One of the many side effects of coronavirus is a spike in anxiety levels, but for one woman, the pandemic has sent her fear of having kids sky-high.
I started having the dream during lockdown. In it, my belly swells uncomfortably. I’m usually in a hospital, maybe lying on a bed or in a sterile waiting room. I know I’m about to give birth. I panic, realising none of my friends have children yet. I will be in this alone.
The birth is hazy and strange. I don’t feel pain in my dream, but I feel fear. Once the unsettling ‘birth’ passes, I can never quite hold onto the child. The baby always exists just outside of my peripheral vision, and I have an unnerving awareness of this being something I don’t really want. The dreams often end in me losing the baby somewhere, in an unmarked house or a hospital. Come to think of it, it’s more of a nightmare.
The coronavirus pandemic has sent my anxieties around motherhood haywire. A run-of-the-mill apprehension became an almost constant fear during lockdown. No wonder really, when stories of mothers being failed during the pandemic are everywhere. Statistically, women were more likely to take on the bulk of the childcare, and women and those with young children were more likely to experience an increase in mental stress during the first month of lockdown.
A study from the UCL Institute of Education found that heterosexual mothers spent 2.3 more hours a day on average than their male partners looking after children while still working. The issue of childcare literally burst on to our screens as – from the BBC to Sky News – children gate-crashed women on Zoom calls while they worked. It was hard to escape.
If you’ve become particularly attuned to the difficulties facing women during the pandemic, as I have, you’ll know it’s not just mums with exuberant toddlers who have struggled during lockdown. New and expecting mothers have had to go through scans and checkups alone, and, at the height of the pandemic, face childbirth alone. While I have nightmares around pregnancy, women across the country had their nightmare become a reality.
The headlines have compounded my anxiety, and the topic has penetrated my social spheres. Conversations with friends (some of whom have been stuck at home with their partners for months during the pandemic) drifts to talk of babies. “Have you thought about it?”, I find myself asking a friend on a socially distanced walk. “Do you even want to have a kid?” Few seem as terrified as I am, bemused at my premature anxiety, and I wish I had their ability to ignore the worry.
In an attempt to conquer my fear of the unknown, I do research. What does childbirth actually feel like? How painful is childbirth? Is it harder to give birth to twins? I need to know. I find a YouTube video of a woman giving birth in a stream with almost 100 million views. As someone rarely able to get through 40 seconds of 24 Hours in A&E, I clasp my hands over my eyes and click play. “It was the singular most transforming event of my life and my most conscious act as a woman to date,” the words on the video read.
By complete coincidence, mid-lockdown, our book club chose Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work. It’s a funny (and terrifying) book about the writer’s experience of having a child. In it, Cusk presents a tender yet apt summary of all the things there are to be afraid of with children: the pain of childbirth, the loss of self, the inability to mentally remove yourself from looking after a child even if you are physically somewhere else. She writes on the mystery of childbirth: “But the fact that I have never… heard nor read during the course of my life a straight forward account of this most ubiquitous of happenings, suggests to me the presence of an additional horror surrounding the mystery, that somehow, during those tortured hours some fundamental component of oneself is removed.”
It’s not just the books or the news stories that catapulted motherhood into my psyche, it’s also lockdown. That mundanity of not being able to leave the house whenever I liked or socialise with whomever I pleased seemed alarmingly similar to what I’ve heard about parenthood. I began to live this terrifyingly small life, trapped in the four walls of my rented house. Lockdown confronted me with what I fear my life as a mother would look like: lonely, boring and insular. I’m sure in reality, these aspects of parenthood are balanced out by a myriad of overwhelmingly positive experiences, but in my fear, I’m unable to envision anything else.
A friend of mine has a child and it is beautiful and terrifying and I can’t stop staring at a picture of her immediately post-birth. I don’t ask her too many details about the “those tortured hours” – it feels a little bit like asking for the gory details of a car crash. I think back to other pregnant women I’ve spoken to and am reminded of an incident with a pregnant family member. “Aren’t you scared of the pain?” I asked, aged eight. She seemed taken aback but was honest. “Yes”, she said, she was scared about it too.
Now that lockdown has lifted and I can live again as a somewhat normal 27-year-old, the fears have abated, but only slightly. With new restrictions and the possibility of a second lockdown looming, my worries scratch at my subconscious again.
In some ways, I feel I am hurtling towards an inevitability, one both inescapably human and totally alien. When I was little, I had anxiety dreams about getting my ears pierced, something I considered painful, invasive and scary. Now, I fear the pain of childbirth. I don’t need to have children, no woman does, but I might want to – and that’s the scary part.