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Passing on Migraine

Passing On Migraine

Three is an adorable age for kids — especially when they start copying their grown-ups. My fierce and feisty three-year old daughter loves to put a surgical mask over her face, insert a stethoscope into her ears, and order each of her “patients” to lie down to be poked and prodded. I once caught my son holding a magnifying mirror to his face, pretending to pluck hairs from his chin. No comment on who he was pretending to be.

But nothing prepared me for the first time my son ran into the bedroom with an icepack pressed to his head, pretending to complain about a “head duck.” Some parenting moments just hurt. In my mind’s eye, I’m an active and engaged parent. But I knew, in that instant, that this was how he most often saw me — buried in my darkened bedroom, head under ice, asking for silence. His fantasy play reflected a reality that I despised and suggested a future for him that terrified me. How long until that “head duck” would be real?

Migraine is often inherited

Genetic studies that trace the prevalence of migraine in families don’t offer much solace. If one parent has migraine, each child has a 40% chance of developing migraine. Because my kids’ father occasionally gets migraine with aura — just like his own father — their chances of getting migraine is much higher. Either way, mothers are more likely than fathers to pass along a migraine gene. Likewise, daughters are more likely to inherit the disease than sons.

My own headaches began when I was five, so I know it is possible to live and even thrive with migraine as a child. But I also know the limitations that severe headache places on children. Some of my clearest memories include: listening to my own mother vomit, while she suffered from one of her three-day migraines; lying in a dark nurse’s office, waiting to be picked up; sitting in anxious anticipation at yet another doctor’s office, hoping that perhaps something might actually be found to be wrong with me… a faulty blood test that might indicate the need for a supplement or even a brain tumor that could be removed.

Can migraine build resilience in children?

I’m all too aware that migraine isn’t the worst thing that could happen to my kids. Migraine is painful and disabling, but often treatable and almost never fatal. It’s a disease that I understand well and I’m in the privileged position of knowing several prominent headache specialists well. More importantly, I know that migraine medicine is likely to get better and see improvement. I was a kid pre-triptans. The world is already a better place for kids with migraine. And, if nothing else, I can teach my children how living with migraine builds resilience, inspires compassion, and demands self-love and self-care.

So why does the prospect of migraine in my kids terrify me? Because like it or not, migraine’s existence runs through my family like a curse. My grandparents gave it to my parents. My parents gave it to me and my sister (my brother escaped). So, for now I wait…

What advice do you have?

I know that many of you have been through this. I welcome your wisdom and I’d love to open a space here for people to talk about how they think about migraine and parenting.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.


  • Crystalrz4
    2 years ago

    Your story sounds all too familiar to me. I’m third generation from both sides of my family. Both of my grandparents on both sides had them (how lucky was it that my Mom and Dad found each other?!). My Dad had migraines quite badly, and so did my mother. However, when Mom had them my older sister and I would “Spend the night” with my aunt (my Mom’s older sister). By the way, all three of her sisters had them too.
    My sister has them, though I have no memory when hers started as she’s five years older than I am.
    My first one struck me when I was four years old, and I remember it like it was yesterday! My sister’s migraines started at a very young age as well.
    My sister and I are both married with adult kids and all four of mine have Migraines or Migraine Variants. Her three all have migraines, though her son has passed away some years ago.
    My third child, my oldest daughter, has a daughter of her own, 8yrs. I was watching her, she was four years old at the time, and she had her first migraine in my room.
    I will not know for a while if my second son’s (2nd in the line of my kids: 1st: Boy, 2nd: Boy, 3rd: Girl, 4th Girl), baby daughter will have this CURSE! However, chances are high that she will. She will be 1 month old March 9th.
    Migraines have made me a stronger person, more tolerant in some way and yet has robbed so much of my life from me! I was declared 100% Disabled in 1991. Migraines have reeked so much havoc on me and my family and friends. SOOOO many trips to Doctors, and Emergency Rooms.

    It has been medically proven that I have Migraine Induced Epilepsy, Migraine induced Prinz-metal’s Angina, three confirmed Strokes, one more possible stroke this past January, but has not been confirmed. I also have Asthma, Osteoarthritis, Tietze Syndrome, Degenerative Disc Disease, Sciatic Nerve Pain, and just too many things to go into.
    My Excellent Doctor, who is now retired, always said that he was SURE, 99% of my problems were rooted in Migraine Disease. I agree!!!
    Yes, I followed some of my dreams, and Yes, I did have some success. All in all I am Blessed with a wonderful husband, great kids and friends, and a pretty comfortable life around me.

  • shirleykessel
    2 years ago

    Thanks for writing this article Joanna, as I know other women who struggle with this life decision. I can say this – my mother would hibernate for up to 5 days in her room with vomiting and too sick to hold down meds, so I learned to give her IM shots when I was 16. However, I do not regret being born despite the chronic migraine I now have.

    I have 2 daughters that have been both chronic and episodic, but I have hope (false hope?) that with increased advocacy and awareness there will come better treatments and one day a cure.

