In my family, we quote the movie What About Bob? like scripture. Bill Murray's neurotic, hypochondriacal, starved-for-connections character "Bob" likes to say that he's "baby-stepping." Meaning that he's taking tiny steps towards getting better. Bob's been diagnosed with a host of psychological problems by dozens of different doctors, but what it really boils down to is that he's afraid. Paralyzed by fear. So he has to remind himself to "baby-step" towards the things that he fears.
I feel like that's where I am lately. A few weeks back, my facebook feed began filling up with these really sad posts. Updates on people battling cancer or other serious health issues. The ones that really got to me were about children with cancer. Or more specifically, children who did have cancer but have recently passed away. After ending up in tears several afternoons, I considered trying to unfollow the people who were sharing these particular posts...it's embarrassing and selfish, I know - trying to shield myself from the reality that these children and families were facing. Instead I've been trying to take deep breaths and baby step.
Scenarios like these were a significant part of our considerations when Dave and I were trying to decide whether to go ahead and start a family. We're both pretty intense realists, (okay, really we're terrible pessimists), so planning for catastrophe is way too often a part of our discussion. Because statistically, the worst-case-scenario is not going to happen. Not to 99 percent of us. And with odds like that, most people feel pretty confident and carefree. Plus, as everyone likes to remind worriers, "the things you worry about never happen." Which is true, if you're a normal person and you only worry about a few things. But if you are a serial worrier and worry about everything, sooner or later one of them probably will happen. Which is justification enough for the serial worrier to continue feeding her neurosis.
"Children don't come with a manual," people like to quip, which is true and admittedly, unfortunate. But harder still is the fact that they don't come with a warranty. There is absolutely no guarantee that the child you receive will have any of the features you hope for. Intelligence, looks, drive, talent and abilities, health, long life. None of these is a given.
All through my pregnancy I worked to open myself to these unknowns, especially to the possibility that my baby would not be "fine." That she might be among the very small percentage of babies who is not healthy and thriving. I wanted to be able to face that possibility and still feel that I could go on, that I could be one of those "warrior parents" you see on TV or read about in a Facebook post. They find themselves in the worst-case-scenario and they meet it with strength and resilience and this fierce, brave, love.
I thought I was there. I thought I could be a warrior mom if it came to that. I knew my love was fierce, so I felt brave. And then Nettie came. And she's been so healthy and bright and content. So I stopped holding my breath and opened my heart wider and just let her fill it up, even into the edges and corners where little pockets of darkness and fear were left.
But it turns out that my fierce love is the cowardly kind. The self-interested kind that starts to waver and shrink when confronted with the possibility of pain and loss. I saw those little children whose health and happy, carefree lives had been taken and decided that I wanted the warranty after all. I needed to know that would never happen to Nettie, to our family, or how could I go on loving her more and more, getting more and more attached? Every day I was making myself more and more vulnerable to the pain and loss that might be waiting.
That kind of fearful love is circular. It goes out a little way but then we pull it back in. It's given, but only with strings attached. And it's a self-defeating circle, one that wears us out and prevents us from really loving wholly and unselfishly. We run that ever-tightening path of what-ifs until it's smooth and packed and familiar. But we always end up where we started, and that path gets lonelier and lonelier.
Brave, whole-hearted love demands that we step out, away from ourselves, and that we keep moving forward. There is no set end-point, no map, and no guarantee. So technically, anything could happen. The worst could happen. But so could the best, and if I can't open my heart to both possibilities, I'll miss out on all the joyful moments that will be part of my daughter's life, however long or short, easy or difficult it is.
So I'm baby-stepping. I'm doing my work, taking small steps towards opening my heart and mind to all the possibility that each day holds, so that when my daughter laughs with joy in her eyes and her voice, I can be right there with her, fully present and grateful for that moment.