When I brought Gabrielle home from the hospital, I was consumed by the presence of her life. Part of what consumed me was the fear that her life could easily be taken from me — and, with her, my own existence.
Gabby was just 3 days old when I first startled myself with a jolting vision of accidentally dropping her off my balcony. I was unsteady on my feet because of a swift change in my center of gravity following childbirth, and I knew it would only take one misstep to drop her to her death on the balcony that connected my room and hers.
I did my best to push away the vision like a large lump in my throat, but it stalked me and surprised me when I least expected it, and has continued in its assault even as her dangers have transformed with age. Today, the visions look like a car hitting her as she runs into the road, or floating facedown in the pool when I turn away for a moment too long. The visions, of course, are never real. But they’re real enough to keep me on my toes, and to make me admit that motherhood is holy love and holy fear — because I love her so much that I cannot imagine living if she was taken from me.
When I gained the courage to talk about my fears, I quickly realized that every mother has a unique experience with fear of her child’s death. Part of it appears instinctual and protective. Part of it appears suffocating.
So how can we, as mothers, toe the line between protection and suffocation? How can we be alert to dangers of death or injury, while allowing our children to live? Unfortunately, there are no easy answers. I’ve made amends with my fear and use it to protect my child, but not to stop her from exploring the world. This, of course, cannot work for every mom and every fear.
I spoke with psychologist Dr. Elizabeth Lombardo to understand the source of these fears, and how mothers can responsibly live with them. “Fear of child death is common,” Lombardo said. She stated that the hormonal fluctuations, sleep deprivation and major life changes of motherhood are a recipe for heightened distress. “Remember that just because bad things are possible doesn’t mean they’re probable,” she said. “Take steps to address your stress and take deep breaths when you feel scared.” She added that moms need to remember that just because they’re saying something to themselves, it doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. It’s not an omen.
Finally, if you’re overwhelmed by your feelings or visions — or fear injury to yourself or someone else — Lombardo explained that you may be suffering from postpartum depression, which can affect as many as 16 percent of mothers. Talk to your doctor and don’t live with the fear if it feels crushing.