Most people do this when they are in the middle of their forced inactivity, but they’re better women than I am. I only dare to be overtly grateful now that the danger period has passed and I am up and about again. Apparently it has all sorts of mental health benefits though, so better late than never. Here are some of the things I had to be thankful for while confined to quarters.
1. The fact that I didn’t have any other children. I have no idea how people manage when they have other young kids, unless they can afford a nanny.
2. All the help I had from Marcin and my parents, especially Marcin, who miraculously stopped complaining about 10 minutes into the whole drama and hasn’t resumed yet.
3. The fact that I didn’t have to worry about money, even though I stopped working much earlier than I planned and expected.
4. A nice doctor.
5. Reasonable mental health which meant that I didn’t fall into a black depression, despite doing nothing for 10 weeks. I wouldn’t have thought this was possible, but I’m 35 weeks pregnant and still sane.
6. The internet.
7. My Kindle.
8. The discovery of meditation- it works on me, which I had also never thought possible.
9. The ability to sleep for most of the night, most of the time. It’s gone now, which is what reminds me to be glad I had it.
10. The fact that we managed to move house before I started having problems, and not after.
Ten things is probably enough, and in my defence I will say that most of these occurred to me at the time, not only in retrospect. I suppose the gratitude game is really just a variation on another favourite mental hygiene exercise of mine- the Someone Else Always Has It Worse game.
As time passes, I am getting more restless and consequently more reckless. My outings, instead of instilling a faint panic, (will my babies fall out if I cross the road to the bus stop by the stairs and not the lift?) can inspire a sense of overwhelming joy.
I now consider it a great privilege to walk half a block to the doctor’s surgery in the rain and gloom, wearing normal people’s clothes and holding hands with my husband. Last Saturday I was made euphoric by a Gaviscon run to the pharmacy in our building and a trip to the corner shop, via a novel route (around the back across the lawn instead of through the carpark). It’s the dark, damp dogshit time of year, the almost-bare trees scratching at the sky like a Japanese ink drawing, the intoxicating smell of wet earth and burning leaves from the allotments behind our block of flats. Even so, everything looked new and lovely. A bunch of leftover purple berries hanging over a brick wall, a tree with a crop of sour little sunset-red crabapples, the lurid primary lineup of the recycling bins . In the shop, we peered into the freezer and I tasted again the sweet taste of supermarket tourism in a strange land.
This outing- the clean, wet air, the immediacy of puddles and sodden grass- dragged me out of my pyjama-swaddled coma and cheered me up for at least 48 hours. It’s possible that my level of physical activity is so low that a walk to the corner can send me into an endorphin-crazed frenzy for days.
Since my parents arrived a few weeks ago, bearing wool and knitting needles, I have taken up knitting. This activity is simultaneously mindless and absorbing, at least for a beginner, which is exactly what my undisciplined mind currently needs. My mother, whose knitting career spans 60 years, since her earliest entrepreneurial tea-cosy sales to schoolteachers at age 8, is more adept, and can apparently knit a jumper while reading a book.
Knitting connects me to a long, female family tradition of productiveness. The narrow, tortoiseshell needles I use belong to my aunt (my father’s sister), whose initial joking suggestion it was that I take up knitting. The knitting bag is covered with the huckaback embroidery that my mother learned from her mother, and later taught us as children. While we work, we recall the crocheted blankets of my grandmother and great aunts, still in active circulation as our adult bedspreads, the closest we have to family heirlooms.
My mother tells me stories of clothes she has made (including her sister’s wedding dress, later worn by my middle cousin to her own wedding), in the days before sweatshops made home production unprofitable. She tells me about the patchworking craze that coincided with the birth of my youngest brother, so that she spent the week in hospital preceding his appearance pinning her little hexagons onto backing paper amongst the staphylococcus germs. My nephew too intrudes into this estrogen-bathed lineage- my mother also taught him to knit, though his resistance to instruction and lack of a final plan resulted in something more like lace.
Knitting, I feel my female ancestors gather round me, with their recipes and secrets and crochet hooks, their books and sparing wartime ways, their reserve, their religion, their politeness. On the other side of the world, about to produce my own descendants, I welcome their presence.
The weather outside doesn’t seem to penetrate the walls of our flat. I see what is happening outside- the warmth of late summer, then the turning of the leaves, the sharp gold autumn days, and on Saturday, the first snow. I can see a pair of busy, bushy-tailed squirrels preparing for winter in the tree outside the window, along with a woodpecker going about his gravity- defying business. Clouds of crows go beating purposefully by, black against the milky sky. None of it seems to have anything to do with me. When I go outside for milk or doctor’s appointments, the hydraulics of being vertical and the rarity of the occasion engender a sense of total alienation from the world I inhabit.
