Too Much Happiness Can Be A Scary Thing

This originally appeared on Laurie Cunningham’s blog. Republished here with permission.

After two tough pregnancies and struggling with depression, I’m finally feeling happy. So why can’t I stop waiting for the other shoe to drop?

I’ll have to type fast, because Tess is asleep and I don’t know how long it will last. She’s a noisy sleeper, one of those babies that makes snorts and squeaks that sound like she’s going to wake up at any minute. I don’t know what she’s dreaming about after just five days of life. Two ounces of formula? Being swaddled? Going for a long ride in the car? Whatever it is, it sounds delicious, like she’s eating a juicy piece of filet mignon.

The past few days, my heart has felt so big. So big, in fact, it seems as if it has swelled to double its size and engulfed my chest. Last night as I sat on our bed feeding Tess as dusk filtered into the room between the wooden slats of the shades, I sat looking at her and started to cry. My husband, Dave, was in the other room getting our 2-year-old Owen ready for bed and I could hear Owen splashing in the bath and prattling on to Dave in his sweet toddler voice. “Boat, Dada, boat.”

I sat gazing out our bedroom window at the neighbors’ house next door as my chest heaved and tears streamed down my cheeks. I felt so grateful I thought that I would burst. These were tears of joy.

Dave walked into our bedroom to get a towel for Owen, glanced over at me and stopped in his tracks.

“Are you OK?” he asked.

I nodded, tears falling from my chin onto my shirt.

“You’re crying because she’s so beautiful?” he said.

I nodded again. He came over and sat down next to me on the bed.

“She is beautiful,” he said, gazing down on her perfectly shaped, peach fuzz head.

“I never knew that I would be this lucky,” I said between sobs. “I just feel so…”

Dave waited while I caught my breath.


“I know,” Dave said, rubbing my leg. “I feel like we’ve accomplished something too. We’ve made it through two awful pregnancies. We have a boy and a girl. Now we can just watch them grow.”

It is a much different scenario than two years ago, when I had Owen. Three days after his birth I suffered a major panic attack that launched me into four months of post-partum depression and anxiety. When I sobbed to Dave back then, it was because I was experiencing deep despair and the tight fist of anxiety in my chest. I struggled through each day, going through the motions of taking care of Owen, not knowing when the dark cloud would lift.

I hadn’t been able to stay on my anti-depressant when I was pregnant with Owen because I was severely nauseous and kept throwing them up. I went right back on them after delivery, but they can take up to two months to build up in your system, a torturous reality for anyone who is suffering the mental anguish of depression and more than anything, wants relief. Given the added element of pregnancy hormones, it took an additional two months before I stabilized, before the tightness in my chest eased up and I no longer felt forever on the verge of tears. By the time I started to feel better, I was up to 300 milligrams of Effexor a day, because my psychiatrist kept upping the dose to get me out of the hole. For anyone who hasn’t taken anti-depressants before, that’s a whole lot of Effexor.

This time around, I went back on my medication in my third trimester, giving it plenty of time to build up in my system by the time I delivered, in hopes of avoiding this terrible pain. Despite the reassurance from my psychiatrist that the Effexor wouldn’t hurt the baby, I couldn’t help but worry that somehow there would be something wrong with her and my weak mental state would be to blame. The worst thing that could happen, my psychiatrist said, was that she would suffer “discontinuation syndrome,” which means she could be irritable, have difficulty sleeping and have either flaccid or overly tight muscles.

But the condition is self limiting, my psychiatrist assured me, which means it would go away in three to five days. She would be going through withdrawal, but experience no permanent damage. No brain damage. No structural issues. No developmental delays. Still, I worried she would be born deaf or blind or have some other condition they couldn’t test for in utero. She had passed all the other tests with flying colors: the tests for chromosomal abnormalities and spina bifida. After the 20-week ultrasound—when they measure the brain, examine the organs, check for cleft palate and count fingers and toes—my OB told me she couldn’t be more perfect if I tried. But still.

Thankfully, it appears that none of my fears came true. Tess emerged wide eyed, alert and immediately began to cry, a sign that her lungs were healthy and strong. She had a bowel movement during labor, which meant that pediatric nurses had to insert tubes down her throat to remove any meconium (baby poop) she may have swallowed. But other than that, she was fine. More than fine. And so far, much to my great relief, so am I.

It’s a scary thing to be this happy. It’s hard to not wait for the other shoe to drop. To worry that Tess will come down with some terrible disease, Dave will run off with his secretary, or Owen will get hit by a car. That somehow I will be punished for having a good experience this time around. But that’s just my thinking trying to scare me into not letting my heart feel so big and wide. To protect me from being vulnerable by telling me, “If you enjoy this too much, you’re going to get really, really hurt.”

But why would happiness attract disaster any more than misery would attract good fortune? So much of my thinking is a big, fat lie. Lies I tell myself to make me think I have control over everything that happens in my life. How scary to admit that I am more vulnerable now that I have two children who I love with all my heart. And that there’s not much I can do, beyond taking the obvious precautions, to keep them healthy and safe.

Last November I called my mom after we had finished our follow-up appointment with the geneticist to tell her that not only were the baby’s chromosomes normal, but that we were going to have a girl.

“You’re getting everything you always wanted,” she said.

“I know,” I replied.

It didn’t always look that way. I didn’t meet Dave until I was 36, marry until I was 38, have my first child until I was 39, and have my second child until I was 41. When I was 35 and the biological clock was ticking, I had no idea what the next six years would look like, if I would ever meet someone I loved enough to marry and have the children that my heart desired.

Now that I’m staring down a happy ending (and exciting beginning), I’ll do my best to sit with my good fortune and breathe it in. I’ll focus on changing poopy diapers, doing load after load of laundry, soothing toddler tantrums, getting up for middle of the night feedings and yes, having an occasional cry.

Laurie Cunningham is a former newspaper reporter and magazine editor who now works at an international law firm in Chicago writing about legal trends and teaching lawyers to use shorter sentences. In her spare time she blogs about marriage, pregnancy, parenthood and whatever else is on her mind.

Related Links: