Changing Fear

From time to time, I submit personal essays to magazines. Sometimes they publish them, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes, when they don’t, I’m left with an essay that was of a particular time and can’t be resubmitted elsewhere. This is one of those essays. I wrote it in February 2013 when I was extremely pregnant but it didn’t quite hit the mark for the magazine. It seemed a shame to abandon it entirely, so I thought I’d stick it up here.

There is a stage of giving birth called Transition. That’s right, with a capital T. It’s when you move from regular contractions, in between which you can rest, mop your brow and say things like “Whew!”, to actual, proper, pushing a person out of your body. Transition is the part when you are most likely to go bananas. You might find yourself swearing at your partner, weeping helplessly or deciding that you urgently require a sixteen-piece orchestra to accompany your labour.

I am currently in a different sort of Transition: the period between starting maternity leave and having a baby. In many ways, it is lovely. I spend my days swimming, cuddling my cats and doing yoga.

On the other hand, constantly wondering if a baby is about to fall out of you is disconcerting. Every visit to the loo, every dart of back pain, each (teeny and ladylike) bottom parp prompts the question “Is this it?” And so far it hasn’t been, but at some point it will be and I will become a mum.

This is terrifying. From Marmee in Little Women to the indefatigable Marge Simpson, popular culture says mothers always know what to do for the best. Can I, as a non-fictional mum, possibly live up to such expectations?

Probably not, but I’m starting to believe I might not be the Inexplicable Mum Who Can’t. Pregnancy has been a fantastic lesson in the pointlessness of fear and the importance of trusting my instinct.

The fact is, I’m a big feartie – a useful Scottish word for someone lacking courage. The list of things I have not done because I was scared is lengthy, embarrassing and constantly expanding. For example:

– despite being a nerdy kid with an interest in public policy, I didn’t apply to the civil service because I might have had to work abroad: too scary.

– I didn’t accept my dream job when I was offered it after university, because I’d already taken a post elsewhere and was afraid of looking unreliable.

– And the other day, I didn’t ask for bread with my lasagne in a deli, even though the menu said it should have been included, because I was frightened I’d look greedy.  I am not kidding. Somewhere in my brain lurks a genuine belief that the server would have put down his spoon, stared at me in outrage and hissed “You want bread as well as lasagne? For the same price? You intemperate hog!”

Clearly, this is insane. But pregnancy is showing me that it is also unnecessary. In contrast to the paralysis caused by my permanent intellectual fears,  my body has cracked on with making a human being without the slightest hesitation. From the earliest days of my pregnancy, when my abdomen ached and my innards felt suddenly leaden, my anatomy has uttered a metaphorical “Right-ho!” and unbelievably, miraculously, turned out to know exactly what it is doing.

Without the aid of a project plan, risk analysis or spreadsheet, my previously unremarkable body has built ears, kidneys, nostrils, kneecaps, toenails and all the other constituent parts of a person. It has imbued them with life, so that I now spend quite a lot of the day going “Oof!” as my baby wedges his or her foot beneath my ribs, or watching my belly gently roll as a brand new person wriggles around inside me.

All of this is making me question my panic-based approach to life thus far. If it turns out that I actually know, instinctively, how to make a baby, then what else can I do without difficulty? Maybe I won’t be a disaster as a mum. Maybe a combination of hormones, instinct and newfound confidence will get me through.  Maybe I’ll even turn out to be good at it.

It seems unlikely. But then, life is unlikely right now. Recently, I found myself in a circle of mums and babies, singing Old MacDonald Had a Farm and learning hand signals for the names of animals, such as cat, dog and cow.

As I bashfully warbled, “With a moo moo here, and a moo moo there”, I couldn’t help reflecting that the week before, I had been a manager, in charge of a department and a budget. Now I was miming imaginary  cow horns. What have I done? How will I cope?

This sort of sudden consternation has since been christened “having a moo moment” by a friend from antenatal class. But it’s exactly the sort of thinking that my body is teaching me to abandon. The fact is, I will cope. I will cope with giving birth, even if I swear and scream and demand an orchestral accompaniment. I will cope with motherhood. I will cope with going back to work, and finding ways to fit the things I love into my new life.

If I can build a person, then what else might I be capable of? I don’t know, but I’m excited to find out. And at the very least, next time I’m out for lunch, I’ll be demanding both bread AND lasagne.

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