I have a 2-year-old who is the worst hide-and-seeker you ever saw — one of her favorite hiding spots is just putting her head into the laundry basket — and a 1-year-old who likes to climb onto the couch and shake our standing lamp like a coconut tree because he knows it's naughty. They keep me very busy. I can barely think straight or remember anyone's name these days, but I manage to find the time to think about death quite a lot as a mom. I think about it while I'm pretending to cut velcroed segments of wooden carrot in my kids' toy kitchen, and I think about it as I dangle my son upside down and he giggles hysterically looking at the world all topsy turvy. I think about death as sit eating cheese on the floor cushion — which has been peed on several times — while children clamber over my head and hold the wrong end of a motorized play hairdryer to my hair. Sometimes I’ll be interrupted by my kids and lose my train of thought. I'll wonder, “what was I thinking about?” then go, “Ah yes! Death.”
I think about it idly, and I think about it every time there is a mass shooting, or a motorist mows down a family on a sidewalk, or the government accidentally sends a nuclear missile warning to one-and-a-half million islanders in the Pacific. I think about it because I am a parent, and that's what we do I guess ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. Further: the more bad stuff there is in the world, the more I think, regarding the prospect of total annihilation: I should have another kid.
'What have you been up to?' I asked her. 'Ugh,' she said, 'I have been thinking about oblivion, like, a lot.'
I first came across the term "an heir and a spare" when my dad was describing our neighbors up the street. Apparently the dad up the street had jokingly referred to his second child as the "spare" in a driveway chat one day. So the impulse to stockpile children has long been there, as has the threat to our little families. Passing a friend's house the other day, I stopped to chat as her 1-year-old clambered around on the stoop. "What have you been up to?" I asked her. "Ugh," she said, "I have been thinking about oblivion, like, a lot."
I mention my deep dark thoughts around popping out a ~spare~ child or two over Slack to a colleague who has one child. She replies, "Honestly that's a thought in the back of my mind and why we keep trying." So it's not just me. Some of us mothers m a y b e think about expanding our families as a kind of insurance. We worry about Old Man Death. We feel it all.
"The moment my daughter left my body, my heart grew so big I worried it would consume me," wrote Jackie Ernst in a Romper essay on this recently. "SAME" said literally every mom on the internet.
I don't like to be a bummer, so I decided to find out: how can we feel better about our fear of death as parents? And I promise there is some lightness in what I found out.
The best party game I remember as a kid was the one where you tie a balloon to your ankle and run about trying to stomp out everyone else's balloon before your own gets popped. It's how having a child feels — like you're forever toting your life force about on a string, dodging oblivion. As the novelist Samantha Hunt told the New Yorker, "When I became a mom, no one ever said, 'Hey, you made a death. You made your children’s deaths.' Meanwhile, I could think of little else."
So far, I have made two adorable little deaths (❤️❤️). I do think about making a third, although it is laughably out of our financial realm of possibility. But of course panic-breeding more kids doesn't protect you from the abyss — it just leaves you with more balloons to protect. And the stress of it is real.
"I like to say that if we are not suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, we are suffering from pre-traumatic stress disorder. There is no way to be alive without being conscious of the potential for disaster," wrote psychiatrist Dr. Mark Epstein in a New York Times op-ed titled "The Trauma Of Being Alive." This is me — no trauma to speak of, but still an oppressive sense of stress about mortality.
I email back and forth with a phobia expert and author, Kalliope Barlis, who explains that parents often come to her to deal with a fear of death. One lady, she recalls, was getting really wound up, devoting hours per week to worrying about her kids dying, yelling at them if they didn't reply to a text.
Barlis' advice for the woman was to recognize that death itself is not exactly the root of the fear, and that allowing ourselves to worry actually trains our minds to focus on the bad, instead of the good. It's like that line from High Fidelity, "Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?"
It is natural to feel this kind of worry — Barlis explains that our children are an extension of ourselves — but she advises dispelling that fear if you can. "When I asked the lady to look back 50 years from now, [and ask herself] would she rather look back at all the time she wasted in fear or look back and remember all the perfect moments she had with her kids, the answer was obvious for her and hope it is for you, too."
It's sound advice: train yourself to focus the good. Wrap yourself in positive feelings. But this worry comes so naturally. What are we to make of it?
Each kid out there is the result of an often-prolonged attempt to get pregnant, nine months of holding your breath, then weeks and months spent cuddling them in the night, rushing them to the hospital every time they swallow a Lego head, or wake up with croup, and just generally years of birthday cakes and Halloween costumes and Santa photos and redecorating of their room because the new Land of Nod catalogue came out and you have fresh ideas and imagine a teepee in the corner oooooh.
Everything is premised on: this kid will outlive me, will live a long, happy life. I have joked before that babies are the ultimate horcrux, but I'm not entirely wrong. You put a piece of yourself into your kids. You build them into your mind. How do you even comprehend their erasing?
