After graduating from high school in 2004, I made the usual rounds on the local graduation party circuit. The celebrations were generally lively, kids in one area and adults in the other, and while the food options varied from house to house, one thing was the same at all of the parties. Any time I drifted near the adults, they were talking about really depressing topics: Who was recovering from major surgeries, what was ailing their parents, whose grandparents were terminally ill. Where adults gathered, it seemed, dark conversations followed. I’d retreat to the basement with a full plate of food, glad to escape the world of gallbladder attacks and whispered disclosures about divorces.
A few days ago I was driving in the car with my mom and she asked if I’d seen the news report about the family in the car accident. She didn’t need to elaborate. I knew she was referring to a crash involving a family of four girls and their parents, where only the mother survived. In high school and even through my early adult years, I would have dismissed her interest as just a morbid obsession, akin to those adult conversations I so avoided as a teen. Now that I’m a parent, though, the subject and a desire to discuss it seem much more reasonable. I find myself joining these kinds of conversations willingly.
When my partner and I announced our pregnancy on Facebook, the likes and well-wishes came from all corners of the Internet, including family, high school classmates and former co-workers. One response was from a woman I worked with in college. She was expecting too, and her baby’s due date was in the same week as my son’s. I casually kept up with her after that, through her posts of belly pictures and the gender reveal (a boy, like us). We didn’t speak but it was nice to see someone who was on the same timeline.
Then the night before my baby shower (and hers) I saw her heartbreaking Facebook post announcing that at 30 weeks, she had lost the baby. Sadness for her, as well as a bit of panic, set in as I considered what she was going through, and how she must be feeling. To have so much hope and happiness end in an instant must have caused her immeasurable pain, something I couldn’t fathom. As an expectant mother myself, I was reluctant to contact her, so I kept my distance, but in an instant I became one of those parents at the graduation party. I needed to unburden myself of this horrible news, to clear out the suffocating thoughts. It had happened to her, could it also happen to me?
I couldn’t keep it to myself, where it would fester and multiply like a dark black mold. So I stood next to catered party food at my shower and whispered my fears to a couple friends who I knew would understand. Was this what our parents were doing at those parties, with their stories about the sick and dying? Was it just a desperate need to share the weight of heavy information?
The past year, with pregnancy and new parenthood, has been a master class in managing fears, from the many unknowns during pregnancy to being a parent charged with caring for what seems like an incredibly fragile creature. As I’ve navigated the persistent anxiety that comes with being a parent, I’ve come to better understand all of those depressing conversations I overheard as a teenager. You lose so much control over everything when you get pregnant, and that is amplified when the baby is born. It’s hard, if not impossible, to stay ahead of the anxiety. I’m realizing that one of the only options for maintaining sanity is to share the anxieties and fears with other people who are in the same boat. I can try my best to avoid dark thoughts and keep the conversation light, but 14 years after I rolled my eyes at the adults at those graduation parties, I understand why conversations about death and despair are frequently shared over potato salad.
The worries aren’t paralyzing; I go about my day. I drive in the car with the baby, go up and down the stairs and take him into the outside world without hand sanitizer. But the worry is there just the same, part of what came with the package of being a parent. You’re charged with keeping a helpless baby alive, and, generally, the only people who totally understand how daunting that feels are the ones who are on the same journey.
We’re all muddling through the days, the months and the years, and coping with these hazards. Maybe communally saying aloud that these things are scary is an important part of how we cope. Voicing these fears helps us feel connected to one another because we know someone else gets it. Eventually, we’ll become those clusters of people at parties talking about grim outcomes. I might already be there, clutching my paper plate while I share the latest horrible story I’ve seen on social media. But thankfully I’m surrounded by people who understand.
Erinn Salge is a freelance writer, librarian and mom working and living in northern New Jersey.