My first existential crisis struck in the early weeks of kindergarten. I’d torn my right shin open while scrambling up a dilapidated fence, and was sitting in front of my grandmother’s television, flicking at the wiry black threads suturing my skin. What, exactly, was I made of, if I could be pieced back together so crudely? These thoughts were interrupted by a special broadcast about “Baby Jessica,” a toddler who’d fallen down a well. I watched the rescue squads fail for days, until her bandaged body was finally lifted to safety. If I could be sewn back together, and a toddler my sister’s age could fall into a well, then anything was possible. And for the first time in my life, I saw how far the scope of “anything” extended.
My childhood was peppered with such glimpses into an existential vortex I lacked the language to grapple with. An elderly woman struggling to board the bus slapping me with the sudden comprehension of our vulnerability to time. The reckless freedom of turning 14 and realizing my careful choices might not, actually, matter. The dizzying understanding that a step in the wrong direction could send a girl, could send me, into a deep, dark well, with no guarantee I’d ever find a way out.
Until recently, I’d never heard the term “existential depression” — a condition most often afflicting introspective people — or even considered my hyper-sensitivity to existential angst to be especially negative. It’s always felt like an integral part of who I am, and has driven my determination to use time wisely and contribute to the world in meaningful ways. After all, experts agree that existential depression is linked to a heightened sense of idealism, an important ingredient in almost every recipe for change.
Even as I hold her small, sweet body to my own, I am aware I cannot hold her forever.
Then I had a baby. And despite my daughter bringing more profound happiness and love into my life than I could ever have imagined, the experience of her gradually growing away from me, becoming a person as unknowable as anyone else, has often overwhelmed me with as much sadness as awe. She both grounds me in the present and tethers my awareness to the rapid tick of time. Even as I hold her small, sweet body to my own, I am aware I cannot hold her forever. It is my job not only to protect my child, but to instill within her a sense of autonomy and purpose. All this nurturing is simply preparation for letting her go.
Add to this the growing awareness of your own mortality that motherhood brings, and the existential weight can be crushing indeed.
"When we have a baby, I think we're confronted in a radical way that pierces the denial [of death], because it is life. Their baby is born and there is life," says Alexandra Sacks M.D. a reproductive psychiatrist and co-author of What No One Tells You: A Guide to Your Emotions from Pregnancy to Motherhood in a phone call with Romper. "When you're creating a life and bring a person into this world, you're going to have to deal with some gritty emotions, and there's nothing wrong with you, it's not a sign that you're not a good mother."
“One of the saddest realizations after giving birth is the knowledge that you will have to one day say goodbye to your child,” says Brooklyn mom Melanie Okadigwe, whose daughter is 2. “Every time I think about that my heart breaks, and I wish time would slow down.”
But, as I learned from a high-school English teacher, time is a relative concept, so the more years we accumulate, the faster a single one passes.
While we all confront these issues in some way, at some point in our lives, some of us find the struggle more acute than others.
Polish psychiatrist and psychologist Kazimierz Dabrowski began exploring this phenomenon in 1929, naming it his “Positive Disintegration” theory. He proposed that the accumulation of life events causes people to “disintegrate” at various points, a process that can lead to depression, but can also result in emotional and intellectual growth and maturity. Dabrowski scholar J. Webb explains in a paper, “When people undergo a great trauma or other unsettling event… their understanding of themselves or of their place in the world often disintegrates, and they temporarily ‘fall apart,’ experiencing a type of depression known as existential depression.”
Unsettling as in watching a doctor sew up your leg? As in expelling an actual human being from your body? Webb also acknowledges that for others, this type of depression arises spontaneously, from their own perceptions about life and its ultimate meaning.
So even if you never lose your place in the world, get your heart shattered, or your body ripped open by a rusty nail or thrashing baby, you’re vulnerable. We all are.
But this isn't something we like to explore on a daily basis. "Feelings about essentially life and death, the normal experience of mortality, are not well researched," says Dr. Sacks. "We aren't so good at researching normal natural experiences of wellness."
In his 1980 book Existential Psychotherapy, psychiatrist Irvin Yalom names four “ultimate concerns” that give rise to existential depression: death, freedom, isolation, and meaninglessness. While we all confront these issues in some way, at some point in our lives, some of us find the struggle more acute than others. Yalom’s advice is to embrace your own mortality, and use this awareness to incite positive action and create meaning from nothingness, which is not easy.
Some super-moms are up to the task. Naomi Singer, who is raising a toddler in Brooklyn, tells me, “I still have existential worries, but because I now have a little person relying on me for the long haul, and I’m so often thinking of the here and now, of bedtime and poop and snot, I find myself with less time and mental space to dwell on the futility of life.”
Another friend spoke about how having a child gave her the clarity of mind to leave an abusive relationship. “The moment they put him on my chest, I knew that I needed to get out, something I had never had the strength or clarity to do before. From that moment on, I knew exactly what I needed to do, exactly what was right/wrong/important in the world. It was the opposite of an existential crisis. It was existential clarity.”