In China, where the one-child policy was imposed in 1979, parents who lose their only child often suffer from long-lasting depression. The Washington Post spoke to 30 bereaved couples in 2013 who described "lives of emptiness and depression so deep that some have contemplated suicide."
After the Las Vegas shooting, which left 58 people dead, I read a news piece on Jordan McIldoon, 22, a mechanic from Maple Ridge, British Columbia, who was among the dead. His parents told CBC News in Canada they were expecting him to return home on Monday evening. “We only had one child,” they said. “We just don’t know what to do.”
I pictured them returning home to the bedroom-slash-shrine, and wondering what to do with their lives. And I don't know what to do with that level of grief, proactively. Like, there is no child-safe toilet-lid lock for that problem.
What is the meaning in it?
Here is where someone comes in with a tambourine, singing "Rise! Shine! Give God your glory, glory!" But I, along with 35 percent of millennials, identify as "no religion," per Pew. I don't find organized religion useful, though I do acknowledge that it has a solid hold on the death market. Meeting up in the afterlife seems like a pretty good consolation prize. But where is an anxious atheist to get spiritual advice on death?
I call Anne Klaeysen, the leader of the New York Society for Ethical Culture — a humanist congregation. The Ethical Society holds regular services, as well as naming ceremonies, death services — you name it, there is a secular version available — and pastoral care in the form of a chaplain like Klaeysen. "The dead are not dead if we have loved them truly," she tells me, "and in our own lives we can give them a kind of immortality by taking up their work."
Isn't it a miracle that we're here at all?
She talks about the importance of letting your children explore existential questions like what comes after death, not by filling in the blank, but by encouraging them to wonder, "Well, where do you think you were before you were born?" She says that she never told her children, who are grown, that there isn't a god, but rather let them figure out their own views. Calm and curious on the phone, Klaeysen has practical advice for contemplating the abyss.
"Always express to your child how much they are loved and make memories with them — if you're so inclined, get photographs and go through the stories." She says that telling a young child that "we've arranged for loving people to care for you" if you are ever to die is a relief — her sister had worried for years that the two of them would be separated if their parents died, because they had different god parents ("guide-parents" in humanist-speak).
Above all, she says, recognize how lucky you are — that children are, yes, a miracle. "Life itself is such a wonderful accident, you think, What are the odds that we have human life on this planet at all? And [then] an individual life comes into being. So it's more of a focus on Isn't it a miracle that we're here at all?"
I cannot lie, I feel much better after spending 20 minutes on the phone to a humanist chaplain.
Does it get better with age? Probably. Psychology uses the term "gerotranscendence" to describe the change over time from "material" concerns toward "more cosmic and transcendent ones in later life," as a study published in the European Journal of Aging puts it (of course it's European). The researchers Erikson & Erikson suggested in 1997 that we might best understand transcendence as "above all, a major leap above and beyond the fear of death." In 1989, Tornstam introduced the "gerotranscendence scale," which grades you using a survey (example question: "Today I feel that the border between life and death is less striking compared to when I was 45 years of age").
Passing on your bloodline is the original ploy at immortality, and I think it's fair to say that, immediately after becoming a parent, my *:･ﾟ✧*:･ﾟgerotranscendence score✧･ﾟ: *✧･ﾟ quadrupled. My concerns went from material (what I would like to order from Shake Shack) to cosmic in a snap after the birth of my daughter. Suddenly, in the middle of the night, you wake up as a parent with the specter of death floating beside your bed.
And then you realize it's your 2-year-old who has gotten out of bed and is just standing there in the dark waiting for you to wake up.
Some of our existential dread is surely just, well, existential, but maybe some things we can and should change. Maybe our anxiety is there to urge us to treasure the fleeting moments and make important changes to our world.
Certainly, we should get out of our battering-ram SUVs and consider the idea that we have a right to barge around town, becoming insolent any time we see a cyclist assert herself on the road or a hapless mom with a stroller failing to cross the street before the blinking man stops. Certainly, we should pass some goddamn gun regulations and ban organ-exploding assault weapons.
Yes, moms could stand to share a few less "News @ 9" clips about freak toilet-seat drownings and flaming washing machines, but there is also something adaptive about our preoccupation with the abyss. Death is always on the way... but it needn't be as close at hand as it sometimes is. Maybe there is something to be done.
Having a baby wakes us up to this. Sometimes I wonder if I understood anything at all about life before I had kids.
As an ABC reporter wrote of a Brisbane mother who chose to have "only" one child, "there was a fear of losing her son, that she was 'putting all her eggs in one basket' — but that she ultimately "conceded the fear would be the same if she had two or three children."
All of us are putting our eggs in the one basket, whether we have one kid or ten, or a niece, or a student who is just a walking piece of joy. It's all too goddamn precious.
And it's not a bad thing. Maybe keeping the tenuousness of life in mind can be useful, can inspire us to make changes. To say MY MIRACLE JUST PEED ON ME. And I'm grateful for every second.
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.