It’s funny the things that the parenthood experience does to you. Funny-ha-ha but also funny-FML. This journey has sunk me into despair at the difficulty of it all, and sent me soaring on electrical bursts of love. In just two and a half years, my catalog of emotions has gotten bigger, deeper and way more complicated.
One emotion that gets a lot of airtime these days is fear. Like anyone, I’ve had a relationship with fear my whole life. But somewhere in my mid 20s that healthy sense of fear sprouted new fangs. Suddenly I was a person who was prone to anxiety attacks—which were more like waves of dread that would make my throat tighten and my palms sweat and convince me that something terrible or embarrassing was going to happen. Well, it wasn’t. And it didn’t. And over time I learned how to call anxiety’s bluff. To not try to distract myself from it by doing a million things, but to stand still and say, “Come and get me motherfucker” and let the wave wash over me and be gone.
My coping mechanisms for anxiety are twofold. One, learn how to identify it. Two, be OK with feeling bad. We are all are gonna land on the dark side of the moon from time to time. It’s fine.
Still, I do not like the dread, especially now that I have kids. It keeps me up at night, worrying about the bad stuff in the world. I think about how—in this moment, everywhere—there are millions of instances of suffering. And it’s not just a thought, but a visceral feeling.
I think about children in pain and lonely old people and everyone in between. I think about my little sons in their superhero costumes and what kind of world they’ll inherit. Then I think about Sarah McLachlan singing “Arms of the Angels” over a montage of sad dog faces. And then I drift into a beautiful and peaceful slumber.
Kidding. I grow a million ulcers.
Fear isn’t fun, but it is valuable. It drags me down to a deeper level, instead of skating along the surface of life, laughing at farts. It makes me more thin-skinned and philosophical. It forces me to actually consider things like the afterlife, because I don’t want to miss my cosmic calling and end up in some bunk place with a bunch of randoms.
Like most, I want an afterlife that allows me to stay with the people I love, for always. With many pizzas.
On certain fearsome nights, instead of thinking about the thing I just read or the stuff I need to do tomorrow, I find my mind pulled to questions like:
“What does this all mean?”
“Am I doing my part right?”
I’ve had the luxury of not thinking about these things too much, but now I have to wonder. I have to wonder because with kids, the stakes are high on the answers. Having children has made both me and Matt stop taking things for granted that we took for granted our whole lives. Like, for instance, our whole lives.
So, yeah, I’m wondering.
I wonder if I love these kids so much and so easily because I’ve loved them before, in previous lifetimes that run backwards through all eternity and forwards through lifetimes that are already happening somewhere else.
And I wonder if these people are the people I get to love for just this once.
I don’t know if when we die it’s like a light turning off. I don’t know if we end up on a cloud playing a harp with a God that looks like George Burns. I don’t know if our consciousness gets recycled into a new body, or if we join a great energetic surge that causes waves to crash and sends planets spinning and makes cells divide into the wild geese that fly over our heads and also into Donald Trump. I don’t know if it’s none of these things or all of these things.
It’s a mystery.
But every good mystery leaves a clue or two.
And the clues—whether it’s an amazing moment or a random act of kindness or just the incredible sense of purpose parenthood brings with it—can take the teeth out of fear.
As much as children can be the cause of runaway worry and existential dread, they are also the most powerful cure for it. They’re just here, living life, man.
So when I’m lying in the dark thinking my scary thoughts, and I hear a small voice cry out in the next room over, “Mommy, I hold you!” I instantly go and pluck him out of his own anxieties and carry him to bed and he throws his skinny arms around me, snuffing out all my what-ifs, bringing me back to what is, and finally, we both can sleep.