On Worry and Motherhood


“Worry is the work of motherhood,” Pam England writes in Birthing from Within. For me it began well before birth, before I ever held my first child for the first time.

My first pregnancy was ectopic, so when pregnant the second time with Sky, I experienced a lot of anxiety in the early days and weeks. I was afraid it would happen again, and even after early ultrasounds showed a healthy pregnancy developing in the right place, I worried I would miscarry. My first experience of pregnancy changed how I thought about its relative risks. I didn’t share the same kind of innocent confidence many of my friends seemed to enjoy when pregnant for the first time.

But the more I’ve moved into the wilderness of motherhood, the more I’ve come to understand that worry is part of the territory. It isn’t the only part, and it’s certainly not the characterizing trait. But I think my pre-birth self would have been surprised to discover that many of the women who seemed to sail fearlessly through their pregnancies also worked with shadows and fear. Even when you haven’t experienced loss or complication, pregnancy by its very nature is powerfully vulnerable and mysterious.

A few weeks after Sky was born, on our first outing together in the car, we were T-boned by a driver who ran a stop sign. Sky slept safely through the accident in her car seat, but my door was rendered inoperable by the collision, and I panicked trying to get out to check on Sky. That was my first and only thought after we were hit, after my car stopped spinning. Though my car was totaled and I went through several months of physical therapy, we were more or less fine physically. Emotionally is another story. I still have nightmares about that feeling of powerlessness in trying to get out and get to my baby.

And I still think about the woman who hit us, seven months pregnant at the time and unsure if her baby was okay. She couldn’t see her baby, and I think it’s that quality of the unseen that impresses on us how completely outside of our control most aspects of pregnancy really are.

I read this poem by Kelli Russell Agodon not long after the accident, and it has stuck with me. She has generously allowed me to print it here. Thanks, Kelli.


Patron Saint of Worry

For an hour we complained
about everything, about saints,
about the fact no one had invented
a babyproof lock for the bathtub faucet.

You said one morning you found
your two-year-old waist deep
in the tub; you were still

in bed—you had slept late—a tired mother
who three years later, still carries this guilt.

We hadn’t even considered the hot water,
the chance of third degree burns.

For an hour, we said much
of our anxieties are from
being Catholic, from our mothers

who grabbed for baseball bats
even at the slightest sound.

You said your mother made you keep
your two fingers on the panic button

of your home’s alarm while she explored
the basement to make sure no intruders
were around.

We still hear the noises.

We still say grace
at the holidays.
We still pray though worry that God
thinks we’re hard to please.

In the middle of dinner,
you asked me how my daughter
knows her spirit animal is a heron
and how mine is a kingfisher.

I said how sometimes I trade saints
for totems, though

I still wear a St. Christopher medallion
around my neck: Pray, hope, and don’t worry.

Tell me if one day we will live
without carrying our history of grandmothers
next to the mace in our purse,
the other life of a bathtub drowning,
how that might have felt?

Will we ever sleep without wondering
if there’s a door we forgot
to lock? You wear a locket of your son

and think up inventions
for hazards. I keep finding new deities
to keep our family safe.

I want us to invent a god
who hands out winning lottery tickets,
who wakes us each morning
from a dream about a solstice

party with good hummus and red wine,
and tells us there is a forest
of doors we never need to lock.

Kelli Russell Agodon

This poem was one of my first inklings that maybe this specific texture of worry wasn’t confined to pregnancy, but was something I would deal with for the rest of my life as a mother. And in some ways, that’s been true. We worried about SIDS her first year, about choking hazards when she started eating solid foods, about our choice of a first baby-sitter. She’s just over two, and I still go into her room to check her breathing after bedtime most nights.

Each milestone brings new worries along with new joys, and for me that is just the pace of motherhood: a steady walk with worry on one foot and enjoyment on the other. I don’t think it’s really possible to abandon fear entirely– it’s part of our brains, our history, our being made in the image of God. I am interested in simple, practical ways of working with worry, though. And that’s where this phrase, “Worry is the work of motherhood,” has changed for me as Sky has grown. I’ve had to learn to work with my worry, to allow it to be part of me without letting it consume me. Prayer is a big part of that for me.

Lately I’ve been ruminating on Hebrews 11, thinking about how through fear God draws us closer to him. We learn to lean on our faith and trust– our belief in the unseen– to move through fear of things seen and unseen. And it’s startling for me to discover that this is for our good, that we are rewarded in choosing to trust God– by a deepened relationship with him, by the experience of his response to even the smallest details of our lives.

Maybe the forest of doors Kelli writes about is the place we enter after we leave earth. Or maybe the forest is part of our world here and now: God’s kingdom where it interrupts and overlaps with this world. I lock my doors but I try to keep my heart unlocked, to feel both my fears and the intensity of my love for my children. I’m not sure we get to have one without the other in this life.

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