I used to do this really depressing thing where I would tell myself I didn’t want to have kids. My reasoning was this: their chances of having a mental illness were too high. I mean, think about it: even if I married a guy with no diagnoses to speak of (and so far, I’ve dated a series of suspiciously well-adjusted folks), I myself have qualified for both alcoholism and an eating disorder, not to mention experiencing anxiety and depression. What are the chances that my kids could bypass it all and come out scot free? What are the chances that anyone born of me could have a normal, non-hyperbolic response when landing the B team in baseball, earning a B in biology, or survive an altogether different encounter with the wretched letter B?
(Puts a bee sting in perspective, doesn’t it? Not so bad in the scheme of Bs.)
To be clear: I’m not even sure I want kids. What I am sure of is this: “they might be nuts like me” is not a good reason to skip out. Regardless of whether I choose to have kids (indeed, perhaps I won’t even be blessed with that choice), telling myself I can’t because my genetic material is “too dangerous” is just a bit… dramatic. It’s wrong in a self-indulgent way. It’s alcoholic thinking: I’m not only flawed, but I’m uniquely, irreversibly flawed; the world would collapse under the weight of a mini-me bearing my relatively common ailments.
Plus: isn’t it possible that, with everything I know about eating disorders and alcoholism - academically, professionally, personally - I could maybe prevent these in my kids? Maybe I could monitor the accounts she follows on Instagram to ensure she’s following a diverse, size-inclusive range of influencers. Maybe I could intentionally develop in him a phobic response to alcohol early in childhood. (Whenever an alcohol advertisement pops up on TV, one of his favorite action figures curiously develops flu-like symptoms. Ten to twelve iterations later, just the sight of Listerine makes him hide his toys.)
Wow, I’m sure glad I played this out in writing first. At this point, blogging is just damage control. When I first went on a date with my current boyfriend, he told me I was acting a bit like a therapist. Sounds like I'm at risk for being that kind of mom, too.
I’ll address the question of whether we can prevent disordered eating in our kids at a different time. For now, let’s consider: can you prevent your kid from being an alcoholic? Can I?
First of all, let me recognize that I’m in dicey territory. If anyone reading this has a kid with alcoholism or an eating disorder, the last thing you want is to hear someone say you could’ve prevented it.
I’m not typically long on hope, but in this case, I have a little. I don’t believe you can reasonably prevent your kids from being exposed to alcohol. Perhaps, as dumb luck or excessive monitoring would have it, they won't find alcohol while still living at home. But a rigid environment isn't good for kids, either. No one needs that many flute lessons. Developing in them a fearful attitude towards the “big, bad world out there" will almost necessarily backfire with a kid who is eventually scared of everything or scared of nothing at all.
Here’s something fun about iGen: they engage in less risky behavior than any other generation in decades. They drink less, smoke less, have less sex. However, their rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide are higher than any other generation.
The other day, I asked my friend, a therapist, what she thinks of this trade off. I’ll admit, as an alcoholic, I was kinda leaning towards crippling self-doubt and phone addiction but no access to booze and no sex without condoms. Seemed like the safer bet. But she heartily disagreed: If someone has the predisposition towards alcoholism, it’s never too late to develop it. Sure, mom and dad might have tightly controlled the circumstances at home. But there are people in recovery who didn’t develop alcoholism, or even discover the power of alcohol at all, until their 30s, 40s, and 50s. Perhaps they were too scared to try alcohol earlier, perhaps it didn’t interest them, or perhaps they lacked opportunity. Regardless: the predisposition was there, and the environment eventually aligned.
A healthy kid is not raised in a rigidly controlled environment, but he or she is raised with skills and values. For my part, my parents couldn’t prevent me from trying alcohol; although I didn’t drink in high school, it was never in question that I would attend a four-year college, where alcohol would inevitably be introduced. What my parents could (and did) do is raise a kid with the capacity to overcome obstacles. Skills like self-honesty, humility, a sense of purpose, a respect for spiritual unknowns, a respect for myself, and perhaps most importantly, self-efficacy - the sense that difficult goals are not outside my reach - those are traits which ultimately influenced my sobering up. My parents modeled these traits. Although these characteristics won't prevent you from finding alcohol or negate a predisposition towards alcoholism, they can make a difference in if, how, and when someone rises out of it.
How do you give your kids the best possible shot? Start by giving yourself a good shot. The environment is outside of your control, but your own behavior is not. It’s hard (sometimes painfully, regretfully hard) to unlearn what we learn in childhood. That’s less good if you learned that you’re unlovable or powerless. But it’s more good if you learned, even unconsciously, that you are capable of overcoming difficulty and worthy of an expansive life.
So please, if you’re going to tell yourself it’s better not to have kids, be a gem and make some dumb joke about overpopulation. Pretend that little Sophia will be the straw that breaks the camel's back. But know this: your genetic material is not toxic. The light in you is worth passing along.