I write this from a house that is slowly emerging from Covid, which finally caught us after two and a half years of the pandemic. In some ways, nursing a small, sick baby with a sick husband while also very sick myself was a more hellish experience than childbirth. There were points at which I wondered how we would be able to care for him. Thankfully my mother arrived bearing Calpol and some seriously old-school cough syrup, and for the past week has been feeding us and nursing us, risking her own health in the process.
These challenges mean that I have been thinking rather a lot about fear and how it relates to parenthood. The baby’s history of breathing problems meant that I was genuinely frightened when we caught the virus, and though I knew it didn’t affect children much, a child I happen to know and love had a very severe reaction to the disease. That, as well as my son’s time in a newborn intensive care unit, made it difficult not to let myself become consumed by terror, and yet somehow I coped. While I was there, I saw some very sick babies and some very frightened parents. There was a moment in the bedroom, as I feverishly rocked him back and forth, when I semi-hallucinated all the women who had done the same with their own sick offspring. Most of us need only look at our own family trees to see multiple infant mortalities. In my own family’s history is a tale of returning home from burying one child to find another dead.
This all sounds rather dramatic, but I’m convinced these past tragedies are somehow encoded in us. They are, after all, part and parcel of the history of humanity, and in many parts of the world continue to be a living reality. Perhaps it’s why the other mothers I speak to admit that they, too, check their babies’ breathing in the night. How many times in the last few months have I placed my hand to my son’s chest to check that he still lives? It makes sense, though: it is only in the past century that we have been able to have much confidence that our babies will survive, and even then you have myriad terrifying, unpredictable threats: Sids, meningitis, polio – again.
Fear, my mother says, is the price we pay for love. The fear I feel that something will take my child away from me is so terrible that, like an eclipse, it’s better not to look directly at it. And yet I am not an especially neurotic mother and nowhere near as anxious as I thought I might be. My history of PTSD – which at one point manifested as health anxiety – meant I considered parenthood with trepidation. Would I be consumed by fear? Would I transmit that fear on to my baby? And yet the things we believe will happen do not always come to pass.
Though of course, there are the intrusive thoughts. I am grateful to Anne Enright, whose funny, brilliant book Making Babies: Stumbling into Motherhood prepared me in a number of ways for the fear. She writes: “Once, maybe twice a day, I get an image of terrible violence against the baby. Like a flicker in the corner of my eye, it lasts for a quarter of a second, maybe less. Sometimes it’s me who inflicts this violence, sometimes it is someone else. Martin says it is all right – it is just her astonishing vulnerability that works strange things in my head. But I know it is also because I am trapped, not just by her endless needs, but also by the endless, mindless love I have for her. It is important to stay on the right side of a love like this.”
Reading these words meant that, when I first took the baby out in his pram and imagined a car ploughing into us, killing us both, I was prepared for the thought. When you have a baby you become a sort of automatic hazard spotter in a world set with traps. Your mind is engaged in a frequent thought experiment: could this hurt the baby? It has, of course, a purpose: survival. I also liken it to what Edgar Allan Poe called “the imp of the perverse”, that urge to do the thing that is wrong and terrible, to throw yourself off the tall building on which you stand, to laugh during the funeral. “Wouldn’t it be awful?” you think. Such thoughts keep you in check.
Of course, when they are out of control, intrusive thoughts can become problematic. Enright sets herself a limit of two or three a day: “If I get more than that, then it’s off to the doctor for the happy pills.” Chloe Hamilton has written movingly about the barrage of intrusive thoughts that she experienced while suffering from postnatal OCD, and her fear that her baby would be taken away from her. Thankfully she is now better, but, she writes, she would have benefited from being able to open up sooner. “A simple poster, for example, displayed in the ward toilets, detailing not just where to get help but also how common specific thoughts were, would have helped greatly, encouraging me to open up before my thoughts spiralled once I returned home,” she writes.
As the baby has grown bigger and stronger, my fears for him are not so potent, and it is this message that I would like people who are expecting a child, who are worried about being overwhelmed by anxiety, to carry with them. The terror that something will happen to your baby doesn’t dwindle, exactly, but it becomes more manageable as time passes, and I’m told even more so with a second child. Furthermore, the child makes the fear livable by the simple joy of their presence. As if on cue, my son chose the Covid week to start laughing. And as ever, having support helps. Looking through the living room door at my son sleeping in his bassinet on the floor, my mother on the sofa next to him, I felt that more than ever. She ran to me just as I would run to him, because that is love. Of course there’s a price for something as big as that.
Before I became ill I was able to steal away for several hours to Raphael at the National Gallery, and was particularly moved by his depictions of Madonna and child. It was the Tempi Madonna in particular that made me tear up, with Mary’s tender expression as she holds Christ to her face bringing to mind the fact that the artist lost his own mother when he was very young. I find myself wondering if he drew them from life, and what those sessions would have been like. A nightmare, probably.
After a second screaming fit, we have abandoned baby swimming until next term. The start time of 9am probably wasn’t helping. Who among us, after all, would relish being woken from our nap to be manhandled into a wetsuit and dunked into a pool? We will try again when he is six months old.
Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a Guardian columnist and author