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This is the Toughest Thing I've Ever Written.

I chose to not have children, because I was afraid of what I might do.

By Catherine KenwellPublished 2 years ago Updated 2 years ago 9 min read
This is the Toughest Thing I've Ever Written.
Photo by Kseniia Ilinykh on Unsplash

This is the toughest thing I’ve ever written.

I’m addressing a choice I made, years ago. A conscious decision that changed the trajectory of my life. And at 60, I still carry the weight of my decision. I’m not burdened with it, but at times I find I continue to reassure myself that, considering all the variables, I did the right thing. What follows here is me, thinking it out.

I chose to not have children.

I was afraid to have children.

I was afraid to have children because my mother suffered psychotic episodes throughout my childhood, and I was terrified that, as a mother, I would follow her path into madness. I simply couldn’t bear the responsibility that, despite knowing that mental illness runs in my family, I would procreate and be unable to control myself. That I would do bad things. Like my mother did, and her mother before her. The idea that I would hurt my children was real; the vulnerability of tiny humans scared me to death.

My mother’s mental illness affected our entire family, and worse, I couldn’t tell a soul. I grew up wary and distrustful of my mom; not because she didn’t love me, because I know she did. Rather, her illness rendered her so inconsistent and distant that she was like an ever-changing puzzle. Sometimes she’d be kind and involved; other times, the mental abuse directed toward me was enough to make me think I was the crazy one.

So my choice wasn’t a rash one. I didn’t make the decision overnight. In fact, I perhaps subconsciously tailored my life in a way that my choice seemed like the most sensible one.

Married at 24, divorced at 27. We simply didn’t have the skills to make our marriage work; add to that, neither of us was happy in our jobs, we rarely saw each other, and we were broke. We moved three times during those three years. And my mental state was yo-yoing from ridiculous highs to devastating lows. I was self-harming, and my husband felt helpless, out of his depth.

Toward the end of our marriage, I thought that having a child might bring us closer together. I imagined adding a little baby to our family. What it would be like. And smartly, I concluded that nothing could change the trajectory our marriage was on. Back then, counseling was not something that was readily available or even suggested; we felt we were on our own. Years later, I know we made the correct decision. We fought constantly. I had no control over my emotional health. I was ill and fighting PTSD from being injured in a natural disaster, and I couldn’t even look after my own wellness. It was no place for a vulnerable child.

A month after I’d moved out of our apartment and into my own, I was hit by a car at a crosswalk. I was concussed (again), confused, grieving the loss of my marriage, and eventually developed post-concussion syndrome. A few months later, I was sexually assaulted—in my apartment, while I was sick with flu, by someone I trusted as a friend. Instead of taking time to recover, I threw myself head-on into the indie music scene, hanging out in Kensington Market, and drinking to excess. My friends noticed my sudden proclivity for wearing layers of baggy clothing—I’ll never forget a friend explaining that was a common reaction to being assaulted. I recall feeling like two distinct people: one, a vulnerable being, desperately clinging to anything beautiful she could find; the other, a lost soul who didn’t care whether she lived or died. Clearly, it was a lifestyle that didn’t include getting pregnant…at least that’s what I told myself.

A couple of years later, I met a funny, caustic, extremely intelligent man. I fell for him quickly, making excuses for his eccentricities and quirkiness. Our relationship was toxic right from the start. How on earth could I choose someone sicker than me, someone whose habits would eventually almost destroy me? Easy. I thought if I could fix him, it would fix me, and everything would turn out fine. He disliked children altogether; in fact, he attempted to keep me from my beloved niece and nephew. But here’s the thing—it was because of him that I was able to realize how much I did like being around kids, caring for them, loving them. It became an act of defiance.

Which is not a reason for having children.

When I ran into my ex-husband (who, yes, is the love of my life) as that most horrifying relationship was breaking up, we picked up where we left off—but with the experience and understanding that life had given us. We became friends. We continued dating others. Neither of us was serious about settling down again.

Almost three years later, we moved in together. He had a rewarding job for which he travelled and kept very early-morning hours; I, too, advanced in my career, and was working towards my university degree. We were both wary of even discussing children, and neither of us was in any hurry to rock the status quo. We were simply thrilled our relationship kept working.

But I was still living with undiagnosed mental illness.

I did yoga, studied meditation, took natural supplements that were supposed to help. All that helped…slightly.

