About a year ago, out of the corner of my eye, I saw my 3-year-old ball on a large bundle of floss and shoved it into her mouth. Images of dental floss snaking around her tiny intestines ran through my mind. My pulse quickened when I asked her to spit it out. When she grinned and shook her head, I put my finger in her mouth to open her jaw – like a dog I didn’t want to take to the vet for surgery.
With the floss safely in the garbage 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 could,” I said, immediately regretting these words.
The coronavirus crisis and its aftermath make us all ponder death these days. As a PhD in philosophy studying existentialism, I’ve been thinking about death for quite a while. Half a decade before I became a mother, I read books like “To Be and Nothing” and “To Be and Time”. I wrote with great confidence about the fragility of the human condition in the face of death.
But then I had a child. And nothing, not even a PhD in philosophy, prepared me for the physical and existential fear I would feel if tasked with protecting this fragile new creature. I felt the constant hum of fear throughout my pregnancy. What if it got unprofitable? What if it ended in stillbirth? When my daughter came out of me upside down, my fear of death bubbled to the surface and carried over from my own body to hers.
Suddenly everyday objects – blankets, car seats, bookshelves, stairs, uncut grapes – became threats. “Don’t run into the street, you could get hurt. Don’t rush down the stairs, you could get injured. Do not come near the pool, you could get injured. “What I really meant was: You could die. Your soft little body could be broken or ripped open in a thousand different ways, and you may never recover.
It seemed hard 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?
Jan. 15, 2021, 6:04 p.m. ET
Existentialist philosophers claim that if we want to live fully and authentically, we have to accept that, as Martin Heidegger put it, we are “towards death”. Death gives meaning to our life and forces us to ask questions like, “What is my purpose and worth?” And: “How will I spend my limited time on this earth?”
In my own study of academic philosophy, however, I was surprised that I made little thought about the existential depth of parenting. As writer Samantha Hunt said of a fictional story she published in The New Yorker in 2017, “When I became a mother, nobody said, ‘Hey, you made a death. You caused the death of your children. “Death comes for all of us, even your child, and no one knows when it will come.
When I read Claudia Dey’s extraordinary essay, Mothers Creators of Death, published in the Paris Review in 2018, it felt like a breath of fresh air. In it, Dey spoke of the “sudden crushing morbidity that fills the new mother’s soul” and the loneliness of “being overcome by the blackest thoughts” that were absent from conversations with other new mothers and from popular maternity books covered in light pinks and blues have been omitted.
In my eyes, these feathery, glowing images of motherhood implied that mothers who thought deeply about death were macabre and even pathologically ill. I was relieved to find words for my burgeoning belief that motherhood is connected with dark secrets that the pastel books don’t even come close to touching.
At the moment I am grateful that neither floss nor Covid-19 took my child (or myself) prematurely. But I am still gripped by the thought that this cute kid that I created with braids and all will one day face her own mortality. Even if she leads a long and happy life and then dies in a sun-kissed room at 95, she must live with the knowledge that her death is coming and the uncertainty of when it will arrive.
Death has come earlier than expected for many in the past year, and perhaps by learning to accept this fragile and exquisite life while we are having it, we can see that death has been part of the business all along. Long before this pandemic began and long after it ends, new parents will help children not only walk and speak, but survive. Not only do they fight with bottles and diapers, but also with life and death.
Danielle LaSusa, Ph.D., is a philosophical trainer who helps mothers deal with the existential crisis of motherhood.