At 8:00 this morning, my mom texted me and my two siblings to ask if we had working smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. We all dutifully responded, “yes,” within minutes. My mom is 70 years old. All three of us, her children, are in our 30s. When I tell her not to worry so much, she says, “that’s what being a parent is all about. You worry until the day you die.”
My mother is far from alone in her belief that endless worry is the price of parenthood. It’s a message I’ve seen shared a thousand times in mom’s groups and on parenting websites—how lying awake at night worrying about your children is simply what it means to be a parent. As my phone continued to buzz with follow-up questions from my mother and reassuring responses from my siblings, I felt my younger son wrapping his arms around my legs. “Spin with me, Mama!” he cried out with the verve that comes so naturally to two-year-olds, “spin with meeeeee!” I put down my phone, and we got to spinning. “I’m so dizzy!” he squealed. “Me too!” I laughed, and we both fell on the floor giggling. We turned towards each other and I felt his tiny hand land on my cheek. I felt the cool hard kitchen floor beneath my head. I looked in his eyes and saw how thrilled he was that we had spun around together. I’m so glad I didn’t miss it.
Spinning with your toddler in the kitchen may sound easy, but it wasn’t always possible for me. My first year of motherhood came with a flood of persistent and overwhelming worry that prevented me from enjoying such simple pleasures. Because worrying was such a normal aspect of my upbringing, and because excessive parental worrying has been so normalized in our culture, it took me many months to realize that I was struggling with postpartum anxiety and that I needed to seek help.
When my first child was born, I worried about him constantly. I worried that he wasn’t breathing properly. I worried that he wasn’t sleeping enough. And when he finally fell asleep, I worried that he wasn’t asleep at all but was, in fact, in a coma. I put my hand on his chest to assess, in my own non-medical way, if the breaths he was taking were adequately deep, while at the same time wondering if there was even a way to really tell if a sleeping person was in a coma without waking them. Sometimes I would actually wake my sleeping baby in order to determine that he was indeed sleeping and not comatose.
I worried about how flat my baby’s head was in the back, and I worried that it would always be that way. We finally got him a corrective helmet, but I continued worrying. I worried that this helmet might cause some sort of brain issue that had yet to be discovered as a side effect of precisely this kind of prosthetic. I worried that the helmet was hurting him in his sleep, but that he was just too comatose to cry about it.
I was too busy trying to imagine the mother I would need to be in my own mental disaster movie to be the mother my baby needed me to be in reality.
Did I ever even see my newborn baby? I mean really? I’m afraid not. For the whole first year of my baby’s life, I couldn’t even see him—I could only ever see the disaster movie playing in my head on loop. Instead of being in my actual body holding my actual baby, I was trapped in a very specific, totally devastating, never-to-be-realized future in which my son was a tragic case study of previously unknown complications from prosthetic helmets. I was too busy trying to imagine the mother I would need to be in my own mental disaster movie to be the mother my baby needed me to be in reality.
The strangest part of my postpartum anxiety is that when scary things actually happened, I found that I was completely capable of handling them. When my baby got croup, I held him in the bathroom and ran the shower to help him breathe more easily. When that didn’t work, I brought him outside. When that didn’t work, I brought him to the car. I strapped him in his carseat and told him he was okay. I rolled down the windows so that the cold air would soothe the inflammation in his throat. And I drove him, slowly and safely, to the pediatric emergency room. I sat in the triage room and cradled him in one arm while holding the mask for his breathing treatment up to his face with my other arm. I sang his favorite song to soothe him. I kissed his head.
In these ways and a thousand others, I learned that my anxiety was not helpful. It did not protect me or my child. I began to notice that all of my creativity, imagination, and energy were being hijacked by my anxiety. I was using all of it to dream up horrific scenarios. Before my son’s first birthday, I finally sought therapy.
During one session, after spewing out a laundry list of worries, dangers, and perceived failures to my therapist, he asked a question that I had never asked myself. “Can you think of some things you’ve done this week that helped your child?” At first I was truly stumped. He asked another lovely and puzzling question. “Can you imagine how some of the things you’ve done this week might have an unexpectedly positive impact on your child?” I didn’t know how to answer that one either, but I let the tiny magic spark of the question lodge itself into my brain.
I started asking myself those questions every day. I began noticing all the ways in which I was nurturing my child, how quickly he was growing, the ways in which he was thriving. I took careful note each day of which activities sparked anxiety and which activities soothed me. I stopped watching cable news at night and began reading the news just once a day instead. I stopped checking my work email compulsively outside of working hours. I started exercising more and spending more of my free time outside with my children. When anxious thoughts arose, I tried to simply notice them and take some deep breaths.
What if worrying isn’t the price to pay for parenthood after all? What if there is no price to pay because that’s not how it works? What if the world isn’t as transactional as I once suspected?
Sometimes, I ask these questions and I get some wonderful answers. Mostly, I get to just live—here, now, in my body with my children and enjoy them. They are impossibly beautiful—just the way they are, right at this moment. It is a lot to take in. Maybe that’s what I was avoiding. Because the children are so beautiful, and the world is a dumpster fire.
But you know what? It’s our dumpster fire. And it’s also a bright blue gleaming orb glimmering splendiferously in the sun, and it’s our bright blue gleaming orb. And my children’s hair won’t smell itself. And the clerk checking us out at the corner store is wearing the most beautiful periwinkle corduroy overalls. I didn’t even know anyone made overalls like that. Maybe I should tell him so. Maybe I should hold my children’s hands. Maybe I should kiss them. Maybe, overhearing me, one of them will realize that he loves periwinkle overalls too. Maybe he’ll start walking dogs with a few of his friends in order to save a bit of money and buy himself a pair.
What if the feeling of my hand in his makes him feel safe and loved enough to try something new? To be himself? To help someone else? The possibilities are endless. And right now, at this moment, I’m not worried.