By Kristin Shaw
Now that I am a parent and can see what my childhood must have looked like through my mother’s eyes, I am much more appreciative of the trust she placed in me and in the world at large.
My mother made parenting look easy.
I grew up in the 1970s, when kids were shooed out the front door in the morning in the summer and expected back at dinnertime. My bike was my trusty steed, and my sister and I met our friends down the street for Barbie play time and races around the block. I didn’t have a cell phone, pager, or any other kind of GPS tracking device, and I don’t remember my mother ever worrying about it.
That is a testament to how well she managed her own anxiety; the anxiety I didn’t know existed until I was well into adulthood and learned that she had been actively managing hers with medication and exercise for several years already.
“Mom, how did you deal with not being able to reach us during the day?”
“I knew where you were.”
“How did you learn to let us go and be independent?” I asked her. I am the mother of a five-year-old little boy, and I get panicky leaving him at another family’s house for a playdate for a few hours. I have had to adjust, as I went back to work and traveling when he was three months old, but it was never easy for me.
I had to, she said. You had to learn how to grow up.
“I guess so. But didn’t you worry?”
I held my breath until you came home, she said, not entirely kidding.
Now that I am a parent and can see what my childhood must have looked like through my mother’s eyes, I am much more appreciative of the trust she placed in me and in the world at large. I, too, fight the demons of anxiety, the pilot light ignited when I experienced postpartum anxiety after the birth of my son.
When he was born in the fall of 2009, it was smack in the middle of the outbreak of swine flu. My doctor told me to keep him out of the public and away from germs for a few months, and I did exactly that. I checked his breathing constantly. As he grew and I corralled my postpartum anxiety into something more diluted but still potent, I had to learn how to let him fall and learn on his own without my constant intervention.
My friend Cheryl is a family counselor in Texas, and she sees parental anxiety often. She is my anxiety sensei.
“Vigilance is inherent when becoming a parent,” she told me. “We develop keener vision, hearing, and reflexes, which enable us to better protect our tiny new ones. This level of vigilance can become too intense, crossing the line into anxiety. For those of us with a little extra imagination, the fears can take on a big screen-vivid quality which distracts us from the present moment.”
My “extra imagination” is certainly vivid. In The Lego Movie, which I have now seen dozens of times, the “Master Builders” see a 3D model of the object they are building on a virtual blueprint in their heads. When I see my son carrying a stick, I see that kind of 3D model, but my model ends not with a fully-built spaceship, but a vision of my son with a stick through his eye. My brain has turned into a set of Instagram filters all called various versions of “DANGER.”
One of my best friends has a son who is a week older than mine; we met when our boys were six months old. Her son is more adventurous than my son is, and he often chafes at the boundaries that have been set to keep him safe. He wants to scale, jump, and do things his mother might not be ready for him to do, and she has had to learn to let go of some of her own anxiety. It’s one of the things that has bonded us as friends; “I understand your crazy,” we tell each other, and we laugh.
While I work hard to bite back the words “Be careful!” to allow and encourage my son to stretch his boundaries, she has learned to let go. She told me that by holding him back and trying to keep him from doing things she perceived as too risky, they were both miserable. So she gave him more freedom and it’s harder, for her, but it’s easier in some ways, too, because he is proving he is capable.
“Dealing with your anxiety as early as possible can help you be a calmer, more focused parent,” Cheryl says as she coaches me to take a deep breath and loosen the reins. “Kids rely heavily on us to help them decipher what in the world is safe or dangerous. The goal is to be a concerned, safety-conscious person, while reminding yourself that no matter what happens, you are strong and resourceful. Your kids will see this, and have a better shot at a confident journey through life.”
Maybe being aware of anxiety and doing my best to manage it is a big step forward. Being cognizant of hovering tendencies and actively giving my son more opportunities to stretch within reasonable boundaries helps keep me on track. I WANT to give him as much free rein as makes sense. But it is extremely difficult for me as a mother with anxiety tendencies. It feels like trying to hold back a hurricane inside my head; I want to circle and hold him close to me and instead, I push the storm back down, deep inside, and put a smile on my face.
“Go ahead, honey. You can do it,” I say, while inside I am thinking, “Please don’t die.”
At this point, the challenge is not overcoming my anxiety completely, because that would require a brain transplant. It’s the not letting my son see my anxiety that I work so hard to conceal. He already has his own measures of anxiety, and whether I passed them to him through the umbilical cord or via his observations of what life looks like from my perspective, I feel guilty enough. All I can do is to fake as much bravery as I can.
Kristin Shaw is a freelance writer, blogger, and co-producer of the Listen To Your Mother show in Austin. She was named a BlogHer Voice of the Year for 2014 and 2015, and has been featured at several national sites, including The Huffington Post and The Washington Post.
Photo: Breno Machado