Late one night, I was alone with my then two-month-old daughter, who was asleep in her bassinet while I got ready for bed. In a heartbeat, she went from sleeping peacefully to wailing, her tiny arms and legs flailing and a look of pure fear spreading across her face. I rushed to her, scooping her up and calming her. It was the first time I could register her needing me for a purely emotional reason—she wasn’t hungry or cold; we weren’t working on brain development or hand-eye coordination. She was just scared.
In that moment, it was like I could see through a telescope to the future: my little baby a little girl running to me because someone hurt her feelings, her sweet face crumpled with sadness, her bunny in tow. I know that life and other people are going to sometimes hurt her. I feel prepared to help her through that, however much it hurts me to think of her hurt. I know that I cannot protect her from everything and that I shouldn’t, even if I want to. I feel prepared and capable to love her and mother her in life’s hard moments.
But… (Trigger warning: child loss)
Alongside these moments that I can forecast live dreadful intrusive thoughts. Since my baby was born, each day has brought me a stray terror or two. At first, I would picture someone slipping with her on the stairs, breaking her perfect, fragile head. I would picture waking up in the morning to her not breathing. As she grew sturdier, my imagination went further in scope: car accidents, choking, guns, climate change, kidnapping, mountain lions.
Listen, where I live, mountain lions can attack children. It’s rare, but it happens.
One night, as the baby slept, I found myself looking up the exact statistics on how many parents outlive their children. Roughly 19%. Having tracked down that statistic, feeling vaguely reassured, I looked up some books on postpartum anxiety.
Where is the line between natural worry over your child and postpartum anxiety? Will this fear fade over time?
I read that once you have a child, it is like your heart lives outside your body. I feel this way about my husband. Before him, I would occasionally lie awake updating my disaster plan for how to raise my little sister if my parents died in a car crash. Now that she is relatively grown, I update the plan for what to do if something happens to Julio. If I lost him, my future would be a vast wilderness of loneliness, the terrain growing more complicated as we add a baby and a herd of animals. I can’t fathom it. I try not to dwell on it. There is no plan for what would happen if we lost our daughter. It would shatter me beyond anything I can imagine. I know that much.
But where is the line? Will the daily intrusive thoughts fade with time and as I resist giving them breathing room?
I am no stranger to worry. I have been depressed. I am not now depressed, but I do have a thyroid disease that has masqueraded as anxiety before, and that makes it hard to know if the tightness in my chest and the constant feeling that I could cry are because my hormones are adjusting postpartum and to a new dose of my medicine, or otherwise. I take deep breaths. I look at my daughter’s perfect face. I try not to worry. But I wonder, what level of fear is normal?
We had a mouse in the house and, even after Julio caught it, I worry that it chewed on wires and that the house will spontaneously burn down. As the baby sleeps, I read about how to prevent fire hazards in your home. I have a plan. I have a fire escape ladder. I diligently keep both baby carriers and a leash in the bedroom so that if the worst happens, we could get the baby and the dog out of the house. I have a variation on the plan for if I am alone at the time, thinking through how I would convince the dog to let me swaddle her to my back long enough for us to climb down. I check our fire extinguishers. At least I put my worry to use, I rationalize. Incidentally. this plan also works in case of an intruder.
What if the baby sleepwalks when she’s older and falls down the stairs? I suppose a babygate could help, but what if she tumbled over the babygate? I do not have a plan for this scenario, but am open to suggestions.
I know that I cannot and will not have a plan for everything. I don’t expect to. But when these fears intrude on my sweet moments with my girl, I try to beat them back with a dose of preparedness.
Also, where is the line? And how do you live with your heart outside your body?