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A few weeks ago, my boyfriend’s brother and his girlfriend of six months announced that they are pregnant. This is unexpected, but theoretically good news. They are responsible adults with good jobs and in their late 20s (like me) and early 30s, and I like them both very much. After being somewhat taken aback at first, both sets of future grandparents are now excited about this. Anyone else who has found out believes this is great news, and the couple seems to be happy. Everything is going well so far.
The problem, however, is me. For whatever reason, this news hit me like a ton of bricks. I spent the next few days after we found out alternating between a shocked silence and crying. It’s sent me into some kind of Stage 5 panic that I’ve never felt before. It’s not some kind of sadness that they don’t live closer or fear of missing out on time with this child — it’s a series of truly negative feelings. I’ve calmed down a lot over time, but every time I think about this child, I get a pit of dread in my stomach. My boyfriend was surprised too, but he’s not nearly as affected by this, and it’s his brother, not mine.
I can’t figure out why this could be, but I know what it’s not. I’m not jealous or resentful; we’ve decided not to get married for a few years, let alone have a kid, and I still know that’s the right decision for me. I don’t dislike the girlfriend; although I’ve known her for only a limited amount of time, she seems fun, kind, smart, and generally a good person to help raise a child. I’m not mourning the loss of “party people”; I’m still enjoying being able to do what I want when I want, but the idea of staying out until 3 a.m. or drinking until I can’t see doesn’t thrill me anymore. This actually won’t affect my life that much. The two of them live in another state, so other than visits and holidays, I wouldn’t somehow have to “change my life” to accommodate a kid — not that that idea upsets me. I’d love to be able to cancel plans with a “Sorry, I’m babysitting my niece/nephew tonight!” Again, this is all good news in my head, but my visceral reaction is completely negative.
My mother passed away a few months ago, after battling a terminal illness for several years, so I understand that my emotions are still wonky from grief. I expect grief to keep showing up at the strangest of times. But I’ve honestly never experienced something like this — totally irrational panic, fear, and sadness over something that truly has nothing to do with me. Why does this freak me out so much? And how do I keep that panic from carrying over into my relationships with my boyfriend’s family?
Baby Crazy (Sort Of)
Dear Baby Crazy,
Maybe you’re more anxious about the future of your relationship than you think you are. Maybe you’ve agreed to proceed rationally with your boyfriend, to give it time, but some part of you is panicked and wants to know for sure that everything is going to turn out the way you want it to. I always knew I wanted kids but never really liked babies that much, personally. But when my sister had a baby when I was 34 years old, it threw me for a loop. I would stare at adorable photos of that baby’s face and feel a kind of melancholy mixed with panic, like all of the purity in the world lived right there but I would never come close to it myself. Everything I was doing with my life was called into question suddenly. That baby’s face seemed to be telling me that everything good I wanted for myself would never be mine.
But for you, I don’t think that’s the whole picture. More than anything else, I think you’re devastated by your mother’s death. Even though she was struggling with her illness for years, and that became a kind of new normal for you, even though you figured that you were prepared for her death and you had accepted it, her actual loss was a blow you could never have prepared yourself for. That’s the way death is. Some tiny part of your brain might think, “This person I love will finally be at rest and life will go on,” but your heart can’t possibly absorb the new reality without that person in it. The landscape is radically altered. Nothing is the same. You thought it would be just like before, only less full of pain and stress and worry, but instead it’s like losing your whole life, like having to rebuild a new life on a desolate, lonely, unfamiliar landscape.
That’s how it feels when you’re processing it emotionally, directly, and leaning in to the sadness and letting it flow out of you. But I’m going to guess that you’ve paved over your sadness quickly instead. You went back to work. You’ve been very busy. You have a lot of things on your plate. You have a lot of things packed into your head. Life is moving fast! You knew your mother was going to die. No surprise there. She died. You dealt with it, you went to the funeral, you cried, it’s over, time to move on.
So this is the story you tell yourself now: You are moving forward. One foot in front of the other! You are strong and capable. You are a survivor. You are just glad that she’s at peace. You miss her, but you’re grateful that it’s over. You are moving on!
This is how our culture deals with death. We don’t wear black for a year or five years. We don’t build a tower of sadness out of recycled cans and sing a song about the beloved, adored, larger-than-life person we lost. We don’t write a new poem about our loss every morning and tape each poem to the wall, and some poems just say MOMMY on them. We don’t walk around looking at our poems and crying every morning. We don’t have a feast every Friday and invite anyone who can stand to be there, and give speeches about how big and colorful and complicated and wise this person we loved was, how much she made us who we are, how completely she filled every frame, how many years we’ll long for her to come back to us. We don’t burrow underground and live there for six months, banishing the sun from our lives because there’s no room for sunshine when you’re trying to understand the dark, trying to make peace with it, trying to come to grips with this loss and with your limited time on the planet.