Inside, I generate my own emotional climate- a succession of mild, overcast days. Inactivity works on me like a mild antidepressant, depriving me of any emotional excess. I have two moods- weepy and not-weepy. Although as I get more gravid and bilious, I think that I am beginning to add irritability to my repertoire. This sort of extreme stability is something new for me, and in the current situation I have no objections to my limited range as I explore the land between faint hope and faint gloominess.
The thing I miss the most about normal life is, without a doubt, physical activity. Now I have found a way around it and have regular nocturnal adventures- walking in the mountains in Vermont in a forest blazing with autumn, cycling up a winding road on a volcanic island, rebelling against the new Iranian style rulers of Poland, etc.
At first I would wake up with a guilty feeling, quickly followed by relief when I came to my senses and realised I hadn’t really been running up hills all night – like the dreams ex-smokers have about having a fag. But after a while I started to look forward to my nocturnal adventures, and felt cheated when (after watching Alien) I got a night of recurring nightmares about being stalked by a giant crab instead.
My other escape is literature. With the appearance of a Kindle in my life, I’ve retreated into my own language and now read constantly in English. My current solution for absolute maximum escapism is to read about something as far away from my own experience as humanly possible. So I am reading Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel’s historical novel about Henry the Eighth’s minister Thomas Cromwell.
It has taken me years to come around to historical fiction, but now I easily lose myself in 16th century England- kings and courtiers, plagues and intrigues, the burning and utterly alien ambition of Ann Boleyn, the changing fates of those in the king’s orbit. My ignorance allows me to read it as a real novel, not knowing what will happen next. When I look for portraits of the main players on the internet, I am surprised at how static they are, bound in their finery with their motionless faces. In Mantel’s book they are plastic- they sweat and twitch and make jokes in an entirely credible fashion.
It removes me entirely from my own circumscribed world, which is exactly what I want and need.
I am often comforted by thinking about how much worse things could be. At least I’m not having twins in Auschwitz, I tell myself, where Doctor Mengele is waiting to experiment on them after a starved and brutalised pregnancy. At least I’m not pregnant in an Indian village where I have to walk 4 hours for water and then collect firewood to cook my single paltry daily ration of lentils. And so forth. This kind of worst-case scenario imagining has a soothing effect on me- it induces the sort of smug feeling of safety that news of a distant divorce might, a that-won’t- happen- to- me sensation of relief. When bad luck adheres itself to someone else, it reduces the amount roaming the universe looking for a victim.
Unfortunately, this harmless borderline Schadenfreude doesn’t always work. This is because there’s one kind of misfortune which, when experienced by others, does not keep you safe.
It’s when people in the same situation as you don’t get their happy ending. This week I found out that one of my colleagues from the cervix forum lost her twins at 25 weeks, and I realised how much I had been relying on other people’s good news to build my own sense of hope. I took it personally and felt a horrible sense of grief, along with its companion- an urgent and impotent wish for things to be otherwise. Empathy showed its evolutionary purpose, its cautionary, chastening role in the world. This is not you, but could be, it whispers. It’s a terrifying thought.
In all the simultaneous drama and boredom of a difficult pregnancy, I have discovered that I am utterly shameless in looking for things that make me feel more confident about hanging onto my foetuses for a bit longer. Statistics are accepted or rejected on the basis of whether or not they make my prospects look better. I look at my ultrasound and see that based on my cervical length at 23 weeks, I have only a 1 or 2 % chance of an early delivery (before 36 weeks). Never mind that the chances of having twins, or a defective cervix at all, are about the same, which didn’t prevent them from happening to me. Never mind that those statistics are probably not for multiple pregancies (in fact, I purposely don’t ask. Why borrow trouble?). I have an insatiable appetite for good news, and selective application of statistics can give it to me.
The same goes for dreams. The dream that I have triplets and they all die and the doctor refuses to sew up my Caesarian cut is dismissed out of hand as a pure anxiety dream, with no predictive powers whatsoever. But I did have another dream, and this one I have chosen to regard as psychic. It goes like this.
I dream that our friend Kaśka can travel in time. She visits us from next July, and says to me ‘well, your pigeons have arrived. There’s two of them, and everything’s OK. You’re going to have a horrible time, though.’
I have to say that this dream comforts me. Partly for its content- all I hear is that everything will be OK in the end, ignoring the part about how awful it’s going to be. But it reminds me that at some point, this will all end; that next July will, in fact, come. Currently, I find this almost impossible to believe.