“I couldn’t subject kids to my craziness.”
“I’m not sane enough to be a parent.”
“I’m doing the world a favor by not passing on these crazy genes.”
All these and more are phrases I’ve heard — excuses from the childless, defenses from the childfree.
The very last thing I want to do is attack those who, for whatever reason, have chosen not to have children. So many women — though far from all — are pressured to reproduce, or at the least (as though adoption is a consolation prize, a mimicry of “real” parenting) become mothers in some way. I support without reservation the choice to remain childless/free, and consider it my duty and honor to protect and defend all the reproductive choices of women, and to counter the misogyny of external pressure to procreate.
But I am a crazy mom. And the child of a crazy parent. And when I hear these excuses — when no excuse should be needed for what is a respectful and deserves to be respected choice — it gives me pause. I squirm. I do not speak out, because the last thing a woman-under-attack needs to hear is how her defenses against unacceptable insinuations hurt me — but hurt me they do. And I remember.
A disclaimer: in defense of the childfree
I am the last to argue that parenting is universally good for one’s mental health. I entered the experience armed with terrible-truth telling tomes like Mother Shock, Operating Instructions, Inconsolable, and though I was filled with an irrational ache, an indescribable emptiness that itself adversely affected my instability, and would trade it for no other life path, neither would I do readers the disfavor of lying that it has not, in measurable ways, challenged and, yes, harmed me. From uncontrollable hormonal waves to sleep deprivation to insanity-inducing sensations, to triggery toddlers and more-triggery preschoolers: parenting has not been easy or kind to my mental wellness. I fault no one for hearing these honest, if one sided, truths and deciding to say “no thank you” and book another cruise to Cuba. This isn’t about attempting to persuade anyone to parent if they lack the wholly irrational drive on their own.
But it is about what else is said when, hearing of diarrhea diapers and untameable tantrums, one announces “I’m too crazy to parent.” Because meaning to or not — and it mostly isn’t — it says parents aren’t supposed to be crazy. It says children are better off without crazy parents. It says my life, on both ends, is wrong.
Unattainably high ideals for parents, unacceptably low ideas of craziness
Whenever I write posts like this, someone says it isn’t about me, and I’m being too sensitive, and I take words too seriously. And it’s true, to some extent: I don’t believe anyone who says these things to me is intending to speak about anyone other than themselves, and their truths. I am not trying to (as though I could!) ban anyone from using phrase “too crazy to parent” referring to themselves. I don’t think these words are spoken of oneself out of malice for others, nor do I wish to silence the stories of those who have desired children, weighed the possibilities, and decided the risk to themselves and their health was too great. Because that is the truth of many, and deserves respect and recognition no less than any other honesty.
But for many others, it seems not a deep-thought truth, but a talisman waved to ward off “and when can we expect pitter-patters in your halls, hmm?” I do not blame the inclination to reach for whatever will shut those over-nosy voices up, but I protest when what reached for harms me.
Harm me it does, twice over, for the idea of “too crazy to parent”, outside of a deeply reflective context, is based on impossibly, unattainably high ideals for parents, and on insulting, unacceptably low ideas of craziness. When spoken of oneself, it may be either an honest assessment of ability, or internalized ableism (or some inseparable tangle of both). From here, outside the speaker’s heart, I cannot know which it is, and so I do not disagree; but I hear it so frequently from those who I know consider themselves more stable than I (or no less so) that I know not all instances can be free of this internalization.
Parents are not perfect. Parents are not meant to be perfect; I consider it inevitable, nigh on my duty, that in some way I fuck up my child — just like every other parent. Us crazies certainly don’t have a monopoly on fucking up our offspring; indeed, I dare you to find me one parent, anywhere, anywhen, who has not burdened or blessed their child with some form of awkward, hindersome baggage. Craziness, uncontrolled, might affect the quality or degree of mess we make of our kids, but in the fact of its existence makes us different not at all.
All parents fuck up our kids in some way, to some degree, but some fuck them over. Some fuck them — unfortunately not merely metaphorically. Some people — people I love — were abused, abandoned, neglected, never allowed the abundant love and adequate parenting that was their birthright. Some people are parents in name only, and need to be disallowed from damaging their children any further. I do not pretend that these things are not true. I do not wish to silence those whose parent(s), crazy or broken or both, were very much not a blessing or gift or growth opportunity. Sometimes “crazy” and “abusive” go hand in hand.
But they are not synonymous.
Not crazy, not sane, but… self aware?
My dad is not neurotypical — there are many diagnoses he’s been slapped with over the years, and suspicions of others abound, but I find an appropriate approximation of his challenges is communicated with the combination “bipolar” and “Asperger” — and his craziness has wound around the deepest parts of my psyche, choked off some growths, clouded some areas, heaped manure on some ground. He fucked me up, unquestionably, inescapably.
And yet — I was also gifted tools to cope, skills to survive, and (paradoxically with my pathetically low self esteem) an absolute arrogance that I deserve to exist. As I am. As fucked up as I am. As broken as I have been made. I, understandably I’d say, bristle when however unintentionally someone supports the meme that crazy (fat, different, indebted) people shouldn’t parent — that I should be other than I am. Whatever burdens were placed on me by the parenting I received (and they are numerous, and heavy, and uncomfortable to carry), I was also taught how to be strong; to ask for help when needed; to take a rest when needed; that those that love me would share my load — and though they are lessons I will spend my life repeating, striving always to get right, I am better off for having the introduction early on in my life. Rather than lessons taught in spite of the craziness I was exposed to (that was inflicted upon me, at times), they were wound up together, one growing in response to the other. It was not the crazy per se that granted me these lessons, but awareness of what the crazy — as well as not-crazy human failings — could do, and would do, that allowed them to be given me.
I do not have the name for what this quality is, but it is what matters far more than crazy or sane, neurotypical or not, patient or prone to agitation. It seems some form of self-awareness, some ability to reflect on the whys and wherefores of one’s failings, some meta-parenting that makes up for many imperfect micro-parenting moments. (Which is not to encourage overthinking this whole ridiculous enterprise-called-parenting either — as I said, I don’t have the words, and that always leaves me flailing, circling around in oft vain attempts to flank and flush out the exact idea I am attempt to pin down so I can communicate it.) Whatever it is, it allows one to recognize and acknowledge the fuck-ups and then teach (or at least search for) ways to cope with them.
What frustrates me perhaps most of all is that this nameless quality seems so very closely related to the awareness that leads people to state they are “too crazy to parent”. Rightly or wrongly, it makes me want to shake the speaker and say “You’re wrong! You could be exactly the type of parent the world needs more of! You know your challenges, and you know enough to take steps to compensate for them! I want you by my side! I want you raising my children’s peers!”
I won’t, of course — no one needs more outside opinions on their reproductive choices. But if you say to me “I could never have kids — I’m too crazy to parent!”, and you see me cringe, this is why: this frustrating mix of hurt and anger, of thwarted desire and repressed opinion, of raised brow and bitten tongue. I’m not going to tell you not to say it. But I will ask you to think about what you really mean when you do.