Baby showers and worry trees

On learning how to let fears go.

It’s a rare day lately when we don’t receive a package on the porch. Over the past few weeks, our house has filled up with gifts and supplies for the baby—diapers and pacifiers, teeny tiny clothes, swaddles and burp cloths, and more hand-me-down items than we can count. 

In almost every room of the house, there’s something to remind us that, soon, there will be another family member living here. There’s a bottle drying rack on the kitchen counter, a high chair in the dining room corner, a baby swing in the den, an infant tub in the bathroom, and a bassinet in our bedroom. Even our car is baby-ready now.

It feels good to be prepared for our newborn’s arrival. It also feels a bit ... presumptuous? Sometimes, I look at all the baby items in our home and feel happy; I can’t wait to hold our little girl, and learn how to navigate a new life together! Other times, I see all the ways our environment has changed, and I’m hit by waves of superstition. What if something bad happens? What makes us so certain that we’ll return from the hospital with a healthy, happy baby in a few short weeks?

On Sunday, we hosted two virtual baby showers for family members. Instead of opening gifts, we gathered via Zoom to watch a video that Billy edited of friends and family welcoming our daughter to the world in various heartfelt and creative ways. The video turned out beautifully, and it’s something we’ll undoubtedly treasure for life. It’s also something I’m glad we did ahead of the baby’s arrival. It’s unlikely we’d have the same time and patience to work on it as sleepless new parents.

Baby showers are unique celebrations in that they happen before the actual event you’re celebrating. Most other gift-giving occasions I can think of—birthdays, weddings, graduation parties—happen on or after the big day. I was talking to my friend Lauren about this, and she said that it would be like hosting a graduation party around spring break of your senior year. “Just go ahead and give me the gifts! I’m definitely going to graduate,” she joked.

In this regard, baby showers are celebrations of faith—an optimistic act that everything will turn out fine.

Billy and I must have watched the baby shower video a dozen times as he worked on the final edits. It feels wonderful to see so many people we love expressing their well-wishes. Watching it also feels a bit like a prayer. In clip after clip, we hear, “Welcome to the world!” 

Please let that happen.

Anxiety is the most common issue I’ve discussed with my therapist this year. A couple of weeks ago, I shared that anxious thoughts were keeping me from getting good sleep. I’ve been waking up in the middle of the night—a common occurrence for any pregnant woman who has to pee all the time—and haven’t been able to fall back asleep. Instead, my mind races with questions and worries. 

How long has it been since the baby has kicked? Will I be able to get all of my work projects done before she arrives? What if I don’t have enough work lined up after my maternity leave? Whatever happened to that hurricane that was forecast to hit the States? How bad will climate change really get? What’s going to happen on Election Day? Will our daughter have an especially hard future ahead of her? How bad will it hurt to give birth? No, really, how long has it been since I felt the baby move?

If my brain is being more dumb than sweet, I might choose to look for the answers to these questions on my phone. This is never, ever the right thing to do. I rarely find the answer I’m looking for. Not only that, but I wind up flooding my eyes with blue light and getting distracted by a scary headline or post on social media—yet another thing to worry about. The likelihood of me quickly falling back asleep all but plummets.

(Seriously, Katie, this is probably the nudge you need to charge your phone in a different room at night!)

It makes sense why I worry about some of these things. 2020 is hardly an easy year for any of us, and there’s plenty to feel anxious about. On a personal level, I still carry trauma from losing Jamie so early and unexpectedly. The fact that he and I were in the process of adopting a baby makes this time feel even more tenuous; I still have the soft blankets that his mom crocheted for the child we never got to raise, and the baby books that Jamie gave me during our last Christmas together.

Still, the fears are exhausting and depleting. When I discussed this pattern with my therapist, she suggested I employ the “worry tree” model the next time my anxious brain takes over. 

It’s a simple concept: First, you take note of what you’re worrying about. Next, you ask yourself if there’s anything you can do about that worry. If the answer is yes, then you should do that thing—ideally, as soon as you can. If the answer is no, then your task is to let the worry go.

Actually doing something with my worries feels like a revolutionary concept. I’m used to letting fears circle around my head, with nowhere to go. The worry tree model forces me to ask myself what I can do with those thoughts. It allows me to take action. Instead of fretting about what will happen on Election Day, I can triple-check that I’m registered to vote, and help my neighbors do the same. Instead of making myself miserable by wondering whether I have enough time to get work done, I can write down all the tasks I have ahead of me, prioritize them by importance, have a plan in place in case I can’t finish everything, and gently remind myself that I am doing the best I can.

The bigger challenge is learning how to let those worries go. For me, worrying is a deep-seated and fruitless habit—one that I’m trying to abandon. As Oliver Burkeman wrote in his last column for The Guardian, “The future will never provide the reassurance you seek from it.”

As the ancient Greek and Roman Stoics understood, much of our suffering arises from attempting to control what is not in our control. And the main thing we try but fail to control—the seasoned worriers among us, anyway—is the future. We want to know, from our vantage point in the present, that things will be OK later on. But we never can. (This is why it’s wrong to say we live in especially uncertain times. The future is always uncertain; it’s just that we’re currently very aware of it.)

It’s freeing to grasp that no amount of fretting will ever alter this truth. It’s still useful to make plans. But do that with the awareness that a plan is only ever a present-moment statement of intent, not a lasso thrown around the future to bring it under control. The spiritual teacher Jiddu Krishnamurti said his secret was simple: “I don’t mind what happens.” That needn’t mean not trying to make life better, for yourself or others. It just means not living each day anxiously braced to see if things work out as you hoped.

Spending my days listening to my anxious thoughts isn’t a fulfilling way to live life. It distracts me from what’s happening in the moment, and makes me less likely to appreciate the unexpected ways how things do wind up unfolding.

As of today, I have five weeks left until my due date. Our baby might arrive before then. She might not. Going into labor may look similar to what I’m expecting. It probably won’t. I can’t control any of it, nor should I try to.

Instead, I want to be more present in these remaining weeks. I want to enjoy the final moments of quiet child-free time. I want to savor the sweet sensation of the baby moving in my belly. I want to write and read and cross items off my to-do list, and appreciate how much doing those things brings me joy. I want to talk about the future with Billy not out of fear, but with open hearts and minds. I want to take slow walks around the neighborhood, and laugh at my big, waddling shadow on the sidewalk. I want to get some precious phone-free sleep. I want to give thanks for all of it.

xoxo,

KHG

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What are you doing with your worries?

There’s a lot to worry about these days. That’s why we could all benefit from models like the worry tree that help us respond to those intrusive thoughts in more productive ways.

I’d love to hear how you’re soothing your anxious mind as of late. Have you found a solid distraction, mantra that calms you down, or a good way to channel your anxious energy?

Share your tips by replying to this email, leaving a comment, or sending me a message. I’ll compile your replies in Thursday’s subscriber-only newsletter. (Don’t forget: You can receive Thursday newsletters by subscribing for $5/month or $35/year.)

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My Sweet Dumb Brain is written by Katie Hawkins-Gaar. It’s edited by Rebecca Coates, who recalls having a brain that was more dumb than sweet during her last pregnancy, too. Growing a baby is hard on the feels, y’all!

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