The Distraction of Uncertainty

When I was first pregnant, I drew great comfort from the internet, which supplied an endless virtual cohort. Even though I couldn’t bring myself to utter out loud any details of my delicate state, I drew comfort from stories and experiences on message boards and knew weird details of the lives of women who were willing to reveal them.

One of my favorite subgenres of pregnancy stories involved the fog of pregnancy, the seeming inability to think clearly. I really enjoyed the implication that this was no personal fault, but rather due to hormones and processes that were not only beyond my own control, but for a noble and laudable cause of nurturing a new life. There were stories of forgotten keys, hilarious mixed-up sentences, and scrambled directions. But my favorite anecdote was described by a woman who woke up exhausted and in desperate need of caffeine, drove and rushed to the drive in coffee. She ordered her coffee from the security of her car and paid for it, and then, thinking her task complete, she drove right past the pickup window and onto the street before realizing her mistake. I think that one tickled me in particular because even single minded desperation and focus wasn’t enough to get her what she wanted. 

Although it has been many years since I was pregnant, I did my own version of that the other day. On Mondays, one of my kids has a tight pickup from one orchestra to the next, which involves complicated biking (on their part) and ferrying instruments (on my part) and then bikes and a short time window. And I am pretty desperate not to be late because all of this is important to them, and an orchestra thrives on precision, and these are all noble lessons that they are learning so beautifully. But on that particular day, I was practically spinning in circles with a to-do list that was like Kerberos’ head— every time I slayed one foe, three more would grow in its place. 

But I was determined, with timers and constant vigilance not to be late for that pickup. And to my credit— I wasn’t. But as I drove up close to the site of the pickup from orchestra rehearsal #1, I quite suddenly realized that although I was going to be on time to pick up my kid, I did NOT HAVE THE INSTRUMENT IN THE CAR. It was still sitting at home, in the entryway, where they had left it that morning so I could bring it for them, according to the agreement we had made together. I could get the kid to orchestra, but um… that wasn’t going to cut it.

In the end, Michael bailed me out by choosing a pickup place enroute and driving the instrument to meet us and it all worked out, but it was still stunning to me: where was my brain, exactly?

Except that I knew where it was, because it wasn’t whole, it too was busy subdividing into little fragments that scattered in every direction, along with each task on my to-do list, but with combinations of uncertainty layered on top. In my case, uncertainty was around a possible move (which ended up happening— more on that another time!)

But all of this makes me think that maybe uncertainty is the greatest enemy of focus. Perhaps it is precisely the fact that something might or might not work out that is so incredibly distracting that it’s hard to pay attention and proceed with life as usual, including buying coffee at a drive-thru. I mean, isn’t that part of what is going on in pregnancy? There’s this change brewing, but actually, even with a due date on the calendar and plenty of time to prepare, the essence of nurturing a pregnancy is not knowing and not being able to anticipate the new person who is going to disrupt the status quo. 

Michael was recently describing to me at work a major initiative in his new team that was exciting and mobilizing, and then there was a meeting with the legal team which explained that no part of it should be implemented based on a conservative interpretation of some regulations. This was a shock and a big deal and the first time ever that Michael wanted a drink in the middle of a workday. And maybe the legal team is just being cautious and maybe part of his team’s plan could be implemented, or maybe they’ll find a way to do all of it, but meanwhile, he has to decide whether to continue to do the technical work. But it’s hard because every time he moves one step forward, he is distracted by the thought that perhaps it will prove to be futile. It’s hard to even sit down and make a timeline for his project in a hypothetical way, because the chance that it might not work out is like a deep well of quicksand he has to wade through as he slogs through work that would be difficult in any event. 

As we all learned through a global pandemic, change is stressful. Even “positive” changes (like new marriages and health restored or immunity) get coded by the body as physiologically challenging. And this is worth paying attention to, and giving ourselves grace and self-compassion.

But I think that uncertainty is a different kind of change that needs its own category. Persevering through known challenges is a different sort of thing than the haunting suspicion that it might not all work out. Having a diagnosis is difficult, sometimes heartbreakingly and catastrophically so. But awaiting a diagnosis, waiting to meet with the doctor for a discussion of protocol, waiting to hear about test results— these are its own kind of suffering, but one that doesn’t get coded as such. At least, I don’t know how to respond to it.

If I hear about a friend who has received a difficult diagnosis, I might say that “I am sorry to hear your health news.” But if I said that to a friend who was waiting to hear about a diagnosis, it would sound as though I had already presumed bad news! And I wouldn’t want to be mistaken to have said that. What I would want to mean— so desperately want to mean— is that I know it’s hard to remember about the coffee, the orchestra instrument, the work at hand when there’s the chance that pretty soon the whole cart is going to be tipped over and you’ll be leading a different kind of life with different priorities for a while. 

In my doctoral dissertation, I wrote about uncertainty, and how it was treated differently in different historical time periods. Sometimes, it is all but intolerable. And an elaborate structure around it can make it feel more definite and concrete, but I’m still up for some sort of cultural way to recognize: the family who has been evicted but hasn’t found a new home yet, the person whose company has announced that there will be layoffs but not yet announced who is affected, the volunteer who has qualified as a foster parent but hasn’t yet had a child placed with them.

Maybe in my lifetime we’ll find some way to honor the blur of those situations in addition to our instinct to applaud those who push through in particularly impressive ways.

More From My Blog