Someone recently asked me what I was afraid of about starting a family. What am I afraid of? The better question is, “What am I not afraid of?” I am afraid of literally everything when I think about starting a family. There are lists of classes of concerns. The fears could be organized by family and genus.
One class is the easy one: The physical changes that come with motherhood. I’m not even talking about the giving birth part, but the nine months before and the whole lifetime after. The weight gain and the giant nipples and the feet spreading and giving my body – the body I’ve worked on diligently, violently, studiously for 18 years – over to a parasite. Giving what I’ve treated as a burden, what I’ve battered and cherished, over to a thing that grows inside of me, feeds off me, drains me. A thing that will stretch out all the parts of me that I’ve struggled to keep taut. A thing that will never value my flat stomach, think of my legs as sexy, care about my strong jaw line or my clavicles.
The next class of fears is also physical and low-hanging fruit (you thought I was going to write, “Breasts,” there, right?) – they’re the forever changes. The women who laugh about never being able to laugh again without keeping their legs together should be punished. That’s terrifying, woman. And those of you joking about your hairy dinnerplate nipples? Just as bad. There’s an endless list of things that land you – forever – in mom-bod-land. And they’re all scary.
I don’t even think about the giving birth part. I faint getting routine blood work done. I hold no illusions about how I’ll handle childbirth. I do recognize this is just 10-40 hours of a 10-month ordeal, so I don’t fixate on these hours. It’s the other 7,200 hours or so that really worry me.
Putting my physical self aside, after those 7,200 hours, there will be a baby. A miniature human who I will be responsible for forever. The concerns in this class of fears could line a stairway to the moon.
There’s the selfish bucket of concerns: The sleepless nights, the cost, the sharing your attention, the sharing your spouse’s attention, the end of unexpected all-nighters and crashing on best friend’s couches and sleeping until noon.
There’s a bucket full of selfish but slighly less self-indulgent worries. How do we work as parents? How do we give each other the things we both need, while also giving this human what it needs? What if I turn into a controlling, overly sensitive harpy and I never go back to the way I was? What if my husband hates Mom Alicia? I can’t ever unbecome her.
Then there’s the baby. Will it be healthy? Do you know how many rare illnesses there are? She could be born with spinal muscular atrophy. He could be born with cystic fibrosis. She could have no heart, no head.
Say baby makes it out of the birth canal and through its first year without a scratch. What then? It has an entire lifetime to get sick, to get hurt, to be hurt, to hurt itself. I remember about five years ago, my colleague’s son committed suicide. My heart broke for her and for her son’s sister. But when I walked in the door after work I asked Matt, “How do people have children knowing one day their child could kill itself?” You live through friends’ addictions and you do everything you can to be understanding and supportive. But you ask yourself, “How do their parents do it? How do they really believe that counselor who’s saying they didn’t cause it and they can’t fix it?”
How do people do it? How do they look at this list and say, “Well heck, let’s do it anyways?” At Thanksgiving I gathered a few data points. My brother-in-law, whose wife is currently pregnant, stared at me like I had three heads and didn’t give me much to go on. The data point I learned there? Don’t bring up spinal muscular atrophy or teen suicide with expecting parents.
My father-in-law and my dad both agreed that you take the risks, and you don’t think of it as a life-sentence, because kids grow up. I heard what they were saying. As they were cavalierly saying this, though, they both had slighly wine-drunk stars in their eyes, full of love and pride and fear for their fully grown children. Is the grandchild going to be okay? Will the son be a good dad? Does his daughter really want to be a nomad? Are they happy? So I scrapped their, “18, 22 years, they’re on their own and you have your life back” data point.
My mother’s data point, so far, is the only one worth keeping. She admitted the fears, and how they were all based on fact – but said luck and faith usually get you to a managable point. She didn’t pretend she stopped worrying at a magic year, but worried differently at 18, 22, 32, 40, as we learned and grew and survived and did our best.
So I’ve got one data point, but it’s from a woman who always wanted children. She wanted to be a mom, and she is, a damn good one. She knew this like the sky being blue, like breathing. I have another embarassing class of fears: Do I actually want children? Or do I want children because the people I love seem to think I’ll love it. Do I want children because I’m bored? Because I’m hungry for something else? Because it’s what one does at 31, homeless and happily married? Because it’s what one does when they are building a five-bedroom home with a grassy backyard? Because I like having a dog, so certainly I’ll love having a human?
Joan Didion wrote, “We were young and in the reproductive years.” This is us, right now.
I can picture us in the “Middle-aged, wondering where the time has gone as we pack our suburbans and drive kids to college years.” I can even envision us in the, “We were young and in the exhausted, endless diapers years.” It’s the reproductive part I can’t envision.
Facing your fears is always the best way to dismantle them. But to face this fear, we’ll end up with a human. And that’s not something you give back. Someone who’s afraid of flying can fly once, overcome their fear, but decide it’s not for them and never do it again. I’m deathly afraid of horror movies. I’ve watched them. I hate them. I haven’t watched one since The Ring, and I can live the rest of my life without them. A baby? You don’t have one, realize every one of your fears was founded in fact and hand it back.
We had this same debate before getting our dog (we – me – perhaps – occasionally – overanalyze things). I played out the scenarios of, “What if our dog has hip dysplasia? What if our dog lives to be 18? What if our dog lives to be only 3? What if I hate the chaos of having a dog around?” Our breeder had a return clause. I laughed when I read that, because that’s what one does. But I felt a little relief, too. I had an out. People might judge me, but I had an out.
An out that, of course, I didn’t need. Cappie came into our lives and became my best friend. She’s the nomad I aspire to be. She’s the bright spot in dark days. She’s the “third thing” for Matt and I at this phase, when all the other things are annoying (In her fabulous memoir, Hourglass, Dani Shapiro writes about couples finding a “third thing” to love and show love to. Be it a child, a place, a hobby, whatever it is that gives the two of you something to look at, love, talk about, because you can’t always just look at each other, talk about each other, and love only each other).
Oh. Great. A new fear. How would Cappie adjust to a baby?
Recovering journalist who discovered a life outside of news leaves you time for things like getting angry, cooking and traveling. Plus, hopefully, writing. I’m a wife, dog mom and Washingtonian.