Theses Doctoral

"Okay, well, everyone else has babies. Why shouldn't I?" How women with mental illness make reproductive decisions

Portugaly, Erela

Estimates suggest that about eight million American teens and young adults experience clinical symptoms of mental illness. For many, these mental health challenges will develop into a diagnosable and potentially life-long psychiatric disorder. Together they form a large population of adults who enter their prime reproductive age as psychiatric patients.

Though individuals with mental illness enjoy the same reproductive rights as those without psychiatric conditions, social and medical discourses often portray their parenthood as risky and undesirable. Women with mental illness are in a particularly difficult position. As women, they are subjected to the gendered expectation that they become mothers. Yet at the same time, their mental illness results in their motherhood being frowned upon. Carrying these contradicting values, this study asks how women with psychiatric disorders make reproductive decisions. Do these women think of their reproductive capacity through the psychiatric framing of risk, or through gendered narratives of desired motherhood?

Using open ended interviews with women with a psychiatric diagnosis, this study shows that women with mental illness approach their reproductive decision-making by utilizing narratives of both normal reproduction and disability. Some women portray their mental illness as an obstacle to motherhood while others create a separation between their mental and reproductive health. Still others defy the distinction between psychiatry and normalcy and describe their reproduction as a way to bring the two together. Despite the difference in framing, all the women in this study engage with the discourse of risk(s) that is brought on by their mental illness. To weigh risk and act upon it, they visit their and their peer’s biographical stories of illness, assess their fitness into normative ideas of good motherhood, and evaluate the worth of medical and scientific information. They question the way medical information is created, distributed, and made applicable to the idiosyncrasy of their reproductive life. In doing so, these women draw boundaries around trust as well as redefine medical neutrality.

Finally, we show that women with mental illness and their health providers rely on a vaguely defined stepwise plan to approach reproduction. This plan brings normativity – and desirability - to their reproduction at the same time that it threatens to exclude them from motherhood.

By bringing these arguments together we arrive at the overall conclusion that women with mental illness do not approach their reproduction as a monolithic group. Nor do they organize along diagnosis lines. This study shows that women across psychiatric diagnoses share similar reproductive desires, some hoping to have children and others wishing to avoid motherhood altogether. The popular idea that certain psychiatric diagnoses render women unsuitable for motherhood is not echoed by the women in this study. Instead, their embodied experience of mental illness allows them to embrace the newfound reproductive choice of psychiatric patients and highlights the stigma that perpetuates fears of motherhood with mental illness.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Eyal, Gil
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
November 16, 2022