Ask Polly: I’m Terrified of Having Kids!

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Dear Polly,

My whole life I assumed I would have children, and honestly, when I really think about my future with my husband, I can’t imagine not having a child and growing a family.

I’ve finally reached the point in my life where having a child would be completely doable. I married the absolute love of my life, and we’ve been together for eight years. He also wants children, and I know he will be a great father and partner. I also have a well-paid, successful career that thankfully completely supports women (and men) with young families. We recently purchased our first home, in a great neighborhood, with a small yard and an extra bedroom. I just turned 30, and I know still have time, but I would like to have a child before 35.

I really have no more excuses. There aren’t any other life milestones I need to reach before I have a baby. The problem is, I’m terrified, and I’m terrified because I really think I know too much about the truth of having a baby.

Throughout my life, I have had extensive experience working with young children and babies. In high school, I worked for my dad’s company that specialized in working with children and babies with special needs. I was a “sub”; when a therapist called in sick, I would fill in to play and spend time with autistic children 3 years old and younger. When I was in college, my brother had a baby and his job flew him across the country. I stayed with my sister-in-law to help with their 1-month-old newborn for about a month and a half during my summer off. Additionally, I have over 30 nieces and nephews, if you include my husband’s side of the family.

I’ve seen a lot. I’ve seen my many nieces and nephews grow up, and I’ve seen the stress and toll on their parents. I also know that I don’t actually understand how much work a baby is, and that it’s probably a thousand times harder than what I’ve experienced. And what I’ve experienced already seems like a lot.

What’s making this all worse is a recent trend for new moms to post articles and blog posts about how truly horrifying it is to be a new mom. I completely understand why they post these things, they should not suffer in silence, and they should receive as much support as they need. It’s just that … it’s honestly freaking me the fuck out.

All over social media are articles about how giving birth tears apart your body and can permanently damage it, how you can end up with lifelong incontinence, embarrassing hemorrhoids forever bursting out of your butt “like bunch of grapes,” to quote one particularly frightening article. I’ve heard from close friends how intensely painful breastfeeding really is, my five sisters-in-law regularly tell me how my “boobs will be destroyed” and to “appreciate them now,” or how stressful children are on your marriage, or how being a mom completely ages you, how many mothers quietly suffer from severe postpartum depression, how you can completely lose your identity, oh and that when you’re pregnant, your hair falls out, your nose gets bigger, and your feet can become permanently enlarged. I read a blog about how after giving birth, the woman sobbed in her hospital bed, crying out “I’m ruined!” Then I think about the fact that, after somehow surviving all of this, you then go home and have to raise a human being, and work your job, and keep your marriage afloat! And side note — how the hell are you ever in the mood for sex again?

I’m hoping that the love for my future child will make all of this worth it. Still, I have this fear inside me — what if I don’t love my child? What if I’m too upset about my incontinence or my chewed-up nipples and I’m just angry and bitter? What if I can’t handle it? What if I turn into awful resentful person and push my husband away? What if he loses his attraction to me once I’m fat, covered in stretch marks, grapes bursting out of my butt, with a huge nose, huge feet, partially bald, and constantly peeing my pants?

I wish I was more in a fantasyland about it all. I feel like I can’t logically think about having a baby; otherwise, I’ll never do it. I’m thinking I will have to just take a leap of faith and go for it. I just have no idea what to do or how to overcome all of this anxiety.

Scared of Becoming Mommy

Dear SOBM,

I remember feeling exactly the way you feel. And those Horrors of Motherhood essays aren’t a new thing, trust me. Back in 2006, when I was pregnant for the first time, I read so much horrible stuff that I was almost in a state of disbelief over the fact that I had willfully chosen to torpedo my whole life for the sake of having a kid. It wasn’t just the essays, though. All of the parents around me told me one scary tale after another. And the theme of their stories was always the same: Nothing you’re planning will work. Everything will be a million times more torturous than you’re imagining. It was so bad that, a month before I gave birth, I wrote this comical essay about what a total nightmare my life was about to be.

