In which I have too much to lose

There’s an amusing adage I’ve been hearing about babies all my life: They make ‘em cute so you won’t kill ‘em.


The F1, last week

Evolutionarily, there may be something to that. If it was anything other than your own darling offspring screaming purple-faced at you at three in the morning, who wouldn’t, in the just-woken haze of chronic sleep deprivation, be tempted to — as a shamefaced new-parent friend recently confessed to me — stash them in a cardboard box out in the back garden?

I was ready to be faced with the physical and emotional trauma of lost sleep and howling tantrums. But nothing prepared me for the gut-clenching fear. You hear about it, of course, how new parents “worry”. The phrase You can’t wrap them in cotton wool is an understated nod of the century to the trepidation that having a child inspires. In some ways I was conditioned gradually; after already having suffered a miscarriage, my pregnancy was one long stretch of anxiety about the stability of the new life within me. Once I’d passed the 28-week milestone, my thoughts then turned cheerfully to birth defects. But having borne a ridiculously hearty and hale little boy, squirming and grunting and squealing vitality out of every pore (and other orifices), I now wake up in night sweats from sick visions of him being ill, or dying, or tortured, or snatched away by human traffickers.

My son has wound his way so tightly around my heart that the what-if terrors shimmer around my every thought of him, shadows that can never be brushed entirely aside.

What is the purpose of this all-encompassing and superfluous fear? Is it adaptive? It can’t be right to want to shelter a child from every conceivable harm — not if it prevents him from living a normal life. And it can’t be right for my own personal sanity. I will of course strike the right balance, even if stepping back somewhat makes my stomach eat itself from the inside out. But was it really so necessary, biologically, to build this into the mix?

About Jennifer Rohn

Scientist, novelist, rock chick
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17 Responses to In which I have too much to lose

  1. cromercrox says:

    Effluvia. You know they make sense.

    But srsly, there is also an amnesia that strikes after they get beyond a few months old, which wipes all this out. So much so that when you pass the babycare aisle in the supermarket one’s feelings are of nostalgia. The anxiety, the fear, the memory of sleep deprivation. If that weren’t true nobody would ever have more than one child and humanity would become extinct.

    You could just be showing the symptoms of being an anxious mother. When Crox Minor was that age Mrs Crox would get me to take the infant round the block for a walk in the papoose. This was comforting for all parties. The great thing for a man, when carrying a baby in a papoose, is that all the women he meets give him the most sheep-eyed, liquid, come-on looks. That’s the only thing about having a small child I miss….

    There are probably good evolutionary reasons why pregnant women are sexy – and also why men with babies are desirable. Shows they are good species-propagation material.

    Now that Crox Minor and Minima are respectively 15 and 13 I have traded the papoose for a shotgun.

  2. MarieM says:

    Yes, I think some fear is normal and healthy, part of adjusting to the new reality of “having your heart walk around in the world”. I remember coming home with our first after two nights in the hospital, the sun seemed weirdly bright, and I was utterly terrified of driving in the car with this precious baby, certain we were going to get hit by another car. I think I held my breath all the way home.

    On the other hand, waking up multiple times with night sweats, may be a sign of PTSD. You had a traumatic experience post-birth, a miscarriage, an anxiety laden pregnancy. Get thee to a therapist, or talk to your pediatrician. Be sure to get as much sleep as humanly possible. If terror is a regular part of your day, you may need some help. I wish you the best, your little guy is so adorable, you both deserve a happy and healthy mama.

  3. Thanks, Henry. With those blue eyes, I suspect we may be needing a shotgun too one day.

    Marie, I think I did have a touch of PTSD for a while, after the eclampsia, but I’m pretty sure I’m much better now. The fear is not truly debilitating – and from talking to other mums and dads, I don’t think it’s any worse than anyone else’s. But I will keep an eye on it!

  4. rpg says:

    Henry, that’s exactly why Jenny doesn’t let me go outside with him by myself.

    As to the shotgun, let’s just say for now that matters are in hand.

  5. cromercrox says:

    Again, more seriously, there is a perfectly clear evolutionary reason why mothers in particular are anxious about their offspring – there is a highly selective pressure to be so. Babies are practically helpless and unusually dependent on their mothers for their every need. The genetic heritage of parents who were blasĂ© about their offspring – forgetting where they put them, forgetting to feed them, leaving them in a box outside in the rain etc – would soon disappear.

  6. cromercrox says:

    Rpg – hence your rekindled interest in rifle shooting perchance?

  7. I can’t forget the feeling the first time Tristan slept through a whole night… we woke up at some reasonable hour of the morning, experienced brief elation that HE SLEPT THE WHOLE NIGHT FINALLY!!!!… which was immediately followed by sheer terror – WHAT COULD BE WRONG WITH HIM!

