Written by Taylor Glenn

Voices

Oh, you got my brain

Fear of handing down mental illness down to your children can stop some people having kids. But not Taylor Glenn. Here she tells us why.

mother and daughter sitting on beach
“Oh, you got my thighs. Sorry about that!” quipped my mother one day. I was a teenager, who may or may not have hated her own thighs at that point.

“Oh, that’s… that’s OK,” I think I replied. I am certain that in that moment, my mother’s intention was not to make me feel bad. It was meant as a light-hearted and honest expression of dislike for a part of her body.

But, of course, it didn’t do much for my relationship with my thighs, which I started compulsively smooshing against things to see how wide and flat I could make them. Also, I sort of felt bad I’d had the nerve to carry on such a detestable gene.

I sometimes reflect on that moment, which has become blurrier with age but more confronting now I’m a mother to a little girl myself. My daughter may have my thighs, which I’ve learned to like after about $5K worth of therapy (joking, Mom! But it IS bananas how wide and flat I can smoosh them now and be a-OK with it. Whoo! Progress!).

My daughter’s also got my nose and eyebrows and goofy humour and empathic nature and stubborn-as-shit approach to tasks and hair-trigger anger when she can’t do something right the first time. I can live with all these, comfortably. I’m sure the world can, too, and most importantly, I hope she does.

The thing which keeps me in a prison of dread as a parent is the fear that she may also have inherited the darker sides of my brain. The bleak, murky shantytowns of my psyche best explained by frustratingly reductive words like ‘depression’ and ‘anxiety’ which have brought me to a screeching halt at various points in my life.

“If you Google ‘fear of passing on mental illness to child’ – and you bet your last Citalopram I have – you’ll be greeted with articles like WHY PEOPLE WITH MENTAL ILLNESS SHOULD NOT HAVE CHILDREN.”

Whatever the labels, and despite a lifetime of effort, these are the big, ugly, ‘psychological thighs’ I’ve tried to hide about myself.

No matter what I do to shrink them, they are never truly gone, only in temporary hiding. I don’t want her to inherit these things. But as is usually the case with fear, the more I harbour it, the more I end up searching for the justification of its existence.

If she has a meltdown, or reacts strongly to anything (as is, let’s be fair, the norm for most nearly-four-year-olds), in my mind something different is happening than what the world sees. I am witnessing her future pathology. I am uncovering clues that she is doomed to be mentally unwell, that she has been dealt a bad hand – well, make that bad brain. And to have possibly passed that on is a cruelty for which I cannot seem to forgive myself.

“Oh, you got my brain. SORRY ABOUT THAT!”

If you Google “fear of passing on mental illness to child” – and you bet your last Citalopram I have – you’ll be greeted with articles like WHY PEOPLE WITH MENTAL ILLNESS SHOULD NOT HAVE CHILDREN. Which is why you should never try to Google your anxieties away, because Google is a manipulative prick.

That said, it’s an interesting debate, albeit one I’m in too deep to have now. Sarah Silverman famously stated a few years ago that she would never have biological children, because she didn’t want to risk passing on the gene for depression that seems to run in her family.

I applauded her honesty, contemplated the odds myself, and got pregnant anyway. I decided that my dice were as good as any to roll, and I knew I had some great thighs to pass on.

“As for my daughter, I don’t want to hide or shame my own vulnerabilities any more than I want to teach her to be ashamed of her own.”

There’s a wonderful article from 2009 in The Atlantic which explores some provocative research in the area of genetics. It’s rather more poetic than most pieces which explore genetics, talking about ‘dandelion’ v ‘orchid’ children.

Dandelion children are children with hardy genes which will thrive in most conditions. They are, presumably, the children who fall down in the playground and pop back up again without shedding a tear, the ones who fuel my paranoia that my daughter has something deeply wrong with her when she cries because another child has fallen down in the playground.

Dandelion people are the people I’ve always secretly longed to be – they are resilient and strong and seem to march on and on while I’m at home crying in a corner wondering how anyone can stand to live for more than a couple of decades on this planet.

Orchid children are different. They have genes which have been identified as ‘risky’, and can lead on to some of those labels I carry so begrudgingly, as well as a host of other behaviours and problems no parents want to imagine their children exhibiting.

But in the study, which explored the outcomes of these children, something fascinating was discovered: if they are given the right environment, the right nurturing, orchid children not only turn out OK, but they thrive and excel beyond the average dandelion. They become the poets, the artists, the humanitarians, the creatives, and the more dynamic leaders (I know! Remember those?) of the world.

Re-reading the article made me realise something which made my fear get Hulk-Smashed, even if for a precious moment: the negative outcome is not determined by whether my child, or anyone, has traits which warrant a diagnoses at some point in life. It’s whether or not we create environments where the orchids among us are allowed to flourish as well as the dandelions. The negative outcome is where a lack of vulnerability, and a façade of perfection, is considered the ultimate achievement – whether at home or outside.

The world will always be fine for dandelions, of course, and the world needs them. This is not the genetic version of West Side Story, after all (Dandelions! Orchids!). But I realised that as a parent – hell, as a person – I need to celebrate the world of the orchids. To support the platforms and arenas which allow them to thrive.

And as for my daughter, I don’t want to hide or shame my own vulnerabilities any more than I want to teach her to be ashamed of her own. If she is an orchid, I will try to give her the care she needs. Maybe one day I will even tell her: “Oh, you got my brain. Take good care of it. Some day it might just do wonderful things.”

Watch a clip from Taylor’s 2016 Edinburgh Fringe show about postnatal depression, A Billion Days of Parenthood:

Taylor has also launched a new podcast called Self Renovators with Caroline Mabey in which the two comedians road-test internet self-help tips. Listen here.

@taylorglennUK

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Written by Taylor Glenn

Taylor is an American comedian, writer, and former psychotherapist based in London. She has a two-year-old and a dead basil plant.