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Death Was a Theory, Until I Became a Mother

About a year ago, out of the corner of my eye, I saw my 3-year-old ball up a large wad of dental floss and shove it into her mouth. Images of floss twined around her tiny intestines flicked through my mind. My pulse spiked as I begged her to spit it out. When she grinned and shook her head, I stuck my finger into her mouth to pry her jaws open — like a dog I didn’t want to take to the vet for surgery.

With the floss safely in the trash can, I gave a breathless admonition. “Don’t do that, honey. I’m serious. It could be very dangerous.”

“But I’m not going to die,” she said.

“You might,” I said, regretting those words instantly.

The coronavirus crisis, and its cascade of consequences, has us all thinking about death these days. As a doctor of philosophy who studies existentialism, I’ve been thinking about death for quite awhile now. Half a decade before I became a mother, I read tomes like “Being and Nothingness” and “Being and Time.” I wrote with great confidence about the fragility of the human condition in the face of death.

But then I had a kid. And nothing, not even a doctorate in philosophy, prepared me for the physical and existential dread I would feel when tasked with protecting this fragile, new creature. I felt the constant hum of anxiety throughout my pregnancy. What if it became unviable? What if it ended in stillbirth? When my daughter arrived slick, headfirst out of me, my fear of death bubbled to the surface and transferred from my own body onto hers.

Suddenly, everyday items — blankets, car seats, bookcases, stairs, uncut grapes — became threats. “Don’t run in the street, you could get hurt. Don’t rush down the stairs, you could get hurt. Don’t get near the pool, you could get hurt.” What I really meant was: You could die. Your soft little body could get broken or torn open in a thousand different ways, and you may never recover.

It seemed harsh and unfair to introduce a toddler to the concept of her own death before she could even tie her own shoes. But how could you explain the dangers a preschooler might face without bringing up the notion of mortality?

Existentialist philosophers claim that if we are to live fully and authentically, we must accept that we are, as Martin Heidegger put it, “being-towards-death.” Death gives our lives meaning and forces us to ask questions like, “What is my purpose and value?” And, “How am I going to spend my limited time on this earth?”

Yet in my own studies in academic philosophy, I was surprised to find vanishingly few reflections on the existential depth of parenthood. As writer Samantha Hunt said about a fictional story she published in The New Yorker in 2017: “When I became a mom, no one ever said, ‘Hey, you made a death. You made your children’s deaths.’” Death comes for all of us, even your child, and nobody knows when it will arrive.

So when I read Claudia Dey’s extraordinary essay “Mothers as Makers of Death,” published in the Paris Review in 2018, it felt like a breath of fresh air. In it, Dey spoke to the “sudden crushing morbidity filling the new mother’s soul,” and the loneliness of being “overcome by the blackest of thoughts,” which were absent from conversations with other new mothers and left out of popular maternity books covered in light pinks and blues.

In my mind, these feathered, glowing images of motherhood implied that moms who thought deeply about death were macabre, even pathologically ill. I was relieved to find words for my burgeoning belief that motherhood comes with dark secrets that the pastel-colored books don’t even come close to touching.

For now, I am grateful that neither dental floss nor Covid-19 has taken my child (or myself) prematurely. But I am still gripped by the thought that this cute kid I have created, with pigtails and everything, will one day have to reckon with her own mortality. Even if she lives a long and happy life and then dies at 95 in a sun-soaked room, she still has to live with the knowledge that her death is coming, and the uncertainty of when it will arrive.

Death has come sooner than expected for many this past year, and perhaps by learning to embrace this fragile and exquisite life, while we have it, we might recognize that death has been part of the deal all along. Well before this pandemic started, and long after it ends, new parents will help children not only to walk and talk, but to survive; they are grappling not only with bottles and diapers, but with life and death.

Danielle LaSusa, Ph.D., is a philosophical coach who helps moms grapple with the existential crisis of motherhood.

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