THE WASHINGTON POST – “Why is she always half naked?” my mother asked, as I wrapped my infant daughter in her muslin giraffe blanket.
“Mom, it’s the summer. Besides, she’s always spitting up or pooping. It’s just easier this way,” I shot back.
That was part of it; the real reason was that I thought I might crack one of her doll-like arms as I awkwardly tried to snake them through the clingy, unyielding sleeves. The first grandchild for my parents, the first niece for my sister; she had clothes in every colour, fabric and sheen.
She had decadent dresses constructed from reams of tulle and taffeta, a packed wardrobe that would take her fashionably (depending on your taste) through every season. But, while others would giddily play dress-up with her, I rarely got her dressed beyond a tee. When I did, it was only with the stretchiest, most elastic onesie I could find, which I would gingerly pull over her head and arms in a protracted ritual so as to not dislocate her shoulder.
She wasn’t particularly fragile. Nearly eight pounds at birth, she plumped up faster than I could’ve imagined, until she resembled a squat roly-poly bug. And yet her arms and shoulders snapped, twisted and became disjointed a thousand times in my mind.
As autumn crept into our days, news reports of RSV, a mysterious polio-like virus and influenza flipped the switch from concerned to frenzied. I turned down every social interaction I could. At unavoidable ones, I noted who looked sickly, which children wiped their noses with their palms. While people socialised, ate and gushed over my baby, slathering us with compliments and questions, I kept my daughter pressed against my body, trying to prevent their breath from falling on her. I used nursing as an excuse to find quieter, less germy corners. When nobody was looking I swiped Clorox wipes across phones and tables.
My husband gawked when two bright yellow plushy signs arrived in the mail. In all black caps “STOP! WASH YOUR HANDS!” was emblasoned on the front, and they conveniently attached to her car seat. I found these gems online after one too many enthusiastic ladies with hands of dubious sanitary status reached for my daughter. Stiffened Kleenexes in hand, their long painted nails reminding me of the lengthy shadows cast across ominous scenes in pictures or movies foreshadowing something ghastly; they’d come for her searching for a juicy thigh or a tiny fist.
“What?” I asked, “It’s kind of subtle. It’s better than having to ask repeatedly.”
“You realise there are germs everywhere,” he said.
You have no idea, I thought.
I’d shush the voice inside, chastising me for the anxiety that flared in response to a room full of grandmas. Grandmas carry disease, too, the anxiety screamed back. Grandmas can drop the baby, too. Grandmas aren’t safe. Not anymore.
Neither was day care; Mommy & Me groups? No, thank you, keep your snotty-nosed children to yourselves. A trip to a dreaded “hands-on” museum? “Are you trying to kill me?” I’d ask my husband, reeling at the thought of the billions of microbes clinging to every surface.
I was a scientist and academic at the time. I was adept at crafting arguments, poking holes in other people’s claims. I wasn’t being “neurotic” or “unreasonable.” I was being cautious. I knew of all the dangers lurking inside of other people, especially during the winter months. I’d read those news stories on pediatric deaths from myriad common viruses. My sturdy biology background produced endless fodder for repetitive, devastating thoughts.
And then there were concerns that were harder to explain. How well did I really know Uncle So-and-So? I’d watched enough Criminal Minds to know that the most inconspicuous and seemingly kind people could be the most dangerous. Who around me was constructing nefarious plots involving my baby? The worst ruminations involved freak accidents: babies accidentally smothered by an exhausted sleeping parent in an armchair, a toddler who roamed off and drowned.
Each day my own baby fell down the stairs, died in her sleep, choked on a grape, was mauled by a stray dog. I watched her die on loop. And it was agony.
I stopped reading the news. Was the world going to burn up? Were terrorists plotting an attack in my city? When we went to a mall I searched for a man with a crazed look and a gun.
There were too many monsters in the world, invisible and otherwise, too many potential paths that led us toward oblivion.
There was no refuge from these thoughts, either. Every creaking floorboard, every appliance motor sounded like my daughter’s cries. I’d hear phantom screams in the shower and in my fractured dreams. Still, I told myself this was normal. Every mother fretted over her children. Every mother was sleep-deprived and so in love it drove them mad. Right?
I didn’t really believe it was normal. If I had, I probably would’ve leaked some of these thoughts to friends, instead of summoning up excuses for our absences.
I didn’t know that as many as 15 per cent of new mothers develop anxiety disorders, or that it might even be more common than postpartum depression. I’d always excelled as an academic, but I was flailing as a mother. I ended up leaving my career, unable to straddle part-time postdoc and part-time mother any longer. I boxed up my other selves, hoping I’d meet them again someday.
The writer Rachel Cusk posits that mothers lose autonomy of the mind. In A Life’s Work, she explained how when a woman gives birth, she loses the ability to achieve true aloneness, another person now living inside the “jurisdiction of her consciousness. When she is with them she is not herself; when she is without them she is not herself.
This was my predicament. Whether with her or without her, I orbited around my child. When we were apart, my thoughts still gravitated toward her, my entirety consumed with keeping her protected. And yet I craved aloneness. I longed for my former lives, for a time before I heard her cries echo inside my head. I sewed myself into immobile, impossible situations because I couldn’t trust anyone else. How do you raise a village for your child when you doubt everyone?
My daughter is four years old and fearless. She leaps from the couch to the coffee table, despite my warnings. She eats bugs when offered at the local science museum. She rides her bike down steep ramps as my heart pounds. But midway through the school year, a more cautious version emerges. She fixates on certain things like natural disasters.
“Mama, I don’t want there to be a tornado,” she says as she folds her body into mine at school pickup. There had been a drill that day.
She brings up tornadoes on the way home, at dinner that night and then before bed. The following morning, we are still talking about them. She wants to know why they form and what will happen if one does come.
I tell her it’s okay to worry but that some things don’t deserve so much attention, like tornadoes when we are living in the middle of Detroit.
“Tornadoes happen, but they are very rare here. Tornadoes don’t like cities.”
We have a long talk about what rare means.
It pops up time and time again over the next several months when she frets about fires in school and at home.
She has my pale skin, my reddish hair and, it would seem, some of my worry. I want to stamp out the parts of my anxious genome that slithered into hers, that invites potential tragedy to trail us wherever we go.
We lie in bed together staring up at the smoke alarm. It takes some time to help her understand that the alarm doesn’t cause fires, but alerts us to them. Nevertheless, its presence is unsettling. A reminder of the “just in case”. “Rare” she repeats, a new mantra. “Rare,” I say, staring into her eyes, trying to convince myself of the words coming out of my mouth.