What you don’t realize when you hear these stories is that the people who tell them do so in the spirit of “Here, this will help you to prepare for the shitstorm to come, which we both know is totally amazing and exciting and scary all at the same time.” They forget that you don’t even know if you’ll ENJOY being a parent yet. They take it for granted that you’ll love it, because — and this part is weird, I know, but — telling horror stories is part of loving it. It’s like jumping out of a plane and then gushing about how you wanted to vomit the whole time.

On top of all of my fears, I didn’t even like kids. I knew I wanted them, deep down in my gut, but I wasn’t a baby lover or a toddler lover. When friends brought their kids over and tried to hand them over to me, I treated them like smallpox blankets. “Mmm, no thank you! So cute! Want a drink? I’m getting a drink!” I was like Van Morrison in that song “TB Sheets,” always backing out the door, afraid I would catch something.

And I was sure that I would have a colicky baby plus postpartum depression plus the flapjack tits plus the peeing in the pants. I was certain I would have all of the things, no matter what. But most of all, I thought I wasn’t like other women. I wouldn’t feel the right way about kids. I would feel indifferent. My mom kept saying, “Don’t worry, you’ll love your baby.” My husband, who already had a son, kept saying, “Trust me, babies are easy to love when they’re your own.” But I didn’t believe them. I wanted to give birth to a puppy instead.

It’s not like I sailed through, had the dream birth, the dream baby, the dream children, and now I have Scarlett Johansson’s body and my whole life is sheer perfection. But 11 years later, my career, my marriage, my body, and my life in general are all better than they were before I had kids. I know that sounds absurdly self-congratulatory, but everyone acts like the opposite is always, always true. It’s not. And when that crazy little human burrito with big eyes blinked up at me from her hospital blanket — I mean, the little motherfuckers SEE YOU. They look right at you like OH, YOU’RE MY MOMMY I GUESS. It’s unbelievable. It’s probably adaptive, looking right at your mom, seconds after birth, with an expression of HMMM, MOMMY. HELLO THERE! But goddamn it, it works. You can’t believe how effective those tiny freakish shitting screamers are. Just five seconds of blinky looks, and you are prepared to bathe in their shit and throw your body in front of the nearest steam train.

And since you might have to throw your body across the tracks, your body doesn’t matter to you for a long time. It’s something built to feed a small person, and otherwise mostly languish about, eating food in order to make more food. I strongly recommend this lifestyle. Going FULL COW is nicer than you think. Overthinking neurotic worrywart mothers often really bask in the afterglow of birth. We expect the absolute worst, and we are pleasantly surprised to wake up in something other than hell. We’re shocked to discover that dropping a sore nipple into the mouth of a tiny snapper brings on a rush of contentment, as we prevent the snapper from dying. We don’t even mind cut-open guts or blasted lady parts or unwieldy fuck-doll tits or milking machines that go AHWOOOONGA AHWOONGA with all of the subtlety of a V6-powered dildo. We aren’t used to accepting what our bodies were apparently, at least partially, built to do. We’ve been fighting against our bodies for decades, pushing them to be smaller and cuter and better. Letting your body be what it is and keep a human alive is fascinating and relaxing as hell.

Not all babies have special needs. Not all tits get worse. Not all lives unravel into a blur of sippy cups forever. Not all husbands go away for a full month when their infants are 1 fucking month old. Do not under any circumstances let your husband take off right after you have a kid. That was a huge thing for me, having my husband and my mom around for two weeks. It was unexpectedly exciting and also not that taxing. A friend of mine got a night nanny because her wife works and travels a lot. They are exorbitantly expensive and maybe a little absurd, even, but that’s what worked for her. (Pro tip: Do what works for you.) We were not swimming in cash. We went into debt trying to cover nannies and daycare for our two little kids. And I will say that having a second baby when we already had a toddler was exceptionally rough for about four months. Even though you know what to expect with the second kid, it is madness at first. (Once they’re a little bigger, two kids are actually easier than one. Not kidding.)

