I’m a bit of a weirdo—let’s start there—and as far as pregnancy and birth goes, I think I may be freakishly relaxed. I just never feared childbirth. My mom delivered near-nine-pounders with no drugs, no drama; why couldn’t I do the same? When the baby came, I resolved not to be one of those parents who called the pediatrician about the contents and color of every diaper. I wouldn’t sterilize pacifiers; I wouldn’t be a hand-sanitizer militant. And I wasn’t.
But I did have one intense fear—a monster one. As the due date approached, it sprouted fangs and claws. No matter how I tried to disarm it with endless journaling and advice-seeking, it wouldn’t go away. And it felt like my shameful little secret:
I was afraid of motherhood itself.
Older parents, nostalgic, advised me to “Enjoy every minute; it goes so quickly.” But what if I didn’tenjoy it? What would parenthood do to my marriage? To my other dreams and goals? And worst of all: What if I didn’t love my baby? All the seasoned parents laughed at me—“You’ll fall in love the moment you see him.” How did they know? My nine months of pregnancy had deviated from the stereotypes in so many ways. No nausea. No cravings. Slow to “show.” What if the hormone that caused puking and pickle-craving was the very same hormone that supplied maternal instincts?
* * *
Four years have passed since that first birth; I am due with my second baby in just a few weeks. And as it all comes around again, I’ve been doing some thinking about fear.
You could argue that I have even more reason to be afraid this time because I know what I’m getting into. Childbirth was hard. Harder than I expected. So were the newborn days. Actually, the whole first year. Actually, parenthood in general. If I could go back in time, I would let my first-time-mama self in on a secret: That nostalgic advice to “enjoy every moment” is, in fact, unfollowable. Babies supply many moments of astonishment and wonder, but for me, those moments arrived in the midst of sore nipples, inconsolable squalling, and queasy exhaustion.
As for that magical delivery-room moment I was promised: It didn’t happen. What I felt when I first held my son was not a romantic rush of la-la-la!, but physical exhaustion mingled with awe and relief. He’s out? He’s safe? Thank God. It was 3:30 in the morning, and after an hour-plus of pushing, he was finally on my chest. Rascal from the start, he’d come into the world facing up instead of down, and we both bore the bruises.
But even without that dreamy postpartum moment, it turned out that the worst part of my fear never came to pass. Yes, motherhood kicked the stuffing out of me, but I loved my baby. True, it was not a swoony, sentimental, budding-romance-in-June kind of love—for all my efforts, he napped poorly and screamed for hours and seemed to be at his most miserable when he was alone at home with me. I started to scour the baby-care books, agonizing over what I was doing wrong; I tried a hundred little adjustments. Very few helped. He did a lot of crying in those early months, and so did I.
But all the same I loved him like mad. It was a punk-rock kind of love: drug-like, dirty, up all night, lots of howling and raw notes, but man, it was strong stuff. I was possessed by it; it was inexhaustible. Even as I grieved the loss of my sleep, my control over my life, my ability to do the most basic things I enjoyed,
his very being was wonderful to me.
And that remains true to this day. We did nothing to earn this love, he and I. And we cannot lose it.
The thing about fear is that it focuses on one desired outcome and says: If we don’t achievethat, if it doesn’t happen this way, if such-and-such should come to pass, then all is lost.
But it isn’t.
* * *
So, being a second-time mama, I figured I was pretty free and clear of this fear thing now.
Until a few weeks ago, after an appointment at my midwife’s office, when I found myself crying in the car on the way home.
The midwives had asked me to participate in a survey which included reading over a list of common pregnancy worries and circling those that applied. I circled a few, more amazed at how many I didn’t have. Nope, I’m not worried about genetic abnormalities. No, I’m not worried that I ate sushi in my second trimester. But when I came to the box marked “Other,” I found myself writing something I hadn’t even been aware of:
My first son was an intense baby and I’m afraid this one will be too. I really, really want to enjoy it this time around and I’m so scared I won’t.
Fear of unhappiness—you old nemesis. Back again.
What to do with a fear? I could try to reason with it. Argue with it. Fret over it; talk with someone; pray about it. Or I could sit with it.
I did a little of all of these. And here’s the only response I’ve found satisfying.
If enjoyment hinges on circumstances, then I have every reason to be afraid. Because there’s nothing I can do to produce one of those charmed “easy babies.” This one very well might cry for hours again. He might cry more. Or—though I pray this won’t be the case—he may have physical disabilities or ailments that I never had to face with my first baby (who, for all his fussiness, was strong as a little billy-goat).
And if enjoyment hinges on control, then I have every reason to be afraid, too. Because there’s nothing like a newborn to teach you that your all your plans, precautions and controls are—when it comes down to it—flimsy as newspaper in a storm.
But if enjoyment hinges on a way of being—
on a certain kind of surrender—
on the stubborn insistence that life itself, even in agonizing difficulty, is good—
then I have some hope. Because I’ve clocked four years of mothering that intense newborn. He is now an intense four-year-old: still ferociously hungry, still prone to emotional tempests, still strong-willed—and also a joy. Why? Because he is gleeful and affectionate; makes the craziest faces; asks the coolest, weirdest questions. He’s still pretty punk-rock, he is loved to the moon and back, and it shows.
There’s more to joy, I’m learning, than hopes fulfilled without a hitch. More to joy than things coming easy. Will my second baby be different? I don’t know, but I think I will be.
Dear babies—both of you: Your mama is kind of a weirdo. She is doing an experiment, so let’s be weird together. Let’s hold the plans loosely. Let’s refuse to call difficulty “failure.” Let’s get all punk-rock and refuse to be afraid.
Jen Hinst-White recently finished her first novel, Inklings, the story of an aspiring female tattooist in the early 1980s. Her writing has been published in The Common, Good Letters, Big Fiction, Cactus Heart, Print Oriented Bastards, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars. Her website is jenhinstwhite.com.