We trick ourselves instead. We say “I’m strong!” and we tell everyone else, “IT’S FINE!” and we shower and put on clothes and face the fucking day. And some people who don’t know better will applaud us for our strength. And other people who know some things will say to us, “You can take some time off.” Because they know that we can either be crushed by a tidal wave now or later, and if it happens much, much later, it could confuse us and wreck our marriages and send us over the edge. Or we could just be low-level depressed for a decade straight without knowing why.
Not everyone agrees about how long or how forcefully a person should mourn. But many cultures on our planet have seen fit to make mourning a huge part of what human beings do. The passage is honored. The mourners are given a lot of room and a lot of time to be incredibly sad and openly lost. Human beings seem to agree that it’s crucial to mourn adequately, yet our culture does not mourn all that much. You can have a few days off. You are expected to get back into the swing of things quickly, as if you aren’t living 1,000 leagues under the fucking sea.
You’ve been saying to yourself, “Life goes on.” But you weren’t prepared to face the future, to recognize that not only has your mom disappeared, but things are going to change radically and your mom won’t be there to see them change. This baby signifies life really moving on, without your mother. This baby reminds you that eventually you might have a baby, too, and your mother won’t be there by your side. The landscape has changed. It’s not a landscape that’s simply missing one person. It’s a whole new world.
When my father died, I was 25 years old, and everything got rearranged so radically I felt completely at sea. I spent months at home in North Carolina, and then I had to go back to San Francisco and figure out my life. My apartment and my job seemed stupid. My friends did not seem equipped to talk to me about the real landscape that I had discovered, underneath the fake one they treated as reality. They tried to be “nice” but “didn’t know what to say.” They had no idea what was happening around us. They opened their mouths, and out poured the same empty clichés and trivial distractions.
Then I stopped drinking for a while and I was even more alienated from them. Then I got a very busy job. I was moving forward! Then I fell in love. This was progress! This was good! I isolated myself with my boyfriend and powered down my sadness and decided I was “happy.” But I didn’t feel much for the next few years. I dropped friendships and moved and built a life that was strong and capable and a little empty.
Then I went to therapy and cried a lot and I saw what I was doing.
You have to get a therapist. You have to cry a lot. I know that sounds stupid and absurd, but that’s what you need. You have to reckon with what’s living right under the surface of your life. Some part of you is screaming I CANNOT MOVE ON WITHOUT MY MOTHER.
You just lost your mother a few months ago! That sounds like “a second ago” to someone who has lost a parent. The world was sandblasted while you were asleep. Now you live on a denuded planet. You don’t want to go on. You are stuck.
Please stop and feel this. Please. Because once your feelings start to flow, you won’t be panicked, you won’t have these circular, confused thoughts, you won’t have this ton-of-bricks, bewildered sense that the world is ending. You will feel devastated, yes, but you’ll also see that your happiness has been underground for a long time now, probably since you first learned of your mom’s illness. You have to dig it out. You have to build a new world, and paradoxically, the first step is succumbing to a river of tears, and admitting that you need your mom and she’s gone.
I’m so sorry that she’s gone. I’m so fucking sorry. I know it’s awful and haunting and wretched and wrong. I know it hurts. I can see what you see, too: We are all balancing on a tightrope above a vat of ravenous sharks. We are singing songs and laughing and the rope is shivering and shaking and we are chatting chirpily even though it’s only a matter of time before we fall.
But that’s also what makes every breath miraculous. Strength doesn’t come from balancing perfectly on the tightrope, or singing our fucking songs so loudly that no one notices the sharks. Strength comes from looking down, into the vat, and saying, “This life is really fucking brutal, but I am still alive.”
You are still alive. Life will move on, with or without you, whether you like it or not. That’s the message that this baby is bringing to you. That is the message you need, so you don’t get stuck. If you want to breathe and dream and feel good again, you have to mark this passage.
So build a tower. Write a poem. Write on your walls. Cry into your hands. Never apologize for feeling this, for days and months and years. Never apologize. When you make space for your sadness, you open up more space for other people to feel what they feel, to be who they are, to confront the darkness the way human beings are supposed to, not by hiding but by letting it flow and saying: This is what we’re all facing. This is a piece of our laughter. This sadness makes real happiness possible. This is how we dance on the tides. This is how we swim to the moon.
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