CW: discussions about the death of newborns
Since becoming a father 6 months ago life has changed dramatically as you'd imagine. The sleepless nights coupled with low productivity at work where I was essentially a paid zombie; I knew all about.
Every parent I’ve known has complained about the first few months and depending on how far away from that period they are; also shares stories of wild shit they did in a state of delirium.
That didn't rattle me, there was a myriad of other ways that fathering a child took me by surprise. From the strange reaction people have to fathers who openly love their kids and the hostility towards dads in hospitals. T o the bizarre way we expect both parents to get back on the 9–5 grind ASAP (especially for my American friends out there).
Chief among them though was the debilitating fear of my boy Marcus dying.
Not in some accident or an affliction which could be prevented early if we were astute enough parents but in a far more insidious way.
A PARENTS WORST FEAR.
Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), where no cause of death can be found. It also includes fatal accidents during sleep, often suffocation. — Plunket NZ
SIDS was laid out to be the most frightening part of being a parent. To be fair, it is. So much of the information parents are given post-natal is focused on avoiding SIDS.
It didn't really sink in until I had my beautiful boy to actually look after. I quickly became very aware of how fragile he was and how easily he could be taken from us. The fear of finding him dead in his crib drapes a paralysing shock over me, writing about it makes me ill.
I’ve learned to live with that fear and employ methods to keep myself in the present with him months down the line. When the balance of work, family, social commitments and physical health have me pulled in all directions at once.
Prominent among those were two key mental models. “Memento Mori” and “Day by Night”
I’ve written several pieces about Stoicism and how its allowed me to live a more meaningful and fuller life. My son Marcus is named after one of its foundational writers Marcus Aurelius. There's a concept in Stoicism which is one of the pillars of the philosophy.
Memento Mori — Remember, you will die.
“You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.” Marcus Aurelius
The premise of it is simple but not easy. By reminding ourselves often of our mortality it helps us live lives of purpose and not flittering away our most precious resource; time.
Memento Mori is either used as a phrase or some form of token that people keep with them. I myself have a coin from the Daily Stoic; Ryan Holiday which sits in my pocket most days and I fondle in moments of anxiety.
As Stoicism is intended to be a philosophy that is lived rather than philosophised about; Memento Mori often manifests as an exercise for grounding yourself in the present moment. Tokens help remind us of this, as do notes scribbled on mirrors and monitors. Ask yourself:
“If today is the day, is this essential?”
Now thinking about our own death is one thing. I’ve done it a lot and at least like to think that I have a closer relationship with life from pondering my own death so much. I've even thought about and played our scenarios where my family or friends pass away. Even my better half Kendyl.
It’s a different story when it comes to Marcus. The very idea makes me sick to my stomach. My parental love for him makes entertaining any notion of his mortality a horrific thought experiment which I struggle to do.
Again, Stoicism helped me work past my crippling fear for his safety.
Epictetus, a slave and eventual Stoic teacher has one of the more notorious comments on the mortality of children.
“What harm is it, just when you are kissing your little child, to say: “Tomorrow you will die”, or to your friend similarly: “Tomorrow one of us will go away, and we shall not see one another any more?” — Epictetus
Its a horrible thought on the surface, to use this as an exercise however can be very cathartic. Remind yourself of the mortality of your child and most of your day to day problems disappear. What's right and important becomes suddenly very clear.
As I tuck my boy in to bed at night, read him a story or dress him in his sleep sack taking just a moment to remember that he too is mortal like me brings me right to him in both body and soul. There aren’t many times of the day where you can be that lucid but the Memento Mori reminder will make it so.
2) DAY BY NIGHT
In one of the many Daily Stoic podcasts Ryan shares a story about a conversation between himself and a retired veteran; Richard Overton who lived well into his 100’s. He asked him.. (I’m paraphrasing)
“At this age do you take everything day by day?” to which Richard replied, “At this age Ryan I take everything day by night”.
There are many similarities between the elderly and babies. One of them is this. Life works on a series of cycles not of days but of days and nights.
Living through a day doesn't guarantee that tomorrow will come for them like it does for us.
Night has its own problems for the elderly like it does for babies.
Unexplained deaths of ‘old age’ and SIDS fall under a similar umbrella. Living life fearing either is a sure-fire way to miss most of your time where life happens, the present.
Through practicing Stoic exercises like the one Epictetus suggests (however gut wrenching) and attempting to be as present as possible when with loved ones helps ease my worry about the death of my son.
More importantly the reminder helps me drink from the well of fatherly love. Far deeper than what I could have while constantly checking on and worrying about my precious boy.
WHAT TO DO ABOUT THIS FEAR?
I would encourage you to try tackle the anxiety around your child's mortality. If not for yourself; for them. Its well documented how helicopter parenting borne out of fear has lead to all sorts of issues in Millennials and Gen-Z.
For you as a parent, it will keep you more present when you're with them and love them deeper. It will allow you to stop and ask when you are deciding to stay late at the office or trying to skip out on bedtime…
“Is this necessary?”
Or should I concentrate on loving my child in the fullest extent I can. With my time, presence and most importantly; attention.
Go hug your kids.
If you have any suggestions to further help ease the worry of new parents please let us know in the comments. Share your thoughts and stories on remaining attentive with your kids and sharing in time with them.