I didn’t realize it at the time, but after Zoe was born, I developed postpartem anxiety, the lesser-known cousin to postpartem depression. When you become entirely responsible for another person’s life, you suddenly become hyper-aware of everything that can go wrong.
Car accidents were my worst fear. Every time Zack and/or Zoe would leave the house, I wondered whether I would ever see them again. I spent a lot of time thinking about how Zack and I will die. Will we develop cancer in our 40s, or earlier? I remember one week where I kept thinking how, if Zoe lives the long and prosperous life that I want for her, I won’t ever know how she dies, won’t be there at her deathbed. Really morbid stuff.
The anxiety eventually subsided, though it always lingered in the background. Events in the news might trigger a flare-up, like the time that a plane crashed into a house in a local suburban neighborhood. They found the mother in the bathtub, clutching her newborn and her 3-year-old son. Or the time four children and their grandparents died when the grandparents’ desiccated Christmas tree caught fire and burned their house to the ground. Before I became a mother, I would have lamented these tragedies but moved on. Today, they are etched in my mind and I think of them often.
In 2014, Zack and I both totaled our cars within three months of each other. No one was injured, but that didn’t help matters.
Now the stillbirth, and the anxiety is full-bore again. Nothing seems safe anymore. After all, the womb should be the safest place of all, but it couldn’t keep my full-term baby alive. And so I find myself shaken by stories of people, particularly kids, suffering from severe conditions, such as cerebral palsy or round-the-clock epilepsy. I used to be able to look at the likelihood of such developments and take comfort that they are incredibly rare and probably wouldn’t happen to me. But when you’ve had something incredibly rare happen to you—stillbirths occur in 1 of 160 pregnancies, or a little over half a percent—the numbers no longer comfort you. It happened to me before. It can happen again.
I don’t know much about panic attacks; I purposely haven’t read up on them so as not to induce more anxiety. I don’t know what they typically look like, other than that some people become unable to breathe. Mine aren’t like that; they happen when a morbid thought becomes lodged in my brain and I become convinced that something specific is going to happen. A sense of panic and dread will crest into a full crescendo if I don’t squash the thought the second it forms.
One night I was giving Zoe a bath and getting her ready for bed. Zack was at kung fu and wouldn’t be home for hours. Suddenly, I became consumed by the thought that I was going to die of an aneurysm, right there by the bathtub. Zoe would be terrified and would climb out of the bathtub and somehow become seriously injured or killed. Or she’d somehow get out of the house.
Another time, I was reading an essay by a woman with stage IV metastatic breast cancer. I started thinking I was going to die of breast cancer at age 45; Zoe would be only 13. The morbid thoughts are that specific; I don’t know why.
How to arrest these thoughts in their tracks? I suppose I could stop reading the stories of breast cancer, round-the-clock epilepsy, and cerebral palsy. But like a bad car accident, I can’t look away. And I feel if I know about these things, I can plan for them, let them play out in my mind and figure out how I would handle them, and that brings me back down to earth.
My grief counselor says I shouldn’t do that—because I could make a detailed plan for a worst-case scenario, and then things wouldn’t turn out the way I’d planned because things rarely do. My 37-week pregnancy certainly didn’t.
Ultimately it’s about coming to terms with your own mortality and that of those you love. We don’t know how long we have on this earth. Every single day is a gift. Cliches, I know, but they’re what I hold onto in the dark hours.