As a seven year-old, I thought I could prevent bad things from happening to me if I spent a sufficient amount of time worrying about them.
It started with a recurring nightmare. One night, instead of mumbling my way through the Our Father, I forced myself to visualize the monsters that left me paralyzed and voiceless night after night. As I watched, they peeled off their fake human skin and stared at me with unblinking eyes. I stared back. When they were finished, I climbed in bed, shaking and exhausted. I slept until my mother woke me for breakfast, and then repeated the exercise until it became part of my bedtime ritual. If I let the monsters show me their teeth and scales, they’d let me sleep.
After that, worrying became an insurance against potential catastrophes that started off kid-sized and matured with age. Rain on Halloween, a sore throat before vacation, a rejection letter from my safety school, mechanical failures on every single flight I’ve ever boarded…. Like a reverse Field of Dreams, I thought, “If you build it, they will stay away.”
I know that my worry isn’t all-powerful. But the quiet churning gives me perspective: No matter what happens, it probably won’t be as terrible as I’d imagined. Either way, I’m prepared. The inability to be fully present, unhaunted, is the price I pay.
By the time I’d scheduled a consultation with a fertility clinic, I’d been trying to get pregnant for over five years. Normally a generalized aura, my worry had morphed into a hot, sweaty, magnetic force field. It drew in all of my fears so I could study them up close: I worried about the expense and my age; the tests, the results; and the side effects of the hormones I would have to inject into my stomach and thighs. I worried it wouldn’t work and I’d never have a family.
I worried about my worrying. Just relax and it will happen, reads every pithy listicle on trying to conceive—usually somewhere between “eat spinach” and “cut caffeine.” In the days leading up to my embryo transfer, I meditated and did yoga, but thoughts of failure and disappointment quietly waited for me. When the nurse called with the results of a positive pregnancy test, I burst into tears. For just a moment, I felt only joy.
I’d been trying to get pregnant for over five years. My worry had morphed into a hot, sweaty, magnetic force field.
In some ways, worrying as a pregnant person felt more productive. Danger seemed to lurk around every corner, and I had practice navigating impending doom. Everything I ate was scrubbed, inspected, and cooked to temp. I stayed active, but not too active; a newly purchased heart rate monitor let me know if I was too close to 120 bpm, the specialist’s guideline I’d begrudgingly accepted. My clinic’s aggressive schedule of blood tests and ultrasounds assured me that my hormone levels were climbing appropriately. My embryo, which one pregnancy website told me was no bigger than a raspberry, had a heartbeat I could see and hear.
My first trip to the regular OB-GYN was a milestone. At nearly 10 weeks pregnant, I’d graduated from infertility and transitioned to the ranks of “normal” pregnancy. The nurse at the front desk asked me my due date, and I surprised myself when I ignored all my mental caveats (It’s still early, but…) and flirted with the idea of a breezy, confident pregnancy. “February 15th,” I said.
When the doctor turned on the ultrasound screen, I knew to look for the flicker of a heartbeat, the fragile but undeniable proof that this was actually happening. But I didn’t see it, and neither did she. “This isn’t good,” she said. “I’m so sorry.”
The crushing weight of grief came later.
After my husband ushered me home and I climbed the stairs to our apartment, I collapsed on my bed and intermittently cried for 72 hours. What I felt in the doctor’s office was different. Not shock, exactly—a potential miscarriage was well-covered mental territory. It was closer to emptiness. And, though I struggle to admit it, the darkest kind of relief. For some, uncertainty is fertile ground for hope and miracles; for me, the only thing that stems from uncertainty is limitless potential for disaster or, worse, more uncertainty.
Pregnancy had short-circuited my expert-level capacity to worry. As the cluster of cells inside me became less abstract and more like the baby I’d dared to hope, I’d felt simultaneously safer and closer to tragedy. When I miscarried, I had nothing left to lose. I had nothing to worry about.
In the past, any absence of worry was filled with temporary lightness. The successful landing of a turbulent flight or meeting an impossible deadline brought with it a spike of disorienting, head-buzzing adrenaline. Not worrying was a thrilling out-of-body experience. But this experience was very much of my body. It took over, maybe for the sake of self-preservation, telling my brain, You’re done for now. The finality of it was heavy, but soothing. I sat in my dark living room and waited to bleed.
Pregnancy had short-circuited my expert-level capacity to worry. As the cluster of cells inside me became less abstract and more like the baby I’d dared to hope, I’d felt simultaneously safer and closer to tragedy.
It was a short reprieve. After eight months and a second loss at six weeks, I discovered mental spirals that cut deeper. There are the logistical concerns, like the viability of my remaining embryos, our finances, IVF success rate, and the fact that I’ve already had two shots to get it right.
I worry that I’m the troublesome variable in this equation. Not my body, which has been thoroughly vetted and medically cleared to carry a child. But my brain, which is hardwired for pain. Or my heart, which feels most at home with loss.
And what if works? I want to let go of the worry. I want to look at a child and feel a love that’s greater than my fear, but whether or not I can is a lingering question inside of which I live. I could live there forever—just let the clock run out on my supposedly fertile years. Or I could risk disaster once again: Brace for impact, absorb the blow, then do my best to reassemble my body and heart one more time.
I’m honestly not sure which would be worse.