    I make light, but generally agree with Henry and MarieM – this is healthy and normal, even though it may feel like world-is-ending panic at times. Hang in there, he’s more robust than you think. Just look at how he’s chewing on that thumb, determined to get some milk out of it. That’s survival at its fittest, so to speak. ;)

  8. Not least as usually it’s an entire fist!

    Thanks, Winty. <3

  9. amy c says:

    Seriously? I think it’s so they stay alive. For real. Every time I used to put the kid in the car, I’d think — well, I won’t give you more images you don’t need right now. But there was an attendant phrase that showed up *every time*, just to make sure, and it drove me *nuts*. It’s mildly amusing now, but — yes, when you’re sleep-deprived and keeping a baby alive, this kind of fear is a useful thing.

    Every now and then I meet a blithe new parent. I find everyone else in the room gets anxious to compensate and starts doing a lot of lunging for the baby, who’s about to — .

    And yes, oh god, the waking up on your own, and the terror. I still get a little of that. She’s nearly as big as I am now, and usually very good at breathing on her own, but it’s been so quiet –

  10. Heather says:

    Healthy, normal, adaptive … and your feelings do evolve. This is why I am convinced that it’s simply adaptive, and good for all parties involved. You cannot really coddle your baby too much. As he grows, give him all the security he needs. Your gut feelings about his needs are as good or better than anyone else’s, so do listen to them, while leaving a door or window open for him to get out and explore the world, too. And always have a safe haven to which to return.

    Meanwhile, all these feelings that you get to live first-hand but that worry you in their intensity, just think how well they now enable you to empathize with experiences that had only been abstract or second-hand until now! Not that it will help you sleep, necessarily.

    Perfectly normal.

    Last thing: I have realized that our imagination is what is adaptive. Anticipating (nearly) all the possible dangers out there, enables some preventative actions. That kind of reflection won’t ever stop, I can tell you. It has made for some exquisitely perverse, personal, late-night movies in my head as I come up with increasingly improbable scenarios whereby my own teenaged progeny might suffer or perish, mentally or physically. The risks you let your young’un take, though, will be proportional to his age and his desire to take them, counterbalanced by your own knowledge, some of which you can convey and thereby educate him.

    It’s quite a learning experience for all concerned. And you’re the penultimate scholar, right?

  11. cromercrox says:

    What’s the difference between a Jewish mother and a Rottweiler?

    the Rottweiler will let go of you, eventually.

  12. steffi suhr says:

    I remember the same thing Marie describes with my first son: those first few weeks driving with him were scary – it all felt so terribly vulnerable.

    This is much less the case with my second now. I am so much more relaxed with just about everything. I know (well, I assume) he’ll probably be fine when he is sick. I know he is strong and healthy. I guess in some way that may support the hypothesis on this anxiety being programmed: if you already have one healthy offspring, you’re less anxious about the second? Having said that, I am watching this difference in attitude rather critically, being the second of three myself…!!

  13. Ian the EM guy says:

    You’ll also find you become far more emotional about sad stories on the news involving children as well, and even adverts that have previously seemed cloyingly sappy sweet will actually tug at the heartstrings.

    By the way, reading about you at the moment in one of my Christmas books: The Geek Manifesto. What it is to be famous :-)

  14. Ian – so true. Just watched a (rather rubbish) episode of Silent Witness and there’s a scene when the husband comes home to find his wife and son dead in the bedroom…well, that wouldn’t have really hit me very hard before. Now it bit – hard.

    Heather – such wise words. Thank you for your perspective. My imagination is the culprit for sure – I suppose all this stuff will appear in a novel one day. Which is a good use for something so terrible.

    Steffi, I’m glad to hear it’s somewhat easier for you now. If anyone missed Steffi’s recent excellent post on this topic, do scurry over and take a look: http://occamstypewriter.org/stuffysour/2013/12/30/you-make-it-look-possible/

  15. All of the above. The anxiety is so common (to all parents I know, including me, though I think it’s clear that women feel it the deepest) that it must surely be adaptive in some way. Luckily, it does progressively recede, at least to a point, though them getting unwell can bring it back uncomfortably.

    Also – what Heather said. You get bombarded with a sh**load of parenting advice as a new parent, and the trick is to listen to it but then do what is right for you – not what some book, or relative, says. My other half says she had learned this by the second time around, which was therefore a lot less stressful.

  16. Oh yeah, don’t watch Trainspotting… for at least a few years, anyway.

  17. That ceiling scene gave me the willies even when I was a callow youth….