Photo courtesy of Jackie Ernst

Having A Baby Triggered An Existential Crisis

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The moment my daughter left my body, my heart grew so big I worried it would consume me. I could feel it filling my rib cage, pulsing at the base of my throat, indiscriminate love threatening to blast out of me. I was handed a red, wrinkled creature who looked just like me when she cried. It was the happiest moment of my life, and I was terrified. I wasn’t sure how to hold her, if I would drop her, if I was feeding her enough, if it was possible for babies to die from crying too much.

This worry didn’t ebb with time, it merely changed shape. Fear of dropping became fear of choking, fear of falling down the stairs. Fear of being hit by a car on our way to the park. Of slipping in the bath.

These anxieties are common, the kinds of worries moms commiserate over, and assuage by investing in baby gates and helmets and padded flooring. But for me, they’re merely scratching the surface of a much deeper, much realer anxiety. In addition to the explosion of love that knocked me right off my feet, my daughter’s birth opened a valve of existential anxiety inside me, and I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to close it again.

It’s not postpartum depression. I know this because I’ve been depressed before, and this isn’t the same thing. I’m not down in the dumps; I’m happy. I’d even say that I’m happier and more profoundly content then I’ve ever been in my life. I love being a mom, even when I have poop on my hands and regurgitated string cheese in my hair. When I look at my daughter, I feel wild surges of unbridled love. But sometimes, her tiny toes and drooly smile inspire incredible reflections upon the fact that one day, I’m going to die.

What do you think about when you’re breastfeeding in a dark room at the 3 o’clock in the morning? I do my best to make grocery lists, but I tend to default to topics like the unforgiving nature of time, and coming to terms with the certainty of my own decline. Sometimes the teacher in me imagines designing a course from all this painful musing. A semester of "The Existential Vortex in Modern Day Motherhood," anyone?

I couldn’t have said why. I still can’t. A peripheral yet crippling understanding of my own mortality? An overwhelming sense of what it might have felt like for my mother to hold me when I was an infant?

The strange thing is that, upon close examination, this particular breed of anxiety appears to be rooted in happiness. Two days after we’d returned home from the hospital — healthy, exhausted and dizzy with joy — we had some of our immediate family over to visit. A friend had brought a tray of lasagna, champagne had been popped, and the room was filled with the warm buzz of eating and talking, the sweet scent of baby head and melted cheese. No one noticed me slip away to the bathroom, where I folded myself in half, sat on the closed lid of the toilet and cried. I couldn’t have said why. I still can’t. A peripheral yet crippling understanding of my own mortality? An overwhelming sense of what it might have felt like for my mother to hold me when I was an infant? And what it must feel like for her now, must have felt like for decades, having daughters far too old for holding, daughters wildly determined to become independent beings and cut whatever metaphorical umbilical cord remained between us?

All I know is that whatever drove me to tears that evening is still there. Now, it makes me weepy when my daughter wakes up from sleep and cries out “Hi Mama,” the slight waver in her voice suggesting that she may already understand I won’t always be there to answer her call. Or when she wraps her tiny arms around me and hums, “Aw,” both of us completely overcome with a love that she can’t imagine every changing, a love that I know will change, many times, as she races forward, finding her way out of this life and into her own.

These are the longest days of my life, and yet they remind me again and again how short a time we really have. I can no longer imagine what a day would look like without my fiery little girl tearing through it, filling every empty minute with her disasters, her laughter, her unrelenting light. Yet I know this is but a glimmer in the spectrum of time, and this awareness has made my capacity for gratitude bottomless, at times desperate. How can I hold on to all this abundance?

The answer is simple: I cannot.

As she grows brighter, I will fade. It’s one of life’s cruelest tricks.

There is no easy way out of this predicament. I want to watch my strong, beautiful child grow up into a strong, beautiful woman. I want that more than I’ve ever wanted anything, even though at the same time, I’ll be watching the warm life we’ve shared together recede. As she grows brighter, I will fade. It’s one of life’s cruelest tricks. We must endure the pain of letting go because it is precisely this transience that makes life, and all that we hold dear, so overwhelmingly beautiful.

This knowledge is in no way particular to motherhood, but becoming a mother has given this awareness a concreteness that, for me, it previously lacked. Now that I’m following a timeline other than my own, the timeline itself has become real. I can quite clearly see that I don’t have forever, and somehow, I can summon the strength to not fall down and scream until I turn purple, but instead, to use my time more wisely. To love good people, do meaningful work, and pass along what I value to my child. I trust that she will tell our stories well.

Until then, I’ll dance and sing alongside her, and do my best to fill that haunting void with light.

Check out Romper's new video series, Bearing The Motherload, where disagreeing parents from different sides of an issue sit down with a mediator and talk about how to support (and not judge) each other’s parenting perspectives. New episodes air Mondays on Facebook.