[In an odd bit of timing, this post (written a couple weeks back) happens to be appearing during one of our family’s bleakest health weeks: three days ago, Fiona, Campbell, and Erick were attacked in the middle of the night by a nasty stomach bug that’s been sweeping through our community. After the first 24 hours, I blithely assumed that Georgia and I had some sort of super-resistance, that we’d escaped with stomachs intact. Not so; yesterday, it got me. So we’re limping along over here, and as soon as I finish typing this intro I’m letting the girls watch their fifth episode of “Dinosaur Train” and going straight back to bed. Looking forward to putting this week behind us. Hope you stay healthy and enjoy what follows!]
Despite how calm and self-assured I may appear in my writing (Right?!? Don’t I?!?), in reality I am neither laid-back nor confident. I worry about many things. Like everyone, I’m a work in progress; I’m working on my worry, as I have been for my entire life. My excuse for retaining just a little bit of worry is that I am married to an exceptionally laid-back man, so somebody has to take care of the worrying in this house. I see it as adding a necessary dose of neuroticism to life, for the sake of our children; it’s boring to grow up too well-adjusted. (Right?!? Isn’t it?!?)
One of the things I sometimes worry about is my health. Thankfully, I don’t have to worry about this too much, because in general I’m very healthy. But the second a symptom appears, my mind immediately fixates on the worst-case scenario; I’ve been at death’s door many times because of a simple tension headache.
Here’s where it gets tricky for me: most people, convinced they’re at death’s door, would be knocking on the doctor’s door. They’d be phoning the on-call nurse in the middle of the night, insisting on more tests, tracking down specialists for second opinions.
Not me. Because, although I may worry about my health, I’m more worried about annoying my doctor. My worst nightmare is that I’ll visit the doctor to check out a symptom, and all the tests will come back negative, leading the doctor to conclude: She’s a neurotic hypochondriac. I’m convinced that every doctor’s office has special “Freak-Out Case” stickers that they place on the files of all patients who annoy them with baseless symptoms; when a “Freak-Out Case” patient calls to report a symptom, the on-call nurse rolls her eyes, while the other nurses in the staff room try to contain their laughter. (Doctor friends, now’s your chance to tell me if this is actually true….)
I want to avoid a “Freak-Out Case” sticker on my medical file. So I delay calling the doctor, debate endlessly whether I should call the doctor, try to diagnose myself online (I know, I know!), and end up even more convinced that I have days to live. But at least when I die, the doctor won’t hate me.
I guess you’d call me a “blocked hypochondriac.” If you could personify my inner life, it would probably look an awful lot like Woody Allen.
One of the BEST things about pregnancy is that it gives you license to be a little bit of a Freak-Out Case; after all, you’re responsible for another life growing inside you. I don’t worry (as much) about appearing neurotic and self-absorbed if I call the doctor when I’m pregnant; it’s not about ME, it’s about the BABY. And since Fiona’s dramatic birth placed me forever in the “high-risk” pregnancy category, I think I deserve a few extra-credit worry points.
And believe me, I need those worry points. If you’ve thought, “Gee, by the fourth pregnancy I bet it’s REALLY EASY. After all, you’ve done it three times before. You probably don’t worry at all!” think again, my friend.
An unfair and counter-intuitive fact about pregnancy — at least MY pregnancies — is that it doesn’t get easier the more times you do it. In my experience, pregnancy gets a little more difficult each time: more aches, more pains, more nausea. Whether this is because I have more children and less time to rest, or because I’m older with each pregnancy and my body’s more worn out, I’m not sure. On the whole, I don’t have very difficult pregnancies, but it’s certainly not something that gets easier with practice.
Which brings us to the worry. Oddly, my most worry-free pregnancy was probably my first; back then, I was blissfully ignorant. I didn’t know how many things could go wrong. Then I read What to Expect When You’re Expecting, which is possibly the most terrifying book ever written. My edition has a whole chapter titled, “When There’s A Problem.” (I’ve advised first-time mothers to avoid this book. Is it really helpful to fill your head with all the worst-case scenarios? In the unlikely event that I ever write a pregnancy handbook, this will be the full text: “You’re probably going to be okay. Women have done this for centuries without the benefit of modern medicine or What to Expect. Eat healthily, rest when you can, see your doctor, and guilt your spouse into doing as much as possible.”)
Unfortunately, it’s not just pregnancy literature that’s filled my head with worst-case scenarios; it’s also life. I’ve lived five years in between my first pregnancy and my fourth. During that time, a LOT of friends have gotten pregnant and had babies. The stories are mostly happy — but some aren’t. I’ve been a bystander to unimaginable tragedy and heartbreak.
By now the worry arsenal of my imagination is fully stocked with tales of what could possibly go wrong. Add to that the maddening fact that, while my pregnancies don’t get EASIER, they do get DIFFERENT. None of my four experiences have been identical; there’s always something new and surprising going on. “What’s that ache?!? I’ve never felt that before! Let me check What to Expect….”
The bottom line to all of this? Worrying about my health in general and pregnancy in particular has forced me to accept the difference between RESPONSIBILITY and CONTROL. For instance:
I am RESPONSIBLE for my pregnancy — I should take my prenatal vitamins, get rest and exercise, and lay off the Scotch for 9 months (boo!) — but I can’t CONTROL the outcome of my pregnancy.
I am RESPONSIBLE for my behavior — I should treat others kindly, try to manage my worry, and avoid harassing my doctors — but I can’t CONTROL how others see me.
All of which is outstanding preparation for parenting. Because I’m RESPONSIBLE for my children — I should feed them, clothe them, teach them appropriate manners, and keep them out of the street — but I will never, ever be able to CONTROL my children.
I hate having to accept this, but it’s the truth.