I have a friend who’s known for her sunny disposition. While the rest of us are reeling from the day’s headlines and the state of the world, she somehow sees a light at the end of that dark tunnel. When she was pregnant, she was no different. She had serious complications, but she never lost faith, and in the end, she gave birth to a beautiful, healthy daughter.
At first, she seemed to parent with the same optimism that she brought to everything. But one day, when her baby was just a few weeks old, she called me. She needed to talk about something — urgently, and in private. We met the next day and went for a walk.
She told me she’d been having nightmares about her baby dying. In some, she would hold her daughter in her arms, breastfeeding or rocking her peacefully, and suddenly the baby’s head would fall off. In others, she’d drop the baby on the floor, or out the window, or off a cliff. Worst of all, she was beginning to have these visions even when she was awake. The day she called me, she had been standing at the kitchen counter slicing a tomato, and suddenly had an image of the knife slicing through her baby’s arm.
I tried my best to reassure her. I told her these kinds of thoughts were common, and that I’d had two other patients who also dreamt that their babies’ heads fell off. Still, she was terrified. I told her to get some sleep, to ask for plenty of help from the people she loved, and to call me whenever she needed. For the next few weeks, we checked in regularly, and then the dreams and visions went away, as suddenly and mysteriously as they had appeared.
So where do these strange, intrusive thoughts come from? I’m not a psychiatrist, but I think they’re a manifestation of the vulnerability we feel when the center of our universe shifts to a tiny, helpless baby who’s completely dependent on us for protection. We’re pretty good at denying our own mortality, but once we have children, that’s no longer enough. Their fragility is undeniable, and it fills us with a sense of mortality by proxy that’s impossible to ignore. Of course, sleep deprivation, hormonal surges and mood swings make it worse for mothers, but fathers experience it, too.
I remember the first time my daughter really hurt herself. She had just learned to walk up the stairs, and when she reached the third step, she turned part way around to make sure I was watching. Suddenly she lurched backwards, just beyond my reach, and landed headfirst on the hardwood floor with a sound so loud, I was sure her skull had cracked like an egg.
Forgetting all my training, I grabbed her immediately and swept her up into my arms. She saw the look of unadulterated terror on my face (parenting tip: don’t make that face at a frightened child) and immediately began to wail. I started crying too, which only freaked her out more, but I was just relieved she was alive. She ended up with a good-sized goose egg on the back of her head, but she calmed down fairly quickly. I, on the other hand, kept shaking for 30 minutes. I had seen a life pass before my eyes — and it was hers.
Our children are the small, delicate baskets in which we keep all our eggs. Our futures, our memories, our names are theirs to protect and carry forward — or to lose. When they’re small, they’re our greatest hope and our greatest weakness. No wonder so many new parents are overcome with anxiety. But that sense of vulnerability never really goes away. Once we have kids, our own mortality is always entangled with theirs.
Once one of my patients, who was well into her 70s, lost her middle-aged son in a car accident. She said to me: “No parent should ever have to outlive their child — we aren’t built for it.” And yet, some of us will do just that. How can we live with that knowledge and not curl up into little, quivering balls of fear?
The answer, I think, is to face our children’s mortality in the same way we should face our own. Here’s a resolution for the New Year: Let’s strive to live and love every day as if it’s the last — for us, for our kids, and for all our loved ones, young and old. We won’t be able to, of course. Our denial will keep us from staring into that beautiful, horrible place for very long.
Still, wouldn’t we be better for trying?
Jeff Lee makes and breaks his New Year’s resolutions in Seattle.
*Many new moms experience anxious and intrusive thoughts. If they persist, they can indicate more severe postpartum conditions like depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder or psychosis. Though serious, they’re treatable, so if there’s any doubt, please consult a mental health or medical care provider.