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Lithium Why motherhood scares me shitless

Oct. 15, 2020
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In kindergarten, my friends and I played a lot of house. We officiated weddings attended by tissue paper-veiled brides, made plastic sandwiches, and, most of all, cradled baby dolls. We loved to play mother, to take care of things more vulnerable than ourselves.   

Now, at nineteen, I look back at our flippant assumptions of parenthood with envy. Back then—even if it was prompted by traditional ideals of domesticity—motherhood was a certainty as we acted out our futures. As I get closer to the realization of the fantasy, however, I become more and more apprehensive. There are many reasons to be afraid of motherhood. This is mine. 

I spent the last part of sixth grade and the summer after in a partial inpatient program to treat my anorexia. It was a three-week program. My pubescent metabolism rebelled and made me stay for seven, so sometimes it’s hard to remember what happened when, who came, who went, what I ate, in which chair I sat. 

Somewhere in the stream of fluid, ill-defined days, we got a new patient. I can’t remember her name—she wasn’t there long enough for it to stick, especially for a gang of food-comatose neurodivergents—but I remember exactly what she looked like. She was far enough along that she couldn’t pick up her own purse when she dropped it on the way into the common room, far enough along that her feet were swollen in her sandals and she had stopped shaving her legs. Of course, there’s no judgment here; it’s just curious what you remember when you’re stuck on the top floor of a hospital all day. In the light from the locked windows, it looked like her shins were full of splinters. 

The morning snack went smoothly; lunch didn’t. As we veteran patients worked away at our bland chicken and rice, the new girl stared at her hands folded over her belly and said nothing. Thirty minutes passed—the allotted time to eat—and still her plate was full. The nurse set down a chocolate meal-replacement shake in front of her, which she refused to touch. The ultimatum: drink it or leave. She was over eighteen. They couldn’t force her to stay. 

It may seem dramatic to say that I still think about what happened to that baby, still wonder if it made it out into the world, screaming, like the rest of us. Still, I hold onto the image of that pregnant woman slamming the door as she walked away from help, and wonder if one day I’ll do the same. 

It’s not just anecdotal evidence that steers me away from wanting children; there’s also the fact that eating disorders, like many mental illnesses, run in the family. My mother has fought against her body since high school, becoming bulimic as a teenager and dieting throughout her adult life. I grew up with a jumbled picture of food, split between the joy my mom derived from cooking and the language she used around the food she herself consumed. My mom didn’t cause my eating disorder, although she blames herself. Actually, she is the number-one reason that I continue to have a successful recovery process. The way that my mother approached dieting early in my life only makes me more aware of how easily children internalize what their parents say, intended audience or not.  

Even if I’m prepared to deal with the possibility of my child having an eating disorder, there’s the small problem of pregnancy. I have a hard enough time accepting my body now, hovering within the same fifteen pounds since sophomore year of high school. How am I supposed to reckon with the weight gain, bloating, weird eating habits, swelling, giant belly? Not to mention that Rudalevige babies are consistently ten pounds. I don’t particularly dread giving birth; I can handle pain when it’s necessary to endure. I fear that watching the metamorphoses of the body I have fought for years to tolerate will send me back to square one, force me to start over again in my own recovery, this time with a baby strapped to my back. Here, the question almost crosses from “Am I scared of motherhood?” to “Am I scared of pregnancy?”

Of course, motherhood isn’t limited to a roost of babies that are biologically yours. Still, whether they come out of me or not, have my genes or not, they have to be raised. Sans the struggle of recognizing my own postpartum body, the fact remains that life with a child is unpredictable. My anxiety makes me rigid in some cases, unable to cope with changes in plan or routine. This, plus the inescapable lack of sleep that comes from cohabitating with a newborn, makes me pessimistic that I’m mentally strong enough to be successful. Can I take care of a child if I can’t take care of myself? 

Another question: will I be able to bear the financial burden of treatment for myself or my child? As a writer, my financial future is rickety. Although health insurance will always be a priority for me, will I be able to afford a plan that adequately covers mental health without having to jump through a million hoops? In the United States, it’s an immense privilege to be able to recover from an eating disorder, with residential programs costing $30,000 per month on average. 

Even as I rattle off the reasons that it would be a bad idea, I want to be a mother one day. If I didn’t, it would be easy to write off all my worries as irrelevant because they would never have the chance to come to fruition. Sometimes the things we desire are also those that we fear the most. 

If I do have children, it won’t be anytime soon. In the version of motherhood I’m prepared to face, there are rigidly defined conditions: at least 28 years old, college degree, stable job, living in an area with good schools and green space and a nice elderly neighbor with whom they can practice reading. I have to be close enough to my parents that my mother can visit monthly. I have to be madly in love with my partner and my job. I know that my circumstances will change, and so inevitably will my opinions. I also know that right now, motherhood scares me shitless. 

There are small things that give me hope. I’m really good with kids. I like to think that I’m loving and kind. Having nannied for two summers in a row now, I’m confident that I can at least keep them busy for up to ten hours at a time. I’m also getting to be a pretty good cook—I learned that from my mother. That’s two boxes checked in the world of childcare: happy and fed. The rest will come to pass, or it won’t. Either way, my womanhood is not validated by a decision to have kids—and neither is my recovery. 

Illustration by Taylor Wang