Bad Childhoods, Dysfunctional Families, and Mental Illness: Reflections on HBO’s ‘Mommy Dead and Dearest’ From a Childfree Perspective

  • SPOILERS: This post contains spoilers from the HBO documentary ‘Mommy Dead and Dearest.’

My husband and I cuddled up on the couch on Saturday evening to watch Mommy Dead and Dearest, the HBO documentary about the murder of Dee Dee Blancharde and the accused, her own daughter Gypsy Rose Blancharde. Not the most romantic date night for sure, but intersting nontheless. Gypsy endured one of the worst cases of Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy, a mental illness and form of abuse in which a caregiver intentionally makes their dependent ill, ever to be recorded. After watching the documentary, I read this article detailing what Gypsy plans to do after being released from prision. In addition to considering culinary and cosmotology school, Gypsy had this to say as told by her step-mom Kristy:

She had told me that one day, she hopes when she gets out, that she wants to be able to grow a family. And she had mentioned that to one of her cellmates, and her cellmate said, “Well, aren’t you too scared to raise your child like your mom did?” And she said, “What I have learned is how to not raise my child how my mom raised me. I am learning how to raise my child by [Kristy,] my mom I have now. With compassion, and with love, and being honest, and being there for your child for all the right reasons.”

-Anna Gragert & Rachel Sanoff,

Despite the grizzly tale of Gypsy’s life, her comments here scare me more. About 30% of abused and/or neglected children will grow up to later abuse their own children. You might reason that Gypsy stands a 70% chance of not abusing her future children to which I say, why take that chance?

Righting Childhood Wrongs: The Right Way & The Wrong Way

When I have kids, I’m going to do things differently than my parents. This sentiment is not uncommon but is it healthy?

In most cases they explain that having a baby seemed to offer a respite from the pain of unloving parents or rejecting relationships with lovers or spouses…The real problem, of course, is that the burden of supplying love is shifted onto the child who is supposed to be emotional first aid for the parent. That is a recipe for disaster.

-Peg Streep, 6 Terrible Reasons for Anyone to Have a Child, Psychology Today

You cannot relive your childhood vicariously through your children simply because they are not you. There are no guarantees that children will fill your emotional void or mend your psychological wounds. Instead of trying to right childhood wrongs by having children, why not invest in self-care?

Mental Illness Doesn’t Disappear

Many of you know my struggle with anxiety and intermittent depression. My mental health is one of the (big) reasons I’m childfree. About 85% of women will experience a negative mood shift after giving birth. About 10 to 15% will go on to experience serious depression/anxiety known as postpardum depression. Although rare, some women also develop postpardum pyschosis.

Women who have had major depression in the past have a higher risk of becoming depressed in pregnancy, especially if they stopped taking antidepressant medication while trying to become pregnant.

Treating depression in a woman who wants to conceive or is pregnant is complicated… In pregnancy, concerns arise about using medications to treat depression since they cross the placenta and may harm the fetus. At the same time, untreated major depression has serious potential risks for mother and fetus, since it may lead to poor nutrition, smoking, drinking, suicidal behavior, prolonged or premature labor, and low birth weights.

-David A. Kahn, MD, Margaret L. Moline, PhD, Ruth W. Ross, MA, Lee S. Cohen, MD, and Lori L. Altshuler, MD, Major Depression During Conception and Pregnancy: A Guide for Patients and Families

While I praise the above guide for its honesty, I am also left disappointed. These doctors go on to recommend a combination of medications for women who battle major depression with psychosis and even state,”Electroconvulsive therapy is also an important option that can be used safely in pregnancy instead of medication for this type of depression.” Abstaining from having children is not mentioned anywhere in this guide but shock therapy is hailed as an alternative. Combine that knowlege with this: many doctors require a psychological evaluation before agreeing to sterilize a childless young woman. Why the double standard? Because pregnancy is a woman’s right!, you might be thinking. But I would disagree. Parenthood should be a privileged right, as Laura Carroll outlines in her book. Not everyone is fit to be a parent for one reason or another – and that’s okay.

