Your Baby Vs. The Toxic Planet: How to Relax in a World of Risk

Before I got pregnant I had more information than the average person about toxic chemicals in our environment. But getting pregnant made me an expert. I was obsessed with the seemingly unavoidable barrage of dangerous chemicals we encounter on a daily basis. I would freak out from the smell of paint coming from a neighbor’s apartment on the floor below. I’d lay awake at night worrying about a ride in a taxi that smelled like gasoline.

Once my baby was born, my anxiety shifted somewhat.  It felt like there was more I could do to try to avoid chemicals—but only because so many of the things that were designed for babies seemed to contain them. Between trying to work around these (known or suspected) toxins and grumbling about how insane it was that these chemicals were present in baby products in the first place, toxin anxiety began to occupy a concerning portion of my brain.  When I’d find out my baby had been exposed to something questionable (which inevitably happened now and again) I’d panic. Finding a balance was a real struggle.

In fact, it still is.

It’s incredibly common for pregnant women and  moms to feel overwhelmed by worry about how they will protect their babies from a risky world. My sister Naomi’s post on the Baby’s First Year blog is a lament about her own state of stress about chemicals and toxins. She gets some great advice from other mothers—some scientists—about how to handle her anxiety.

The bottom line: You do what you can, and you hope for the best. As desperately as parents want to shield our children from harm we simply can’t control everything. We are surrounded by risk. It’s there whether we worry about it or not.  Is the anxiety helping the situation, or is it simply adding a layer of stress to our lives? I ask myself this question all the time in my day to day life as a mother. Do we worry because we think it serves some protective purpose? Do we use it to inspire us to action? Or can we just not help ourselves?

I found this poem yesterday. It’s just such a perfect articulation of the anxiety that comes with having and loving a child, the existential vulnerability of motherhood.

The Child Bearers
by Anne Sexton

Jean, death comes close to us all,
flapping its awful wings at us
and the gluey wings crawl up our nose.
Our children tremble in their teen-age cribs,
whirling off on a thumb or a motorcycle,
mine pushed into gnawing a stilbestrol cancer
I passed on like hemophilia,
or yours in the seventh grade, with her spleen
smacked in by the balance beam.
And we, mothers, crumpled, and flyspotted
with bringing them this far
can do nothing now but pray.

Let us put your three children
and my two children,
ages ranging from eleven to twenty-one,
and send them in a large air net up to God,
with many stamps, real air mail,
and huge signs attached:
SPECIAL HANDLING.
DO NOT STAPLE, FOLD OR MUTILATE!
And perhaps He will notice
and pass a psalm over them
for keeping safe for a whole,
for a whole God-damned life-span.

And not even a muddled angel will
peek down at us in our foxhole.
And He will not have time
to send down an eyedropper of prayer for us,
the mothering thing of us,
as we drip into the soup
and drown
in the worry festering inside us,
lest our children
go so fast
they go.

photo: limaoscarjuliet/flickr

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