On Healing 4/16/2007: Fear can remain long after its cause

Dear Dr. Dan: My husband wants a child, and I am ambivalent. I am not sure I would be unhappy with a child; I might accept him and bond with him, but I might also resent my husband if it becomes difficult to deal with or if I end up doing the majority of child care.

Another factor is that I have been dealing with a low-level depression for years, and I am afraid of how this might affect a child’s character and the quality of care I could give.

Until now, I’ve tried to accommodate my husband’s wishes, without ever being sure how I would feel if we actually had a child.Anonymous

[I wrote back asking for more information because the letter talked mostly about her fears – she never said what she wanted. The response, below, suggested to me that her history needed to be addressed before she could face her future.]

I would like to heal from my childhood, I’d like to be taken care of, not have to take care of another’s needs. I was sent to boarding school from the time I was 8 years old until I graduated high school. There were no parental figures; I was unable to make friends, and I was alone. I still cry any time I talk about it. I would like not to be sad anymore.

I am afraid of being responsible for a child’s happiness and for screwing it up, although I know that all parents can’t help but screw up and scar their children at some time.

I love my husband, and I care about his happiness, but I hold myself back a little all the time, expecting to be hurt or abandoned again. I feel terrible that I may take away something that he wanted so much (a child).

Dear anonymous,

When you talk about what you truly want, everything changes.

Sometimes childhood wounds become embedded deeply in our psyche and seem to take control of our lives. I can only imagine the great fear and sadness that you felt as a child sitting alone. Logically, one might say that so many years have passed, why does it hurt now?

The abandonment may have been back then. But fear stays. It sounds like much of your life has been about your fear of again experiencing that terrible pain from childhood. To manage your fear, you protect yourself by not opening up. This is natural, and it makes sense. We all do it to a certain extent. As much as we wish to be fully understood by others, we are equally afraid to open ourselves up all the way for fear of rejection. But the greater the fear, the more we protect ourselves – and the more alone we feel.

Understanding the cause of your anxiety hasn’t helped. So consider this possibility: The issue that most affects your life is not fear of being abandoned; it’s fear of repeating the emotions you had many years ago. The problem is that all of those emotions are still living inside you. As a child, you needed great care and compassion. You still do, and it must begin with you.

You started the process by holding off on your decision to have a child and by writing this e-mail. Next, I would recommend psychotherapy. It provides an environment that feels safe and nonjudgmental, allowing these very scary emotions to gradually come out. Once you are able to fully feel these emotions, painful as they may be, you will no longer be afraid of them. The process requires courage, unyielding compassion, and care for yourself.

Once you’ve had those experiences, the pros and cons of this decision will probably be more clear (although making the decision may not be any easier). You may or may not choose to have a child, but let your choice be based on your wishes rather than your fears.

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