Compared to depressive psychosis, my mental illness is mild. Yet, I am still reliant on daily medication to keep my anxiety at bay. I have to take stronger, faster-acting medication on my ‘bad days’, not unlike many anxiety-sufferers. What I’m saying is this: you would have to pry my Chlorpromazine out of my cold dead hands before I gave it to you. I couldn’t take any of the medications I’m currently on if I were pregnant. This means I’d become even more anxious on top of the relatively normal amount of stress that accompanies pregnancy.

The Alternative

I don’t know what psychological problems Gypsy Rose Blancharde now experiences. However, there is no doubting their existence. Mommy Dead and Dearest provides us with just a glimpse into her life. It is obvious that her mental scars will last her entire lifetime. Gypsy’s mental health can improve with extensive therapy but she will never be cured. Gypsy didn’t choose to be abused but she can choose to prevent future abuse. At the risk of sounding harsh: Shouldn’t Gypsy’s trauma end with her?

I doubt that any of us can fully relate to the Blancharde family. Still, many of us carry emotional baggage from mediocre childhoods or dysfunctional families. 40 million people are currently dealing with anxiety right here in the United States. The fact is: most, if not all, of us have issues. We’d do well to consider if this is legacy is one worth continuing.

Do you agree or disagree with me? What did you think of ‘Mommy Dead and Dearest?’

Tell me in the comments section below.

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  1. Reply

    Really interesting subject this. I’ve seen posts about ‘Mommy Dead and Dearest’ circulating around Facebook and I’m dying to see it. I have a huge amount of respect for people who decide not to have children because of mental health problems. One of the most powerless things in life (because you can say nothing, especially as a non-parent) is witnessing the extent to which a mother can negatively influence her daughter’s mental health. You see it unfolding, as an objective, onlooking relative, and can’t do much about it. My own relationship with my parents contributed to my not wanting children early on, although I panicked about that in my 30s. Can’t wait to see this film.

    1. Thanks for your comment! It is a really interesting documentary for sure. I’m curious to know your thoughts after watching so make sure to check back! I was stunned (and terrified) to read that Gypsy wants children.

    • Erin
    • June 24, 2017

    Whoa, this stuff is always quite depressing, but obviously a real problem for society to address.

    No parents are perfect, of course, but I have a hard time wrapping my head around how some parents can be truly vicious to their kids–except that people do have mental illnesses and parenting is extremely stressful at times.

    It’s another good reason people shouldn’t be pressured into having kids if they don’t want to have them. You can hear some really horrifying stories of child abuse from the 1950’s or earlier, back when society effectively shunned whomever didn’t have them. A lot of them obviously had kids they didn’t want, just because there was so much pressure to have them.

    Not that many (or most) of the childfree wouldn’t hypothetically make good parents, of course, but I imagine some of them forego kids because they know they aren’t in a good place for it, and i don’t think they should be talked out of it!

    1. I don’t understand how some parents can so cruel either. I agree, no one should be pressured into having kids or talked out of being childfree. No one has to deal with the consequences quite like the parents so those are the only two people who should be making that decision.

      Great comment, thanks!!

  2. Reply

    Mental illness was a significant factor in my choice to be childfree. There is a long history of mental illness and substance abuse my family, and a lot of subsequent emotional and physical abuse has taken place over the generations. Even back when I assumed I would have a child one day, I knew I would wait until I felt certain I wouldn’t pass on the same unhealthy behaviors that had plagued my family tree.
    And yet, one of the strangest things is that despite this being (in my opinion) a responsible and loving choice, this one factor has probably earned me the most criticism. People are always so quick to tell me that I ought to become a parent simply so I can do better for my (non-existent) children, and ‘break the cycle’ as it were. Sometimes they flat out say, “That’s no reason not to have a child!”
    If “I don’t want to have a child because I’m not sure I won’t be abusive or pass on a host of mental illnesses” isn’t a good reason to be childfree, I’m not sure what is.

    1. You’re exactly right, Lilli. Thank you for sharing one of your reasons for being childfree. I struggle with anxiety and I would personally feel terrible passing that burden on to someone else. I wouldn’t wish anxiety on anyone, let alone someone in my family! The argument that you will be a better parent to your children than your parents were to you is such a strange one, isn’t it? Sometimes being the better “parent” is to just decide not to be a parent at all. Thanks again for your comment, Lilli!

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