When I became a vegetarian I devoured books on meatless cooking and nutrition. When I got my first apartment, I dog-eared books on house-cleaning and maintenance. When my husband and I adopted our cocker-spaniel, I read every book Cesar Millan wrote about dog training and then some. Of course, when we got engaged, I collected a shelf’s worth of titles on wedding planning from just-married friends, and when I started writing my dissertation, you guessed it, I ordered book after book with advice on making it to completion.
So, when the hubs and I first got serious about going off the pill, I did what I always do when I am facing a new and exciting challenge: I started reading. As fast as I could download them onto my e-reader, I snatched them up: books on pre-conception health, on the challenge of balancing work and family life, and on maintaining a happy marriage after having a child. I couldn’t wait to begin thinking through what it would mean to have a baby in concrete terms. I thought reading about conception health, birth, and parenting would add to my excitement and anticipation and make me feel more ready to bring another person into our family. Instead as the pages added up I felt myself spinning further and further downward in a never-ending loop of anxieties.
After reading The Impatient Woman’s Guide to Getting Pregnant and Expect the Best: Your Guide to Healthy Eating Before, During, and After Pregnancy I worried that if I was even able to get pregnant I would likely ingest some food that would cause my baby unforeseeable harm.
In addition, I became increasingly concerned that a baby would re-direct all my personal ambitions toward parenting and leave me with little energy left to spend on my shifting career path, side-railing my chances of landing a fulfilling job in the future. And, maybe most frighteningly for me, books like Babyproofing Your Marriage and And Baby Makes Three brought about the worry that having a baby might drive a rift between me and my husband, my greatest stronghold of love and support.
Where I had felt most confident about myself, I began to feel fragile and under-prepared. I began to wonder if I had the emotional stability to be thinking of raising a child at all. Talking with friends didn’t seem to help much, as most people responded with canned phrases: “You worry too much!” and “But you’ll be a great mom!” Ultimately, I decided to hang on to my pills a while longer. It seemed to me that to let go would mean risking every part of the life that I had built for myself up until now.
This time keeping up with the pill had a wonderful side effect: it gave me a reason to put aside my pregnancy books for a while. I didn’t experience immediate relief, though. I still wanted to have a baby and my uncertainty about it left me floundering at the bottom of some deep personal wells. Luckily, while I was down there I turned to the poets who have long served as my most trusted advisors. Walt Whitman’s confident lilting verse offering his comrade “rough new prizes” in lieu of the “old smooth prizes” in his poem “The Song of the Open Road” and Rainer Maria Rilke’s admonition to a young poet to “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves,” reminded me of my own long-standing commitment toward embracing the unknown — the real reason I had become an avid reader in the first place.
As a child books allowed me to visit places and have experiences I couldn’t yet have on my own. But somehow now, instead of experiencing books as a way to peak my curiosity and sense of adventure, I had begun using them to guard my priorities and to control my situation. To a point, these are reasonable goals, just as the advice books I read on parenting offer reasonable and helpful suggestions, but in reading about the practical logistics of pregnancy I had forgotten the underlying more ambiguous reasons for having a baby that (I expect) make all the struggle worth while.
After a few months of meditating with lines from my favorite poets in mind, I finally felt my anxiety around having children begin to ebb away.
One night I surprised my husband with a framed copy of Emily Dickinson’s “I dwell in Possibility” that I had written out for him. The poem is about Dickinson’s preference for writing poetry rather than prose, but I felt it also spoke to my reasons for doing a turn-about (again) and deciding I was ready, after all, to ditch the prosaic pill. Dickinson’s poem serves as a reminder to resist the impulse to control and understand everything (an impulse that often manifests in the writing and reading of books), as she advocates for the ambivalence of poetry, which offers room for growth and the chance to dig for deeper truths.
If I find myself expecting in the next year, I probably won’t cut out all reading on the latest pregnancy/parenting advice, (I still value the information), but I’ve found it’s critical to balance this with a little poetry. When worries threaten to creep back in, I remember the joy of unknowing that my favorite poets rekindled for me and feel my strength and excitement for new challenges returning. Whatever happens, I’ll be “spreading wide my narrow Hands — to gather Paradise.”