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October 22, 2003

Hope, Counterhope

Posted by Mike on October 22, 2003 8:36 PM

Another entry from Stork moved over here --mph

Six months into Alison's pregnancy, and I'm still in the grips of a "conserve hope" frame of mind. Putting anything on a page somewhere seemed like a really bad idea -- an expenditure of forebearance from the people upstairs.

When I was six or seven, I began to realize that things never come out quite how we expect. A child's tendency to come up with a theory for an observed phenomenon built around a plastic conception of the world, combined with a child's essential sollipsism, led me to believe that the disconnect between outcome and expectation involved actively wanting a thing to happen: It invoked some sort of automatic depradation hex from God or his angels. If you want it badly enough, it can't happen. So I practiced not wanting things.

If we were in the car on our way to an amusement park, I tried to concentrate on anything besides what the amusement park would be like, let alone getting to enjoy it, because imagining the park or imagining it being sunny would invite the park to end up sucky, or rain falling. The theory extended over time to include sporting events (don't consciously root for the home team), Christmas (free your mind of "Santa's" obligation to honor your wish list), and birthdays (don't hope for a surprise party).

The idea mutated over time to include the notion that if I could trick myself into hoping for the opposite outcome, the depradation hex would carry out my will.

Some paradoxes began to assert themselves as my notions about God and his angels got more nuanced. Someone laid the head trip on me that God knew everything I was thinking, which got me to thinking that my attempts to hope for opposite outcomes were a hopeless effort: God would surely recognize the seed of hope for a certain thing, even if it only briefly passed through my mind before honed thinking habits conjured up images of its opposite to stave off Divine Disappointment.

By the time I was a teenager, the fundamental irrationality of the whole thing was manifest, but "counter hoping" was a habit crafted over years, so it stayed with me as a nagging caution toward wanting anything too much. Then it evolved into simple pessimism.

I don't know what you'd call a belief system built around not wanting things because God will keep that exact thing from you. I'm inclined to think it could be called a "childhood neurosis." I do know I was heartened when I talked to a Jewish coworker a few months ago who told me baby showers before a baby is born are unheard of in her family (and many other Jewish families) because it's "bad luck" and invites all sorts of trouble: a culture-wide, time-honored, centuries-old variation on my own neurosis.

When it comes to this baby, even though I'm well over any magical sense of God witholding things I want, I'm still feeling like a hopeless neurotic in the grip of deep pessimism about the way the cosmos conducts itself. Wanting the baby "out loud" feels like an invitation to a sort of pain that simple adult jadedness won't insulate against.

Alison goes through the rollercoaster every day, too. The baby moves and she feels assured and relieved on some level she didn't know she needed to feel. He goes for a while without moving, and tension builds until he moves again.

Around the house, there are some manifestations of the sense that we're hanging in a balance, too, teetering between getting around to believing the baby's going to happen and living like something's going to happen but we don't know what. Small bursts of domestic energy have happened in the form of rearranging furniture, moving my computers out of the nursery, and scanning baby stuff in at Target. But other projects remain untouched: the nursery-to-be is in a shambles from me upending it to move out desks and servers, but I've closed the door and won't go in there except to bring out a book I need, or to feed the fish. I know I need to get in there sometime soon and truly prepare it, but there's that whole nagging sense of "what if?" What if it all gets straightened out and arranged and prepared, and things don't happen the way I hope? What if it becomes a big, empty reminder of a thing we both wanted so much and didn't get?

I'm writing a journal here, by the way, so I'm going to studiously avoid pretending that there's any closure on issues like this. I'm not over this fear, and probably won't be until it's proven groundless, which is a ways away. Phil tells me there are all sorts of anxious milestones even once a baby is born: that the worry about something going wrong is unavoidable, and I can see how that would be. I'm not digging that too much.


I guess I'll second my own paraphrase: You can just kiss the armor of adult jadedness goodbye in this department. (It might still do you some good in politics; although even there....)

The bad possibilities are no longer limited to merely stuff that would suck in a typical and unsurprising way. About the only thing I can compare to the occasional fears of parenting--and the recent-ness of this analogy only shows how cushy my life has been--is going down in the subway in the days after September 11. The worst-case scenario is too heavy to shrug off with workaday pessimism, but you go down in the hole anyway.

Not that parenting is shadowed with the daily likelihood of remorseless doom. Heck no! It's mostly a swell mix of tedium and belly-laughs. It's just that when the paranoia comes, that's what it feels like. It passes. Until it comes back.

Posted by: pk at October 22, 2003 8:51 PM

Upon hearing the news that his youngest sibling arrived safely our oldest sighed with relief, "Good, at least mom is alive." His fourth grade class had been reading through some sort of pioneer book in which a mother dies giving birth. He had never shared that anxiety with us, but obviously had burdened himself with it for much of the pregnancy... I, on the other hand, burdened my wife with all of my anxieties during all of her pregnancies. Occupational hazzard for me. Things can sometimes go wrong.

They won't for Allison and MPH though. Prayers and best wishes are with you.

Posted by: thp at October 24, 2003 12:02 PM

Re: Occupational hazards

My pops was a minister until very recently. It wasn't like he came home with everyone's business every night, but it was hard to not overhear stuff he talked about with my mom. I know some of my anxiety is attributable to knowing more peoples' business than I would have if dad had stuck to being a cabinet maker. :-)

Posted by: mph at October 24, 2003 12:08 PM