On Monday, while sitting in the waiting room of my midwife’s office, I watched as a pair of baby feet made a slow, but steady arc across the top of my uterus, pushing my belly up into tiny plateaus with each movement. Then suddenly the kicks stopped and my entire middle shook and reverberated like a small bomb had exploded inside me. After 38 weeks of being perfectly positioned, the baby suddenly decided he or she had had enough, flipped over, and settled back down face up, in a less than ideal birthing position. I cried multiple times that day, raw and unsettled as a chaotic anxiety began to spread through me. With two weeks to go until my due date, the baby could come at any time and here it was, suddenly and inexplicably facing the wrong direction. I cried a little the next day too. And then I reminded myself that labor and birth are largely beyond my control, and all I can do is wait and see what happens.
Tomorrow is the two-year anniversary of when a good friend of mine died from cancer. Shortly after her death, I was driving to work one day when I heard an interview on the radio about cancer research that had been completed at Johns Hopkins Hospital. The doctors explained that while there are certain genetic and lifestyle factors that can increase a person’s risk of having cancer, actually being diagnosed with cancer essentially boils down to random chance. For example, while smoking can increase your risk for developing lung cancer, the reason why one smoker would actually get lung cancer and another would go on to live a long, cancer-free life appeared to be mostly random. And the fact that some people with seemingly no genetic or lifestyle risks still end up with cancer also appeared to be largely random. You got cancer because you got cancer. You didn’t because you didn’t.
Following closely on the heels of my friend’s death, I found this news to be surprisingly comforting. Sometimes, bad things simply happen because of bad luck. And there’s very little any of us can do about luck. It might sound funny, but at the time, I found it very liberating to recognize how little of our lives we are able to control. I return to that thought whenever I begin to feel anxious and overwhelmed by my experiences.
Anxiety can very often be traced back to a desire to exercise control over your environment. We fear that which we do not know. We worry about and fixate on the little things that we can control in an effort to distract from or reduce our fears about larger, less manageable concerns. This is perfectly human, but not especially helpful behavior.
I may tell myself that if I can get the baby back into the right position, everything will go smoothly with my labor and no problems will occur. But there’s no way for me to know that for sure. Every birth is unique and there’s no way to predict ahead of time how labor will progress. The baby could be perfectly positioned and my labor could be long, tremendously difficult and even dangerous for reasons as yet unseen. Or the baby could be in the wrong position and my labor could progress normally, and delivery occurs with only minimal difficulty. There’s no way for me to predict or control this experience, and thus, there’s very little reason or value to worrying about it ahead of time. If something is completely beyond your control, it can be very freeing to shrug your shoulders and decide that it’s simply not worth worrying about then. Whatever happens, happens, and it can be nice to know that you are not responsible for determining the outcome to everything in life.
With so many alarming and upsetting things happening in the world right now, and so many unknowns speeding toward me in my personal life, I have found it to be a helpful exercise to pause and evaluate every situation to determine how much I can control any particular outcome. If there is something I can do that might help to influence events, then I do it. If there is not, then I try to simply let my anxiety go. I cannot control everything that happens to me, to my loved ones, to the world at large. But I can decide how much I will let my lack of control direct my thoughts and emotions. Sometimes things go wrong, and it’s not your fault. Sometimes life is hard, and it’s not because of anything you failed to predict ahead of time. Sometimes things just happen because they happen, because the universe is random and flukey and, at times, impossibly cruel. It is not your responsibility to make the world act in predictable ways. It’s not up to you to make sure that only good things happen, and that everyone stays happy and healthy. It’s okay to accept that you can’t control everything that happens around you, and to let go of the fear that comes with trying to do so.
Sometimes it may feel like your life has flipped over and is facing the wrong direction. Just stay calm, take a deep breath, and trust that there’s still a chance for it to flip back again.