That Time a Questionnaire Made Me Panic

Katie Hawkins-Gaar
Feb 20, 2019 · 4 min read
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Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Jamie and I were planning to adopt a baby. The adoption process was both exciting and nerve-wracking, and we spent a lot of time discussing how our lives would change. We also spent a lot of time on paperwork. So. Much. Paperwork.

We were seeking an open adoption, which allows the birth mother to choose the couple or person to adopt her child. One of the tools to help birth mothers decide is a questionnaire about prospective parents’ favorite things — a way to get to know someone at a glance. Jamie and I were each asked to share our favorite food, color, movie, song, quote, vacation spot, sports team, and so on.

The questionnaire reminded me of those lists that old high school classmates pass around on Facebook, tagging someone else who has to fill out 25 things about themselves. Except this list was less about reminiscing, and more about whether we’d be good parents. It freaked me out.

Determining my favorite things paralyzed me with indecision. There were so many fear-based questions that rushed through my head: What if my answers are stupid? Is it possible to answer wrong? Do I actually have a favorite song? Why is it so hard to come up with a favorite quote? Jamie flew through his answers, but I was stuck.

Not knowing my own passions really upset me — so much so that I spent nearly an hour talking to my therapist about the experience. As it turns out, it was one of my last therapy sessions before Jamie died.

For some reason, the 2016 presidential election really ratcheted up my anxiety and depression. I started therapy in November of that year, which meant that I had a few months’ worth of weekly sessions before I became a widow. And then Jamie’s sudden death dominated everything. It felt like grief was all I could think or talk about. It was the main subject of therapy sessions, journaling, conversations with friends and family, and my inner dialogue. It eclipsed pretty much everything I struggled with prior.

Now, two years later, the issues I had only just begun to delve into are resurfacing in my life. It’s reassuring and frustrating all at once. On the one hand, I view it as a sign of progress that grief isn’t as all-consuming as before; on the other, it feels wholly unfair that I still have to deal with past issues after all the pain and growth I’ve been through.

A friend shared with me the other week that grief has a way of first masking and then later highlighting our existing issues and insecurities. That’s definitely the case with me. The topics I once discussed during therapy seemed so small and far away in comparison to Facing Death. For a while, it felt like those issues were magically cured. But lately, things like the panic brought on by that adoption questionnaire are coming back in full force — and whether I like it or not, it’s finally time revisit those feelings and address their significance in my life.

It wasn’t until I became a widow and, later, quit my full-time job that I realized how much of myself I’d lost over the years. Like many people, I’d lost some of my identity to marriage. I lost even more of myself to work. Somewhere along the way, I wasn’t as confident as I used to be in deciding what food I liked best or what music made me happiest. I happily agreed with the desires of the people I loved and trusted, and forgot how to love and trust myself and my own desires.

That loss of identity was a lot to comprehend after Jamie died. So maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that I lost a bit of myself to grief, too.

Losing Jamie meant that I lost my go-to confidante and cheerleader. Leaving my job meant that I could no longer pin my hopes or place my complaints on my employer. I’ve since had to learn how to love, listen to, and support myself, and figure out how to lean on friends when I wasn’t strong enough to do those things on my own. And now that I’m back in a relationship, I’m working to maintain those skills. Just because I have a new partner doesn’t mean I can look to him for the support and validation I might be lacking within.

These days, I’m no longer solely identifying as a widow. I’m also not a wife. I’m not an employee of X corporation. I’m not a mom. I’m a lot of things and nothing all at once.

My sense of self is growing — as is my list of personal favorites. I love red beans and rice, the color blue, and will always have a soft spot for “Almost Famous.” What’s more important than being able to list seemingly shallow favorite things, though, is honing the ability to listen to myself, without a title or marital status to hide behind.

It’s nice to receive love from others, of course, but the only constant in my life is me. I have to learn how to rely on myself, and embrace the things I love.

And for what it’s worth: I believe it’s normal to not have a favorite everything, that it’s healthy for favorites to change over time, and that there are much better ways to match birth parents with adoptive parents than favorite-thing questionnaires.

This essay was originally published in my newsletter, My Sweet Dumb Brain, which includes additional resources and guided exercises each week.

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