The Atlantic

Editor's Note: Every Wednesday, Lori Gottlieb answers questions from readers about their problems, big and small. Have a question? Email her at dear.therapist@theatlantic.com.

Dear Therapist,

I want to be a parent, but I am absolutely terrified. How do I get over this?

I’m 31 and my husband is 34. My husband has been ready to start trying for a while, and in my gut I know I want to be a parent, but I’m only getting more scared.

Part of the problem is we don’t have much exposure to kids. None of our career-driven, urban, feminist friends are parents, and I would also be the first parent at my company. I usually feel empowered by doing research, so I’ve read lots of articles and books on the subject. I was seeking affirmation, but all my reading only fed my anxiety. I’m a little too well-informed at this point, about everything from postpartum depression to childbirth injuries to the fact that most couples see their marital satisfaction drop after the birth of a child. I know I can’t “have it all” (that dumb phrase!) because the U.S. lags far behind other countries in parental leave and support, and I want to keep my ambitious career even though the system is rigged.

Yet every time I pass a cute baby on the street, I feel a rush of longing. In other moments, I’ll ask myself: Why blow up our perfectly happy, easy lives by taking this crazy leap? The good stuff about having a kid is so ineffable, so hard to see from the other side, that I guess maybe there is no logical way to decide. We have plenty of money, family nearby to help, etc. I also worry about waiting too long and not having as much energy as an older mom (which is what my own mom was like). My husband is supportive and doesn’t want to pressure me, but it does feel like the clock is ticking. What should I do?

Anonymous


Dear Anonymous,

The paralysis you’re experiencing brings to mind the famous Einstein quote: “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” Often in therapy I listen for the first thing people tell me, before they spin off into confusion and perseveration.

You said upfront that you want to be a parent, but something is holding you back. That something, though, probably isn’t one of the concerns you’ve listed here. Yes, kids affect our lives dramatically—our bodies, our marriages, our finances, and our careers (especially, as you say, for women in the U.S.). But you’re right: This isn’t a decision that’s made based on logic. You can’t research your way through this. The internet offers lots of terrifying information about everything from working mothers to fluctuating hormones, but it won’t shed light on your emotional terror—which has left you stuck in ambivalence.

Paralyzing ambivalence often stems from feelings that a person isn’t focusing on, or even aware of. Someone who can’t decide to the point of paralysis between two boyfriends or jobs or rugs from West Elm is probably conflicted about something else—perhaps trust or commitment or becoming an adult. You’ll be able to move past your ambivalence once you understand the real root of it, and it might help to start by looking less at parenthood in general and more at childhood—yours.

One of the best things people can do as parents is examine the emotional residue of their own upbringings. If we don’t, we tend to either project these old feelings onto our children or become terrified of taking on the parental role. Half a century ago, the psychoanalyst Selma Fraiberg wrote beautifully about these lurking feelings in a paper called “Ghosts in the Nursery.” Using observations from her work with families, Fraiberg described the ways in which issues from our childhoods—what she called ghosts—come unbidden when we become parents (or, in your case, when you contemplate parenthood). If we felt criticized, unseen, unsupported, controlled, or neglected growing up—and we haven’t worked through these feelings as adults—these ghosts will cause us to re-enact our pasts (or freeze in our tracks for fear of re-creating them).

The one thing you mention about your mom is that she was older and lacked energy, and I wonder if there were times when this upset you, leaving you feeling disappointed or resentful or lonely or sad. You may have wished that she could be more like your friends’ moms. Even if your mom was warm and loving and wonderful in other ways, a kid could easily misinterpret her lack of energy as rejection. She’s too tired to play might have felt like She’d rather not play. She can’t go on this outing with me may have felt like I’m not that important to her.

You might not even know that these (or other) feelings were there, but now, when you contemplate having your own child, they return—if only on an unconscious level. My guess is that your real terror is based in self-doubt: Can I be a good parent to my child? Or will I, too, cause my child pain if a good deal of my energy is also directed toward my career and my marriage? Will my child feel like I did?

That’s probably why, despite feeling a rush of longing when you see a cute baby on the street, doubts still pop up: Wait, what will happen to my marriage? You’ve got some key practicalities covered—the money, the family members nearby—but beyond that, no amount of thinking or research is going to move you forward. The fact is, there’s no way you’ll know what it’s like to be a parent until you are one.

But there is a way to feel more emotionally ready by delving into the source of the terror: separating out your mother’s experience of parenthood (and your experience of her as a mother) from what will be your own experience of parenthood (and your child’s experience of you as a mother). That’s the distinction you need to make. You don’t have to have it all neatly figured out, but the more you make space for those differences, the less space your terror will take up.


Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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