Whenever I read a quote like Anne Lamott’s, “there really are places in the heart you don’t even know exist until you love a child,” I wonder whether I love my family and husband too much or don’t love my children enough. I mean, when Nicholas Sparks opines that being a parent “teaches you the meaning of unconditional love,” did his mother not love him unconditionally and vice versa? Another preeminent contemporary artist, Mario Lopez, says of life after his daughter’s birth: “Everything has changed. The way you look at life, the way you look at relationships, the way you approach everything. My mornings are better because I get to see her. I enjoy coming home. No matter how hard of a day I had, I get to see her little face and everything works out.” I hate to poop on a bed of daisies, but I take this seemingly heartwarming sentiment to mean that he never felt that way about his wife. Not so for me (with respect to my husband, not Mario Lopez’s wife). Parenthood didn’t tap some heretofore undiscovered reserve of love. But it did introduce me to a whole new level of one emotion: fear.
Before I had kids, I experienced the adrenaline-saturated “fight or flight” reaction to true danger only a handful of times. Otherwise, I endured shock, anxiety, and discomfort periodically, but never true fear. A few months ago, I couldn’t stop shaking a full hour after Ian sprinted home from work and cleared the chunk of apple that got lodged in the top of Stuey’s throat with his superior paternal finger swipe. (Jackass Whole Foods and its unbearably appealing fresh fruit; idiotic self giving Viv and Stu different sized pieces and not anticipating they’d swap). And the kicker? Stu was getting air the whole time. He wasn’t getting as much of it as he or I would have liked, but I knew he would be fine. I stayed calm as I sat in the lobby of our high-rise and queried each group entering in the evening rush whether there happened to be a doctor or nurse among them. I didn’t shout or cry; I just waited patiently for Ian, rocking the baby and myself. And still, just thinking about it now makes me feel like I’ve got a hamster running around in my stomach and an arctic breeze in my room. And it’s not new. I feel the same way when I recall the day I went out for a walk with loved ones and, walking ten paces behind the pack, watched an oncoming sedan driving at least forty miles an hour come within inches of my child-laden double stroller. Only that time, I also had a split second when I didn’t see the inches; instead I visualized the Bugaboo Donkey airborne and calmly thought to myself, “Well, that’s it. I guess my life is over now.” I literally stumbled the next twenty feet, unable to walk under the enormity of my emotional burden.
But my fear isn’t limited to threats of serious bodily harm to my bug and my boo. I used to love snowboarding, to “bomb” straight down runs for the rush and to delight in near misses with trees for the glory, all the while enjoying the majesty and serenity of the outdoors. Not only have I not been once in the last four years, I haven’t wanted to try. Sonny Bono never got to see Chaz happy in his own skin. Need I say more? I even fear the sun. My whole life I luxuriated in the feeling of radiance left by the sun’s kiss. At its apex, the phenomenon (abetted by a temporary infatuation with Britney Spears) left me laying out on a small lawn just outside the office of Simpson, Thacher & Bartlett LLP in a string bikini. Post-kids, however, the idea of an exposed naval practically nauseates me; I’m so protective of their skin (porcelain is too opaque a descriptor; think translucent) that UV rays cause me to figuratively sweat. That I’m able, at least partially, to fight off the agoraphobic impulses summer brings owes to an impressive arsenal of sun protection.
And those are just a few of my rational fears. I’ve written here before about my postpartum urge to ask my husband to army crawl beneath the windows just in case a sniper had mounted a facing rooftop. I know I’m not alone in Crazy Town; in fact, it’s becoming a veritable metropolis. I’ve refrained from writing on this topic before due to the drip castles of words built by mommies waxing poetic about chronic concern for their children’s well-being. Anne Enright is the architect of two of the most vivid and accessible:
- “[Y]ou can learn how to use a drill. My acquaintance is littered with women whose lives would be changed if they could do this one thing. Actually . . . me. My life would be changed if I learnt how to use a drill. . . . [But] I am afraid of the drill. I am, more specifically, afraid, while pregnant, that the drill will puncture my stomach and amniotic fluid gush out.”
- “I sit at my lovely desk, typing, while my lovely husband sits next door rocking my lovely baby with his foot and reading the newspaper. We are the most fortunate people that history has ever made. And I think that we will be devoured by plague and by fire, that the sea will rise up to drown us, and the bombs fall on us, and the food rot on our table.”
What exactly do we fear? I fear losing my children, now or fifty years and one melanoma from now. I fear leaving them motherless. I fear raising them alone. I fear any change, really, to the status quo that is a deliriously joyful and functional marriage and the smiling faces of two happy and healthy innocents. Maybe parenthood didn’t bring a whole new level of love; just more to lose in the happiness department.