It was my birthday last weekend.
I don’t remember when the birthday buzz petered out. The anticipation. The tacit deal with my family that I will pretend to not want any fuss, and they will covertly arrange thoughtful and on-trend gifts. Now, it’s a day like any other, other than a few Facebook posts from primary school alumni and, if I’m lucky, an actual phone call or two.
With a newborn, a 4yo and The Middle Child, this year’s birthday was never going to be a festival. On the contrary, the many hours I’ve been spending in a dark room, force-feeding a dummy into a squirmy newborn, brought a sobering guest to the party… reflection.
When I was pregnant with my first, a colleague warned: “I would never say this to a man, but your brain will never be the same”. I laughed. She didn’t.
Was she right? I went back to work when my first baby was 7 months old and was glad to do so. With my second, it was at 4 months (too soon, in retrospect, but we survived). Both times, it was tough going but I eventually got my groove back. Sure, I was tired. There were more things to fit in; more things to organise. But my brain worked just fine, thanks very much.
As this birthday approached, amidst all the shushing and patting, and all the worry and guilt and night-waking that attaches to little humans, I have been thinking some big thoughts. Am I still the person I used to be? Is it possible that it’s not my brain, but my personality that has forever changed?
I am scared to fly, or take long road trips. I can’t watch murder mysteries, because I can’t sleep afterwards. I don’t engage with news stories about terrorism or natural disasters or other evils. I have gone on a social media diet to avoid tales of kids struck down by terminal disease or dodgy showground rides. I have educated my husband on the perils of “silent drowning”. But as a kid, I spent most weekends underwater, testing how many laps I could swim before my lungs burst. I moved out of home and across the country at 17. I binged on delicious mysteries of sordid criminal depravity. I went skydiving. I drifted overseas on my own for 8 months.
When did I become so scared?
Is it age? Wisdom? It can’t be: there are plenty of adventurous wise old folk. Is it because I’m now a parent, tasked to survive and protect above all else? Again, not a complete solution: I am friends with loving, responsible parents who ‘let their kids be kids’. Do I have an underlying anxiety disorder? I guess it’s not out of the question, and I wouldn’t be alone. The thing is, sometimes I can still tap into the old me. I want my kids to learn by doing; to be adventurous and brave. I want them to travel, take risks and be bold; push themselves and their boundaries. Surely, somewhere inside this blob of neuroses about freak accidents and viral contagion, the old me survives. So will the old me please stand up?
My husband bought me a new bike for my birthday. It’s gorgeous. Deep red frame with those tiny rubber new tyre spikes. Maybe, one day, I’ll even have time to ride it.
I told my mum about this glorious gift.
“A bike!” she exclaimed. “What are you going to do with that?”
“I thought I might ride it”.
“Well, I wouldn’t want to be riding a bike on the road with all those cars and trucks. Dangerous”.
“I’ll be riding on the bike paths mostly, Mum”.
“But people walk there. With their dogs. You’ll need to be very careful”.
And then I realised. It’s not age, parenthood or the 24 hour news cycle that’s making me wary and untrusting. It’s not (or not only) a clinical disorder that’s made me an overthinker. Oh no, it’s something far more innate, and, I fear, much more difficult to treat.
It’s actually all very simple. I’m turning into my mother.