“Watching my son grow definitely keeps me conscious of time, and how temporary everything is,” says Brooklyn-based mom Ambika Samarthya-Howard.. “But it has made me much more positive and committed to living a good life. Before he came along, I prepared for death. Now, I prepare for living.”
Whether we feel renewed purpose or reverberating doubt, we moms are strong. We’ve spent years holding it together in the face of life’s most crippling questions. "Some people can't get the thought out of their head and others can go on with their day," says Dr. Sacks, noting that some people, like those with anxiety disorders or obsessional personalities, could benefit from talk therapy.
But what about our children, who are more likely to suffer from this kind of existential suffering than we give them credit for? Carol Bainbridge, who has studied and written about child psychology for decades wrote on VeryWell Family that, “existential depression can manifest in children as young as 5 — the age at which kids typically begin to learn that they are not immortal.”
I was 4 when I first encountered death. My great-aunt, who lived downstairs, died in her sleep on Christmas night. My mom pretended she hadn’t been crying as she explained that my aunt was now an angel; I knew she was lying. If my aunt had transformed into a beautiful angel, then everyone would be celebrating. All I saw were people weeping and making terrifying, inhuman sounds. Instead of helping, my mother’s gentle lie made the experience scarier. Even if I couldn’t fully grasp the concept of death, I could certainly understand that something so bad had happened, my parents were afraid to tell me the truth.
Avoid the temptation to assure your child that 'everything will be alright.'
Answering your children’s questions about death is daunting. Kate Roussel, who raised her children in Picardie, France, shared with me the story of her 4-year-old son solemnly announcing to a room full of people, “Pere Noel est mort.”
Yes, that’s French for “Santa Claus is dead.”
We laughed about it, but at the time, she was rendered speechless. Should she be concerned about her child’s morbid response to Christmas? Was it time to have a conversation about the transient nature of existence? Or was such brooding considered normal in France, motherland of existentialism?
Katie Yodice, mother of two girls in Suffolk County, New York, has struggled to answer her 6-year-old’s questions about death after her grandfather passed.
“Her awareness of death has brought on recurrent conversations and many tears, usually when I’m putting her to sleep,” she tells me. “She’ll ask me if I’m going to die, if she will ever die. There have been times she’s just sobbed quietly, saying she doesn’t want me to die. I try never to lie, and to assure her that it will be a long, long time before I or she die, although this feels more like shielding her from the horrible truth that no day is promised.”
It’s not just death that can drive children to existential despair. As Bainbridge explains in the same VeryWell Family article, “When they [children] notice injustice, mistreatment of others, poverty, and abuse of power in the world, they can feel hopeless and alone and wonder why those around them appear to be unconcerned about these things.”
This brings to mind my 8-year-old sister crying over the images of Ethiopia’s famine depicted in a National Geographic. She went around the house collecting coins, put them in an envelope, and earnestly asked my mom to mail them to the starving children. From this distance, I can see her desire to fix the awful tension she felt inside herself over these images by gathering the coins. I can see my mom pretending to mail the envelope, a myth for her to believe in. Was I cruel for trying to explain to my sister that it was useless, or was that truth the bigger kindness?
What is the best way for parents to address their children’s existential suffering? Do children need different insight than world-weary mothers going through the same crisis?
Bainbridge’s first piece of advice is to avoid the temptation to assure your child that “everything will be alright.” Instead, be courageous enough to validate their feelings. Show them that you understand they are struggling, that you have struggled too, and offer realistic, imperfect solutions. They are probably not yet equipped to turn their anxiety into positive action, and need your support and guidance. A simple start is introducing them to books and films about people who have overcome great odds, survivors, inciters of change. Help them find outlets that enforce the feeling that their actions matter. Involving an older child in meaningful volunteer work, and possibly volunteering with them, will teach them that they, too, have the capacity to create small miracles. It will also allow them to experience different types of human connection, a wonderful salve for the feelings of isolation existential depression often brings. Talk to them kindly, but honestly. Acknowledge that some problems cannot be fixed, but also that even the unfixable can be made better. And keep in mind that, like adults, our children experience these feelings at different intensities. If you find that their feelings of hopelessness and meaninglessness persist, contact a mental health professional who can provide your child with the support they need. Likewise, for new parents, Dr. Sacks advises that if "those new ideas, those new feelings, interfere with your ability to get through the day comfortably," there is "never a reason not to call the postpartum support line and just ask."
In “The Myth of Sisyphus,” Albert Camus offers two possible answers to the great problem of human existence: embrace the present, find value in the small (yes, even changing a poopy diaper can bring its own satisfaction), and build your own structures of meaning. The other option is death, be it physical or metaphorical.
When I look at my daughter, racing through the days, tearing open my heart, I don’t have to struggle to find meaning. It’s often, quite literally, screaming in my face. As a mother, I have made the choice to create. This love is much stronger than any existential fear.
If you or someone you know is experiencing depression or anxiety during pregnancy, or in the postpartum period, contact the Postpartum Health Alliance warmline at (888) 724-7240, or Postpartum Support International at (800) 944-4773. If you are thinking of harming yourself or your baby, get help right away by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, or dialing 911. For more resources, you can visit Postpartum Support International.