By this time, I was 35, he was 39, and in order to make our rekindled partnership work, I began seeing a wonderful cognitive psychotherapist who had helped my husband in the past. I learned so much from her. She couldn’t have made it clearer to me: I was not my mother; my concerns about abusing my own child were valid, given my history, but I had the power to stop the cycle. My mother didn’t receive the help she needed, but I had worked hard to get help that would guide me if I chose motherhood. I had changed.

But had I? I doubted myself whenever my mental health would spiral into despondency; goodness knows, when I’d have an episode, we’d slam doors and scream at each other until the neighbors had to close their windows. I remained, at times, out of control. I was better, sure, but not better enough to have a child.

Clocks turned, years flew by, and I was suddenly 40. Periodically, I’d ponder: do I want a child? I knew I’d love and cherish a baby, and what a reward and struggle it would be to watch my own kid grow. I imagined what a goof our kid would be, and how much we’d love being goofy alongside them. We were both kids at heart, and we remain so.

This time, my husband cautioned me. While he loves being around kids, he never really felt the need for any of his own. Now, if we were to get pregnant, he would be eligible for old age security before the kid was out of high school.

Again, I asked myself: is love enough? Is love enough to raise a child? It certainly wasn’t for my mother. For as much as she loved me, her demons almost killed me. Even at 40, she was still trying to manipulate and abuse me.

I wavered; I wavered for several years, during the waning years of my fertility. I knew that as much as my husband discouraged me, he’d be an over-the-moon proud, loving daddy to any child we brought into the world.

Would it be fair, though? My mom’s worst periods of illness were between ages 44 and 55. If my illness became unbearable during those years, my child might live the trauma I did. Could I bear that responsibility? Could I break my child’s heart, render her traumatized, abuse her the way that I was abused?

Could I control myself?

Strangely, it would be almost 10 years before I’d experience a life event that would give me an answer, albeit too late to change history.

Days before my 50th birthday, I was hit in the head. Right between the eyes. When I began to experience an unbearable bout of post-concussion syndrome, I lost my mind. I don’t mind explaining it like that, because I kinda did. Everything shut down. Anhedonia shut the doors on everything I loved. And I hit rock bottom.

After gentle prodding from my husband, I called our old psychotherapist. I wasn’t even sure she was still practicing. But when she answered the phone, I attempted to explain what was wrong. She told me she couldn’t help me.

She said she couldn’t help me until I saw my family doc; my situation was serious, and I needed medication before any psychotherapy would help.

For the first time, I agreed to take prescription antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs. My doc, my therapist and I thought that the meds would be a temporary fix until the therapy kicked in. Instead, they dramatically changed my life.

The crazy highs, the deathly lows, the suicidal intentions, the inability to control my moods—they dissipated. I was able to deal with life so much easier. No dumbing down, no ‘this isn’t me’; rather, the medication helped me peel away the layers of scar tissue that had formed over decades of abuse, trauma, and physical injury. Slowly, I became more me.

And I discovered that I am more nurturing, creative, and loving than I ever allowed myself to be. Whatever biology, chemistry, and heredity had conspired to strike fear in me had finally been quelled.

Now, I’m 60 and 10 years medicated. I’m too old to bear my own children, but I’m grateful to be able to understand my trepidation and put my fears into perspective. Yes, I was terrified I’d succumb to psychosis and abuse my own child. Years of living as my mother’s child taught me that. Yes, I wish my own mom had been able to access the therapy and medication that helped me—it could have helped both of us.

And yes, I suppose I made excuses in order to remain child-free.

A wise friend once told me that maternal instinct isn’t always about having children. We can be motherly without offspring; we can offer love and care and support. We can nurture. At 60, I am a mother to an ever-changing menagerie of creatures, inside and outside our home. I tenderly care for and nurture the land around me. My heart and arms are open. Perhaps, I simply didn’t know I was a mother all along.


About the Creator

Catherine Kenwell

I live with a broken brain and PTSD--but that doesn't stop me! I'm an author, artist, and qualified mediator who loves life's detours.

I co-authored NOT CANCELLED: Canadian Kindness in the Face of COVID-19. I also publish horror stories.

Reader insights


Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!

Top insights

  1. Compelling and original writing

    Creative use of language & vocab

  2. Easy to read and follow

    Well-structured & engaging content

  3. Excellent storytelling

    Original narrative & well developed characters

  1. Eye opening

    Niche topic & fresh perspectives

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Comments (1)

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  • Madoka Mori2 years ago

    This is a lovely piece of writing, Catherine.

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