  • livingabroad
    2 years ago

    Thank you for bringing up this topic. I’ve been struggling with this topic for a long time now. I don’t have kids (yet) and I’m not sure I want to have kids actually. Well, I used to want to have kids, but since a couple of years my migraines have worsened (which is actually what made me go to see a doctor and find out that those pains and symptoms were migraines). Now I try to balance work and ‘life’.

    I say ‘life’ cause it doesn’t really feel like living. It feels like surviving. Because of this I also struggle with depression. So what I want to do and feel like I should do, is make decisions that make me happy. I don’t want to ‘wait’ anymore for life to start, because I feel it never will if I don’t do something to make it start.

    So here comes my dilemma. Because I used to want to have children and deep in my heart I still do. But because my whole life and dreams have changed ever since being diagnosed with migraine, I’m not so sure I should have kids. When I think about having kids, I wonder if I can handle it. Cause now already it’s nearly impossible for me to do anything besides working. I have a wonderful husband who is very supportive, but doesn’t nearly get enough attention as it is. So is it really a good idea to add children to this marriage?

    And then what scares me is that I will pass on the migraine gene (my father and grandmother both suffered from migraines although not nearly as often as my attacks come around. It also runs in my husbands family even though he was lucky enough to skip it). I don’t know if I could bare it if my children would get migraine. To think that I am the one causing them so much pain like this? I wouldn’t wish for my children to live the kind of life that I am living.

    And then, if I’m out with migraine so often. Can I be a good mother? Won’t they feel hurt or rejected if they might sense that their noise is aggravating me. Even if I put on a smile and pretend all is well, they might still know and feel hurt or even unloved.

    Maybe when others read this they might find it insulting or dramatic, but know I don’t judge nor have opinions on other people’s decisions. Every person is different, every situation is different. These things are solely my worries and fears. Nothing more, nothing less.

    When I read back what I wrote, I think: it’s all about me. Everything I wrote is about me. Like I said I have a great husband who would be the best dad and yet I still make it about me. If I were to become a mother one day, I want to give it my all. It kills me already that I cannot give my husband my all, because I love him so fiercely in ways I could never express and I know my love for my children would be even greater so I worry. I worry I can never give them everything they deserve, I worry I will give them this disease, I worry I will give them a life full of struggles and sorrow.

    I know, I know life is always filled with good and bad things. I know we can not plan our lives. I know I could drop dead tomorrow or they might not ever be born. But I simply wonder is it fair to let them be born? Just because it might make me happy (even with all the difficulties)..

    At the same time, is it fair to not have children just because of all these ‘mights’? My husband would like to have children and he would be a fantastic father I am sure. He could fill all the gaps and more that I might be unable to fill. So are my worries and fears just worries and fears and nothing else or are they legitimate reasons to take into account? I wonder, I wonder..

    Did any of you take having migraine into account when deciding whether or not you wanted children?

  • LAnnSmith
    2 years ago

    When I had my son, my migraines were very infrequent and they were said to be not inheritable, even with a strong family history. He’s in his 30s now and so far is clear of them. I think you are very wise to consider not passing them on, anyone with a genetic condition must have these thoughts.
    If only THEY would get research done to find the errant gene situation so we’d know if we carried it, and if it’s recessive, dominant, etc. That’s been done with diseases with far fewer patients than us. Migraine’s economic impact surely warrants the research.
    Best wishes, I’m sure you’ll find a decision that will fit you.

  • livingabroad
    2 years ago

    @LAnnSmith, thank you so much for your response and my apologies for this very late reply to you. I agree that it would be great to have more research done. I do feel like migraine research is getting more funding than before, but it’s just a feeling. In any case: I’ll take step forward in favour of no steps.
    I appreciate you sharing your story and I’m glad to hear that your son doesn’t have migraine. Thank you also for the vote of confidence in my decision making abilities. I’ll get there!

  • Joanna Bodner moderator
    2 years ago

    Hi @katrien, It is such an absolutely difficult and very personal decision. Another one of our contributor’s has shared her personal experience on this decision on whether or not to have children. You can read about it here – I truly wish you all the best with your journey and know we are always here for support. Warmly, Joanna ( Team)

  • livingabroad
    2 years ago

    Thank you. It helps to read other people’s stories. I don’t know anyone who had Migraine as severely as I do. And in my family diseases are something to beat, not worry about the consequences. Which I understand, but it’s still nice to be able to share worries, struggles and fears and particularly hear about how others deal with them.

  • Ronan
    2 years ago

    I don’t have kids of my own but I am an Aunt and Great-Aunt. Migraine has run through my family in the last 4 generations, that I know of. My grandmother, mother, myself and one of my sisters, and now a nephew all deal with the disease. It seems like I am the one that has gone for help and now educating my immediate family.

    I don’t have any wisdom to share. This is a lesson in compassion. This site has taught me so much, that I am not alone. I share many of the articles and the knowledge I’ve gained here. I’ve always referred to migraine attacks as a firestorm in my head. I only hope that what I share helps the rest of my family.

    I know that for the members of my family who don’t experience what I do have learned a lot. It’s a disease, not a headache. Yes, I can eliminate some things to the lessen the chance of the huge attacks, but life happens. It’s a lesson in compassion for myself and for the rest of the members of my family.

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