I cannot say that my anxiety developed when I became a mother. No, I had been fighting my mind monsters for several years before the girls came along. Ironically, plunging into parenthood eased my anxiety a bit as I was so distracted by all of the things you have to do each day when you are a mom. I guess I didn’t really understand that Diving Into Bed would not be an option available to me very often once small people that needed food, clean clothing and to be driven all over the planet entered my life.
I was 26 when I got my girls. That sounds strange, I know, like I bought them on Amazon. But it was that sudden. I went from single, wild[ly anxious] and free[to hide in my bed] to married with 7-year-old twins in a matter of eighteen months. My life was unrecognizably altered. And, of course, that came with some new anxieties (What do they eat? How do I keep all that hair from knotting? Why does their bio-mom have to be so pretty? Will they love me as much as I love them?). But my everyday Abbe-anxiety was dramatically curtailed.
Distraction is a beautiful thing in the anxiety game. And NOTHING is more distracting than obtaining an Insta-family, especially when your husband is in a band that rehearses and plays gigs most nights of the week.
Blending a family was, in my case, a “fake it til you make it” proposition. We all pretended I was the girls’ natural caretaker until, at some point, it felt real. And then a whole new type of anxiety arose: real responsibility.
I’ve always been the nurturing type, and have always had a pair of cats by my side to mother. But living with children is not quite the same thing. For starters, you can’t just put out a bowl of food and water and then leave for the day with human kids. You may think this is obvious, but I hadn’t given it enough deep thought. So, imagine my surprise when I had to figure out what to do with The Adorables while their dad worked long hours in Manhattan.
At first, I took them to toy stores and book stores and ice cream shops and the mall and the movies. I was fun and funny and we were having a grand time. After a while, however, I realized that being a fun babysitter is not the equivalent of good parenting. When I re-evaluated my choice of activities with the girls, I saw that I was being irresponsible—that making fun the primary goal of our interactions was setting up neither a sustainable nor realistic way of life. And that’s when I had my first real gulp of parenting anxiety—that head-spinning, stomach-twisting, saliva-suctioning fear: Am I doing this right?
For me, mom anxiety is all about doing right by my 3 kids (we added a boy to the mix, just to see how complicated we could make things). And by doing right, I mean doing whatever is necessary to keep them happy, healthy and free from pain or angst. You see where this is leading.
Yes, I might tend to over-parent or “hover,” which, by the way, is exhausting and anxiety-provoking. I would sit at the playground with the other mothers watching our kids mount various rusty, unstable pieces of equipment; I was the only one, however, who immediately jumped up to station myself under the monkey bars (in case she/he slipped) or next to the slide (spraying it down with cool water so nobody got burned on the hot metal) or in the sandbox to protect my babies from errant granules that may end up in their eyes.
You may think I’m exaggerating. I am not. The thought of my kids experiencing any discomfort developed into a panic all its own—and I was obsessed with protecting them from all the world’s dangers. I redefined safety to mean immunity from unease or inconvenience and spent all my parenting time keeping my charges “safe.” Their tears, scrapes, and bumps were my parental failings, and, ever the perfectionist, I was going to get it right or die trying.
Some of the anxiety I experienced may have arisen from the inner competition I was having with the girls’ mom—was I a good enough substitute? Would she approve of my parenting? But most of it was the tremendous weight of responsibility for the children’s well-being. I couldn’t even manage my own well-being; how could I be expected to do right by these sweet bystanders?
And then, most terrifying of all, what if I gave them my anxiety?
Spoiler Alert: I did give them my anxiety. All three of my kids are anxious.* But they are also kind, loving, smart, funny, compassionate and independent [mostly]. They manage their anxieties well [mostly] and are happy in their lives. I still can’t stand to see any of them upset or suffering in any way. I want to fix everything and make it all better, but I know from 24 years of parenting that avoiding discomfort often leads to more anxiety. Still, even though I understand this intellectually, it’s a whole other thing to put it in practice. Believe me, I have tried. Am still trying. Will always try. But, in the end, my kids’ anxieties and my own will probably always be intertwined in one big knotted hairball.
I accept this as the cost of motherhood and as the cost of being anxious me…
*It’s not all my fault. Their dad is anxious too.