a baby?
Michelle: No. I hang out with you know my little cousin babies and my friends’ kids and they always have some fun. We color, play Spiderman, and whatever but then I’m like glad that I get to leave.
Gabe: And that’s perfectly understandable that’s I’m not saying that when I spend time with my granddaughter or my, and see that’s going to blow everybody’s mind. So people are like, “Wait, I thought he said he didn’t have kids.” I have loophole grandchildren because.
Michelle: You are a fake Granddaddy.
Gabe: That’s so mean. I am not fake. There is nothing about my relationship with Lenny that is fake.
Michelle: You’re not her real Granddaddy.
Gabe: I am absolutely her real grandfather. I am not her biological grandfather.
Michelle: Ok fine. Sure, whatever, fine, Grandpa. You want to be old like that fine, you’re grandpa. Oh man that really ages you calling yourself Grandpa makes you like even really old.
Gabe: I’m waiting for you to think about the audience.
Michelle: Oh yeah. OK. How are you a grandfather if you don’t have kids?
Gabe: A long long time ago in a galaxy far far away I joined a program called Big Brothers & Big Sisters where I met this precocious little 6 year old and we have been in each other’s lives for a while a long time over 18 years now. He lived with me for a bit. I’ve done things for him, I’ve been involved with him in a very meaningful, deliberate, and lasting way for almost two decades now and nine months ago he became a dad.
Michelle: Did you teach him the birds and the bees?
Gabe: I did. I did. I gave him the talk.
Michelle: So that’s how he learned how to make a baby, and that you’re now a grandpa.
Gabe: You know I mean I think that’s how he learned not to be pregnant in high school. There’s clearly maybe a little more teaching that I could have done because I was really worried about him getting somebody pregnant when he was a teenager.
Gabe: Well that’s that’s not the point. One, the mother of his child is probably one of the most wonderful and coolest people that I have ever met and I sincerely hope that they get married someday. I really do and not because I have like some religious reason of Oh you’re living together, cohabitating, like no. I want her to be like officially in my family. She is unofficially in because we love her. But for realm, I will be so incredibly happy if they get married. But you know Taylor is like a son to me. He really is. I feel about him that way. And when he had a baby that makes that child like a granddaughter to me. And we just went with it because you know a lot of times when you live with mental illness and when you have trauma in your childhood and when people ebb and flow in and out of your life, sometimes you have to make your own family and we embrace this and we did it. Listen, my biological father isn’t around either. I was raised by my real dad, not my biological one. And we believe in this very much because if we didn’t we’ve just got a whole bunch of fractures, and we don’t want a whole bunch of fractures we want a whole bunch of very meaningful relationships. But to your point, Michelle, you are right. I am not a biological grandfather, but I do think I’m a real one.
Michelle: Oh I’m not trying to make you feel bad.
Gabe: I don’t feel bad. I’m clarifying. Sponsors make the show go. We’re going to hear from now.
Announcer: This episode is sponsored by BetterHelp.com. Secure, convenient, and affordable online counselling. All counselors are licensed, accredited professionals. Anything you share is confidential. Schedule secure video or phone sessions, plus chat and text with your therapist, whenever you feel it’s needed. A month of online therapy often costs less than a single traditional face to face session. Go to BetterHelp.com/PsychCentral and experience seven days of free therapy to see if online counselling is right for you. BetterHelp.com/PsychCentral.
Michelle: And we’re back talking about whether Gabe and I are gonna have kids. But not with each other.
Gabe: Michelle, you do have a lot of kids in your life though. You referenced a cousin. I don’t think that your brother has any children but there’s young kids in your life that you hang out and play with. I see pictures on social media of you teaching them how to do art projects and crafts which is something that is really near and dear to your heart. So clearly you want to spend time with them. I don’t think anybody’s making you.
Michelle: I know, my baby cousin Atlas like she’s 3 now but like up until this age she hated me. She would never talk to me, she would turn her head away from me. She was scared of me and now she likes me. I don’t know. She was such a hater. Like for the longest time I was like I like I don’t like her either, whatever. Get her away from me. But now she likes me.
Gabe: I love that you got in a fight with the 3 year old.
Michelle: You know what, I don’t know what her problem was.
Gabe: Has anybody ever told you that you can’t be in their children’s life because of your mental illness?
Michelle: No, not at all.
Gabe: This happened to me a very long time ago again before I made the decision not to have kids. Somebody who I was very close to told me that I could no longer babysit their children because they didn’t trust me because I had bipolar disorder and that I could only see their kids for small amounts of time very supervised and it hurt me very very much. And to this day. That impacted my decision when I made the decision not to have kids. I looked at these parents because I think they’re good parents. I think they’re reasonable people. I loved their children and I thought, “Wow they don’t want me to be around children. Maybe they’re right.” So that impacted me very deeply too. And there’s all kinds of stories of people being told that they can’t be around their children because of their mental health issues. And that’s scary because it might be reasonable. Listen, Michelle, I don’t have any children but if you were actively suicidal, if you were actively depressed, if you were experiencing psychosis, obviously I would not leave you alone with my child. But where do you draw that line? In parents defense, you know that’s really hard. They don’t want to risk their children in any way. I understand that. That’s reasonable. But what they said and how they tabled it hurt me very very deeply to this day.