The point is, you might be surprised at how relaxing and fun it is to have a baby. Personally, I loved it. I had an excuse to just exist for the first time in my life. I was not depressed at all. I was happy.

People don’t write about that. Or if they do, they write about it in such sugary clichés that it makes you sure that you aren’t the same species as them. They write things like “It will change your whole life” and “You will love like you’ve never loved before” and “Nothing else will matter.” All of these things are true, but they’re also somehow totally annoying. Nothing else will matter? How is that good? You don’t know how to feel love unless a helpless thing needs you? Your life, as a woman, was designed to melt into shit and chaos?

People don’t tell you that you will feel really good and right in a new, visceral way. People don’t tell you that your existential angst will leave you for a solid decade, if you’re lucky. People don’t tell you that life will suddenly feel very short, and that brings a kind of delicious urgency to everything you do. People don’t tell you that you will be slower and more present and also more ambitious than ever.

I was far less productive and inspired before I had kids. I was bored socially. I was annoyed with everyone. I felt impatient all the time. I had a very “Is that all there is?” attitude about everything. That left me and it never came back. Now obviously, there are enormous struggles along the way. I was in a weird messy cave for five years. Emerging from that cave took work, and made me self-conscious. Mom culture is, frankly, a scary house of horrors a lot of the time. It takes time to find your people among the Kumon-worshipping, helicoptering, “Mrs. Jones used a harsh tone with my perfect genius child” types.

It’s a roller-coaster ride. You’re not always in control. The trick is to embrace the thrills of the ride. You have to be able to marvel at the hard work, the mess, the absurdity of it all. You have to be able to laugh about it. When my second kid was 1 month old and my first kid was 2 and a half, my husband got all high strung with me about how to pack the diaper bag and then we all got into the car with my mom and I just started yelling. “I AM NOT SLEEPING, OKAY? I AM THE ONE WHO DOES NOT SLEEP AT ALL! I AM BARELY HOLDING ON HERE, SO CUT ME SOME FUCKING SLACK! ALL OF YOU! CUT ME SOME SLACK!” And then I was driving and crying, crying and driving, and at some point my mom told my husband that she was worried he would leave me.

Now you’ll read this and you’ll say to yourself, “Oh my Christ, I hope to hell I don’t turn into an enraged beast and ruin my marriage like this sad woman!” You think this is the nightmare reel, but this is actually the highlight reel. Because when my mom said that, my husband and I both burst out laughing. It was just so absurd. We both knew he wasn’t going anywhere. We were both really deeply happy. That’s what people don’t explain. You’re in the fucking trenches, but it feels damn good, as long as you have each other, and you can laugh about it, and you know that this is what you wanted. You wanted to be cast into this circus together. You understand the gift of this insanity. You see the humor in packing everyone into the car and THEN yelling. You see how terrible and funny and bad and perfect that is.

I know it doesn’t seem funny now. But it is. It’s funny because you know in your heart that it’s all so worth it. Even with all of your worst-case scenarios, it’s so worth it. Those blinky eyes, they don’t stop looking into yours. OH. I GUESS YOU’RE MY MOMMY. Sure, sometimes you’re a disappointment. You disappoint yourself and your kids, too. The world is a scary place, and you are a volatile imperfect human who sometimes fails to rise above the shitstorm. Even so, you are doing your best, maybe for the first time. You can be whatever you are, and it’s okay. You won’t recognize yourself. But she will. He will. They will. It’s beyond worth it.

Polly

Order the new Ask Polly book, How to Be a Person in the World, here. Got a question for Polly? Email askpolly@nymag.com. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

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Ask Polly: I’m Terrified of Having Kids!