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A Happy Childhood: Identity and Anxiety During Pregnancy

I’m not used to being afraid of so much. My sense of self as a fully empowered woman has taken a few blows. Is this what motherhood is?

Becky Cooper

In the middle of my lecture, you get the hiccoughs. Anyone watching closely could see a tiny pulsating bulge coming from the lower left region of my torso. I’m reminded of my colleague who told me her baby got them, too, at the same time every day during class. She had an autistic student who would announce that the hiccoughs had started and how many he counted. I wonder if my students notice and if they are counting. I glance down and think once again how strange it is that I am pregnant. At this point, even though I am clearly showing, I still feel like you are a secret.

At 42, I am categorized as “advanced maternal age.” I’ve always resisted labels and this is one I particularly do not like. I thought I’d have trouble navigating my identity around being a mother and how people would regard me differently, but I was not expecting people to view me as aged, fragile, or at great risk for disaster. You will find this out about me—I’m unused to not being in control of the situation. This is not to say that I won’t occasionally let go and take risks. You are the proof of that.

For the first six weeks, your father and I only told a handful of people about you. We’d heard that many women miscarry and we didn’t want to tell everyone good news and then have to share terrible news shortly after. I was about to tell my biological sister about you when I received a message from her. She shared with me that she and her husband conceived on their honeymoon in Europe, but that she had lost the baby. This news hit me pretty hard. I mourned for her and decided not to tell her about you for a while. And I mourned the loss of yet another bit of synchronicity between my sister and me. We’d only met a few years ago and discovered so many wonderful and strange things in common. She’s 12 years younger than I am—what are the odds we’d both be having our first baby at the same time? I was saddened, too, that this potential piece of our storyline together would not be.

Shortly after, we flew to the west coast to visit my uncle and as I swam in the ocean, I thought about you inside me. You were still abstract to me, and I wanted to allow that time in California to consider your existence. I thought I should take note of what I was doing while you were developing. When I went down to the cove, being a typical Midwesterner, I was not prepared for the power of the waves. My experience of swimming is limited to mostly small lakes, rivers, and the milder sites of Lake Michigan. I walked into the ocean, conscious of bringing you there with me and then, being a literature instructor, I could not help but examine what happened next in terms of metaphor. I braced against the incoming wave and kept my feet—I felt strong. And then the undertow pulled my legs out from under me. Though I got up laughing at myself, I felt unsettled by it. The next morning I woke up with George Orwell’s words “Winston was dreaming” echoing in my mind. I didn’t feel like investigating what that meant too closely.

Later, we rented a whale-watching boat. I looked forward to telling you that we saw whales, fellow swimmers in the sea. Several pods of dolphins played in the wake of our boat with their young. Their curiosity and sense of play filled me with delight. It began to look as if we would not see any whales, when on the return back, a blue whale surfaced, spouted, and dove, flipping his massive tail. The captain said for those waters, we had just witnessed a rare sight. I imagined myself showing you the video someday, telling you how I thought it was a good omen.

When we returned home, I felt we were in a good space. Then I went in for my next exam. The doctor shared with me charts and figures relating my age with potential birth defects. Though I understand statistics, tracing the age of young moms all the way down the page to 42 and watching the increased risks play out left me panicked. What the hell was I doing? Your father and I barely felt prepared to raise a child without major medical issues. I didn’t let the doctor see how it unnerved me, but I let her know that we had decided not to proceed with the pregnancy if the baby had severe problems. I’m sure you probably wouldn’t want to hear that, about how I was telling you to develop strong because I wanted to keep you so badly. No pressure, as they say. We entered another phase where your father and I kept you as secret as possible until we had more tests done.

We spent the next few weeks adrift in murky waters. We didn’t know how to feel. We were balanced on a precarious tightrope: wanting so much to celebrate you, but not knowing if we’d be throwing a party or attending a funeral. It seems dramatic to put it that way, but I can’t think of another way to state it that is more straightforward. We switched practices and found an OB that, as it turns out, babysat me when I was little. She took us right in and made us feel much more confidant. Once we got the amnio results back, your father posted your ultrasound photos on Facebook, even though we had talked about not being “those people.” After worrying for so long, we needed to celebrate. At that point, we were halfway through the pregnancy and now, our secret was out.

I know I should be counting myself lucky. We have made it to 36 weeks. You are developing just fine. I feel you kicking and moving each day—it is such a reassuring sensation. However, a few months back in November, I was diagnosed with gestational diabetes. Remember when I said I don’t like labels? That goes for diagnoses I do not care to accept, as well. I felt like my numbers were low enough (or at least borderline) to not qualify, but that the dieticians were slapping it on me anyway because of my age. When I walked into the diabetes class, I couldn’t help feeling uncomfortable as I looked around—though many of the moms were perhaps half my age, they were clearly not people who exercised or ate moderately. As someone who attended college on a full athletic scholarship and who has worked to maintain good health, I felt offended. I was, I’m not proud to say, quite judgmental. People told me that with pregnancy, we can’t always predict how our bodies will respond. I should be glad that I didn’t have more complications. I knew rationally that it was a good idea to monitor my blood sugar for your sake, but I was pissed off about it. We’d already spent so much of the pregnancy full of anxiety that I was resentful that I couldn’t coast out the rest of this time and simply enjoy it.

You will find that I have a strong obsessive streak. Asked to monitor, I monitored—and kept a fully detailed food diary every day. I wanted the record to show that I was following the plan. This obsessive streak serves me well in my work, but not always so well in other areas of my life. The literature says that my numbers will likely go up toward the end of the pregnancy, yet every time I read a number that comes close to the fasting limit (95) or the hour after a meal limit (130), I have a tendency to feel like I have personally failed and I experience a sense of panic. I won’t tell you about the very few times my numbers spiked, but those times have inspired a handful of anxiety attacks—something I’ve never experienced before. I’m afraid the dieticians will want to put me on medication, I’m afraid this will be a basis for doctors to recommend induction more hastily than necessary, I’m afraid this will lead to a cesarean section that does not coincide with our birth plan at all. I’m afraid of a lot of things ever since the dietician brought up how sugar will wear out my old placenta and kill the baby.

I’m not used to being afraid of so much. My sense of self as a fully empowered woman has taken a few blows. Is this what motherhood is? Are the experienced moms shaking their heads and saying, “You have no idea”? Would a medical professional read my complaints as ridiculous and self-centered, potentially dangerous, even? My friends who study Buddhism would likely point out what I should learn from this: I cannot expect the universe to bend to my will.

I’m sure that teaching literature reinforces my desire to see our stories take recognizable shape—narrative structure compels me to seek order in chaos. So I place myself back in the classroom. We are at week 36 and I’m wondering if anyone has noticed that you have the hiccoughs. I realize that the flashback I have inserted here could not realistically happen in the middle of a lecture. I think about the stories we craft around our lives, how we find ourselves often scared, often hopeful. When you are old enough, I will share Bill Matthews’ poem “A Happy Childhood” with you. I hope you will like it, that you will understand, and that you will choose your own stories well. I’m making the best story I can for all of us.

Becky Cooper Living in Kalamazoo, Michigan with her husband and newborn baby, Becky Cooper received an MFA in poetry from Western Michigan University in 2000 and has been working as an instructor and assistant coordinator for the Academically Talented Youth Program (ATYP) while also teaching courses for the Lee Honors College.

Copyright © Becky Cooper. All rights reserved.