Michelle: I haven’t tried to work with kids since I started telling people that I had schizophrenia. I figured that would probably not be a good thing to do. I was a swim instructor lifeguard for six summers and being a schizophrenic lifeguard is very very interesting. You ever just stare at a pool trying to count how many people are in a pool all that yeah you’re going delusional at the exact same time? That’s fun. That’s real fun. Oh yeah.
Gabe: But you are describing a scenario before recovery.
Gabe: If you were doing this today would that be a problem today for you?
Michelle: I don’t think I could go back to where I was working now. I really don’t. I don’t think where I was working at the sleep away camp that I was last working at, I don’t think they would want me back. I really doubt it.
Gabe: Now would they not want you back? Or do you feel that you can’t go back? And by feel you can’t go back like do you think that because of your illness, this isn’t a choice?
Michelle: I think because of my illness it’s not a choice. I think I really don’t think they would allow me back at that camp knowing.
Gabe: But if they would allow you back, do you think that you could do it? If they told you that it was up to you? What do you, Michelle Hammer, feel you can do?
Michelle: I think I could. I think I could do it. I think I could but I think that like the people in charge wouldn’t want any of the campers to know. I think it would have to be kept secret.
Gabe: And that’s painful.
Michelle: I don’t think I could go back working there at all now actually.
Gabe: Do you miss it? Is it something that you miss?
Michelle: It was fun. It was fun. It was a lot of fun working there. Sleep away camp is really really really really fun. Sleep away camp with mental illness is really crazy and fun. You know after telling all of the world you have schizophrenia, trying to go back, I don’t think that would be an easy time.
Gabe: And how much of that do you think is reasonable?
Michelle: I think it’s a little bit reasonable because I think that there would be a lot of rumors, a lot of questions, a lot of mistrust, stigma, a lot of people wouldn’t really understand. I really think they wouldn’t want the campers to know.
Gabe: And that’s really really tough. Because on one hand what you’re describing is a situation where you want to keep the kids safe and you’re saying look maybe I’m not the best choice because I have an illness. You know, for example we wouldn’t hire a blind lifeguard. That doesn’t mean that we’re stigmatizing the blind. It might not necessarily be that they’re stigmatizing people who live with schizophrenia by not wanting them to go to sleep away camp. But on the other hand, one of the things that you said is they wouldn’t want any of the campers to know that you had schizophrenia. What if the camp if they hired a blind cook? I mean they wouldn’t care if people knew that their cook had issues with seeing or hearing or was in a wheelchair.
Michelle: So it’s this is really all that has to happen is for one of those campers to tell their parents. One parent complains and done. Done. One parent complains and it’s done.
Gabe: And this is a burden that people with mental illness have to face every single day.
Gabe: And sometimes they have to face it in their own families. So your family is is really really cool. They let you hang out with all the kids. You know I imagine that Aunt Michelle is probably the coolest Aunt in the world.
Michelle: I think so. I think so.
Gabe: And as longtime listeners of the show know, Uncle Gabe is just a complete bad ass. All of my nieces and nephews, they absolutely adore me. I’m the one that lets them get away with murder. I’m the one that gives them extra helpings of dessert even though their parents specifically looked me in the eyes and said, “Gabe, do not give my child candy.” I’m the one handing them candy. My brother and sister just accept it because hey they know who I am and I’ve had a lot of fun with it. But one thing that they’ve never done, that nobody in my family has ever done, is kept their kids away from me. And in fact they’ve explained to all of their children from birth that Uncle Gabe lives with bipolar disorder.
Michelle: They just great.
Gabe: You know my my little niece is four years old and she wears my bipolar shirt. She has your wristband. And we went to an art place the other day here in Columbus, the 14th largest city. And we did art and everybody agreed that the children were either going to be great artists like Michelle or schizophrenic like Michelle. Which is you know it’s the humor that fits into our family we’re not rooting for schizophrenia. But they acknowledge it very openly and conversationally. You know my 4 year old niece has heard about concepts like living with bipolar disorder and living with schizophrenia and the stigma that goes with it. And she’s for sure she’s going to grow up knowing what this is and not being worried or afraid about it at all. And in a position to be like a really powerful ally.
Michelle: That’s right. That’s great.
Gabe: I think so because she’s going to pick my nursing home since I made the decision not to have kids. Or you can pick my nursing home, Michelle. You’re quite a bit younger than me.
Michelle: In the 14th largest city?
Gabe: Maybe, you should find me a good one. Or you could move me to New York with your millions.
Michelle: Oh, my millions?
Gabe: I mean don’t you make like 80 million dollars?
Michelle: Oh, yeah, totally, I make like 80 million. I’m like on the cover of Forbes. You don’t even know.
