When I met my niece, Penny, for the first time, I burst into tears. I loved her so much, so instantly, that it felt physically painful. I remember realizing that each foot, in my winter boots, were bigger than her entire body. When I held her, I felt her breath shudder through her lungs — a visceral reminder of how new she was. She was so fierce and so fragile, and I wept all the way home. Not because I felt happy or sad, but because I was terrified. The idea that my little sister had produced this perfect person was overwhelming, and the other idea, that she was entirely responsible for keeping Penny alive, made me shake with fear. A month later, I repeated the entire process with a different little sister and her baby, my nephew, Arthur. My desire to hold and protect these little people was suffocating. I couldn’t watch the news, cross a road, or even see a bus without panicking about the state of the world and the harm that might come to them. Everywhere I looked, I saw catastrophes, and I struggled to function.
Although I’ve always been ambivalent about having children, there was a part of me that believed that when I watched my little sisters become mothers, some missing emotion would click into place. I’d realize that motherhood was normal and natural, and if my baby sisters could do it, there was nothing to stop me from doing it, too. After all, Penny’s mom once leaped off a flight of stairs wearing a floating ring because she believed she could “swim through the air.” Arthur’s mom once burst into tears during a play about men because she believed they were real monsters. My darling little sisters are some of my favorite people in the whole world. They’re sweet, smart, funny, gorgeous, and they make amazing moms. But I know them well enough to realize they can be idiots. There’s nothing they can do that I can’t. In fact, most of the time, I lead and they follow. On the rare occasions when they overtake me, I race to catch up. Yet motherhood seems to be the one instance where I’m happy to be left behind. Well, not happy, exactly, just too scared and anxious to follow in their footsteps.
It’s thought that at least one in four people are living with mental illness, and I’m one of them. I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder in 2010, but I struggle with anxiety every single day. Earlier this year, a report published in the British Journal of Psychiatry found that a further one in four women suffer from mental health issues during pregnancy. Pregnancy is sold to us as the ideal feminine state. We’re supposed to glow and bloom, and be filled with a deep sense of serenity that is palpable to passers-by. Yet, I can understand why pregnancy is difficult for many women. If you’ve ever experienced body image issues or eating disorders, you’re going to have complex thoughts about the way that your body is changing. Also, it’s a time when strangers may well provide unsolicited advice and comments about the way your body looks and how you treat it. You’re flooded with brand new hormones, which different women react to in all kinds of different ways. It’s a time when you might be thinking about your own family history and exploring emotions that have been difficult to process. Quite honestly, I don’t know how anyone does it.
When Beth, Penny’s mom, was the first to give birth, she made us promise that we wouldn’t share too many details of the experience with Grace, Arthur’s mom, until Arthur was born. My sisters and I are extremely protective of each other but very honest, too. Although they’re very measured when it comes to telling scary parenting stories, they’re careful not to sugarcoat anything, and they tell me that being a mom can be lonely, isolating, and stressful — in fact, stressful isn’t a strong enough word for juggling all of the practical and emotional worries that come along. However, I know it’s the best thing they’ve ever done, too. They’re in love with their babies, their families, and their brand new lives. Still, when it sometimes feels as though the rest of the world wants me to get pregnant within the next five minutes, they’re the only people who truly understand my ambivalence. Even though I’d never make this judgement about another woman, sometimes I worry that not wanting a baby means that something is seriously wrong with me. But my sisters are always quick to tell me that every single one of us is different. Although becoming a mom is the greatest adventure they will ever go on, it’s not meant to be a journey for everyone, and I’ll find different missions that fulfill me in different ways. Motherhood might not be for me, but I can still lead a rich, happy life while being an amazing — albeit slightly anxious — aunt.
This post was written by Daisy Buchanan. For more, check out our sister site Grazia.