The On Being Project

The Evolving Anxiety of Motherhood
The New Better Off

The Evolving Anxiety of Motherhood

Though it was over four years ago, I remember the feeling in my body like it was yesterday. My sister-in-law Mary and I were trudging through the remnants of snow on the rust ground of Santa Fe, New Mexico. My baby girl, one month old, was nestled in the carrier on my stomach, as if she’d never left the safety of the womb. And yet, I felt as if she was anything but safe.

“Will it always feel like this?” I asked Mary, tears welling up in my eyes. “I just feel so overwhelmed with anxiety, like I can’t get my body to calm down.”

My baby’s every whimper and sneeze set off alarm bells in my nervous system. I’d had a completely normal birth. She was healthy by all weights and measures. And yet, there was an unceasing vigilance that I could not figure out how to soothe or sweat out. I am an anxious person temperamentally, but I’d never experienced any anxiety so constant and long-lasting.

“I mean, is this motherhood?” I asked.

It was my most profound question underneath all the other ones: Will I ever sleep more than four continuous hours again? Is breastfeeding supposed to hurt this much? How the hell do you put on one of those Moby wraps?

I don’t remember the content of what Mary said, but I remember the spirit:

It won’t always be like this. Hang on. Have faith. The journey is ever-changing.

She had become a mother just seven months earlier, but her words were gold. Much of what time had worn down in my own mother’s brain about the first days of motherhood were still fresh and fierce in Mary’s. I needed that kind of proximate expertise.

Over time, the vigilance waned. I imagine it like the smallest, most gradual leak in the tire of a bicycle. And the truth is, when I’m lying in bed and I hear the sound of one of my children (I now have two — ages four and one) gasp for breath with croup or gag as if to throw up, my body fills with that familiar anxiety instantaneously. But it ebbs and flows. I am learning that to be a mother is to know that you can’t know everything will be okay and still operate as if you could. The alternative is to have your entire body — heart, mind, and soul — be held hostage by fear.

So I’m riding the waves of the oceanic anxiety that is motherhood — at least for me. And yet, I look back and wonder why I felt so isolated by what I was experiencing in those early days.

I had heard a lot about post-partum depression. I dutifully filled out the questionnaire they gave me in the pediatrician’s office — no, I haven’t been crying uncontrollably (duh, who doesn’t cry uncontrollably at some point right after having her body break open?!), yes, I can feel still feel joy (I mean, joy with a giant side order of ambivalence, but um, yes, joy). I wasn’t sad. I wasn’t having trouble feeling motivated to take care of my baby.

In fact, I was having the opposite problem — I was, in a sense, too motivated. I couldn’t convince my lungs to exhale or my focus to soften. But I’d never heard of something called post-partum anxiety. And like almost everything in those first strange days of becoming a parent, I had no basis for understanding what was normal. Neither did my partner, who was taking a million pictures a day and bringing me linebacker-sized water bottles and feeling a tremendous amount of relief that I was no longer in labor pain. Everything was new, fragile, and preposterous. Nothing was mundane yet.

Today, I treasure mundane. Sometimes I lie in the dark and I listen to the relative silence — no babies coughing or crying — and I feel the softness of our flannel sheets and the warmth of my partner’s body and the moonlight making a strange little shape on the wall and I think — this is it. This is the best feeling in the world. My people at rest. Safe and healthy. My body surrendering to the bed. The dark is here, but it’s not sinister. There is always the possibility of suffering, but there is also the relative reliability of healing. The ease comes around again. Never permanent, but even more sweet for its temporary nature.

So yes, this is motherhood. For me, at least, anxiety is an unavoidable part of loving two little beings, two little bodies, so fiercely. I can only guess that I will wrestle with their mortality as long as I, myself, am mortal. But I am fortified for the wrestling by wonder — by these little moments when I appreciate how resilient and vivacious they are, when I marvel at how little I can actually control, not as a bad thing, but as a good thing.

The flip side of fear is gratitude. Just as my momma body can be flooded with anxiety for my girls, I now have moments of feeling almost euphoric with an awareness of their well-being. It’s the gift that goes with the risk if I am wise enough to pause and actually feel it.

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