Gabe: It’s fascinating to me that people reference schizophrenic.NYC, which is your clothing line. That’s a Web address, schizophrenic.NYC, you can go check out her designs and buy them. And they think that it’s a multi-million dollar company. Now your company is doing fantastic but it’s safe to say that you’re not gonna be in the mall anytime soon.
Michelle: Thanks, Gabe. That makes me feel so great.
Gabe: People also hear that I published a book. Mental Illness Is an Asshole, and they’re like oh oh you have a book where you talk about living with mental illness in a constructive way and family members can read it and understand better? You must be a millionaire on the New York Times bestseller list
Michelle: And giving all of our you know our assets to our children and that’s why.
Gabe: We have made good money selling our books and and our clothing. But they always compare us to like these multinational companies. I have not sold as many books as Harry Potter. Wait Harry Potter don’t sell books at all.
Michelle: It’s the myths, the wizardry.
Gabe: Are your designs ever going to be like in an Abercrombie & Fitch or a Gap?
Michelle: They do their own designs. I have to have my own store.
Gabe: What would your own store in the mall be called?
Gabe: But what about like if it was in Columbus, Ohio?
Michelle: The 14th largest? Wow, from the first largest city to the 14th largest city I just don’t even know.
Gabe: Maybe schizophrenic.USA? But if you put one in each one you could own 14 stores. Now you have a chain. You’re thinking too low.
Michelle: I would have to, what’s that called?
Gabe: The franchise?
Michelle: Franchise, like Dunkin Donuts.
Gabe: Wait! Have you sold your designs at Dunkin Donuts? Like don’t be paranoid. You look great. Have a donut.
Michelle: Don’t you love when it’s Dunkin Donuts and Baskin Robbins at the same time?
Gabe: So you can get donuts and ice cream?
Gabe: I love the flight of ideas we have here. It’s an interesting point that you brought up, Michelle, that women are constantly pressured to have children until they find out that you have a serious and persistent mental illness. Now you and I made completely different decisions. I decided that I could not be a parent because I didn’t want to pass on the illness. You feel significantly differently. That’s amazing to me. Can you talk about that a little bit? Because I would have thought that everybody in my shoes would have come to the identical conclusion and I’m really impressed and proud of you for that. It’s cool and it’s brave and I am neither of those things.
Michelle: I don’t think it’s cool or brave. I just think I am me. I’m going to do me. Whatever happens happens that I’m not going to be scared of something till I actually make a decision. I’m not ready for kids right now but I’m not you know canceling them out in the future. I’m not going to decide right now. Why do I have to do that? I don’t know what the future is going to bring for me and maybe I’ll have kids. Maybe I’ll have 50 kids, maybe I’ll have zero kids. Maybe I’ll have two kids, three kids, four kids, five kids, seven fish. One Fish Two Fish Blue Fish and all I’ll say is who knows?
Gabe: Again I know that you think that it’s not brave, but I do respect that even though many people in the world and we do know that there’s many people are putting pressure on you not to have children because you live with schizophrenia. You’re saying that if I feel that I am able I’m going to do it. And if you ever do have children you will have brought people into the world that otherwise wouldn’t have been here if you would have listened to society. So hey, if I ever meet little Michelle Hammers I will be terrified. But I do think that it would be cool. Thank you everyone for tuning into this episode of A Bipolar, a Schizophrenic, and a Podcast. If you haven’t jumped over to schizophrenic.NYC and checked out Michelle’s designs, you are really missing out. Also go to GabeHoward.com and check out Mental illness Is an Asshole> It’s a cool book and I’ll sign it if you order it directly from me. We will see you next week, and we will talk about whatever the fuck we want.
Announcer: You’ve been listening to A Bipolar, a Schizophrenic, and a Podcast. If you love this episode, don’t keep it to yourself head over to iTunes or your preferred podcast app to subscribe, rate, and review. To work with Gabe, go to GabeHoward.com. To work with Michelle, go to schizophrenic.NYC. For free mental health resources and online support groups, head over to PsychCentral.com. This show’s official web site is PsychCentral.com/BSP. You can e-mail us at [email protected] Thank you for listening, and share widely.
Meet Your Bipolar and Schizophrenic Hosts
GABE HOWARD was formally diagnosed with bipolar and anxiety disorders after being committed to a psychiatric hospital in 2003. Now in recovery, Gabe is a prominent mental health activist and host of the award-winning Psych Central Show podcast. He is also an award-winning writer and speaker, traveling nationally to share the humorous, yet educational, story of his bipolar life. To work with Gabe, visit gabehoward.com.
MICHELLE HAMMER was officially diagnosed with schizophrenia at age 22, but incorrectly diagnosed with bipolar disorder at 18. Michelle is an award-winning mental health advocate who has been featured in press all over the world. In May 2015, Michelle founded the company Schizophrenic.NYC, a mental health clothing line, with the mission of reducing stigma by starting conversations about mental health. She is a firm believer that confidence can get you anywhere. To work with Michelle, visit Schizophrenic.NYC.
Podcast, N. (2019). Podcast: Becoming a Parent with Mental Illness. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 1, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/podcast-becoming-a-parent-with-mental-illness/